Expert Interviews

Susan Szenasy
Name  Susan Szenasy 
Organization Name Metropolis Magazine
URL www.metropolismag.com

Position: Editor-in-Chief, Metropolis

Years in the industry: 20 as editor-in-chief

Location: New York City

Website: www.metropolismag.com

Area of expertise: [insert text]

What are the roots of sustainable (green) design?

The roots of sustainable design lie deep in human history, before modern times, before we started overriding nature with technology. For instance, we once knew how to site a building to capture breezes and sunlight. But starting in the mid-20th century, we decided that living in mechanically controlled, air conditioned rooms, and demanding 70°F at all times, was a good thing.

We began to question our energy guzzling ways in 1972, when we experienced oil shortages and everyone talked about seeing the bottom of the oil barrel. But good times shifted our focus throughout the 80s and 90s to the point where we, especially in America, made an art of gobbling up the world's resources and switching to heedless consumption.

But by the late 90s, global warming and environmental degradation, due to our overuse of polluting fossil fuels and their byproducts, were being discussed broadly. Al Gore was at the forefront of calling our attention to these issues. And the General Services Administration, the largest consumer of building and furnishings products in the United States, was setting guidelines for green design.

The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating system for energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive buildings and interiors began to take hold in the architecture and design community in the 90s as municipalities and institutions looked for ways to cut energy costs. Today there are hundreds of LEED-rated buildings in the United States and Canada—in fact, LEED is being adopted in China.

What are the core tenets of green design?

Ethics are at its core. We have a responsibility to keep planet Earth healthy so it can support human and other life that needs clean air, clean water, healthy foods—now and, as Native Americans said, seven generations into the future.

But in a hyper-consumer-oriented economy like ours, green production is the essential driver of the marketplace. If, for instance, interior designers ask for ergonomic chairs with recycled content or products designed to be safely and easily disassembled at the end of their useful life and the material folded back into our materials stream, and if interior designers specify thousands of those ergonomic chairs, the market responds. So green is a personal (ethical) and societal (business and political) decision.

What are significant achievements or milestones for sustainable design?

I would say that the LEED rating system, which establishes a metric for buildings and interiors in terms of their energy efficiency, is a very good start. But it's just a start and checklists have very little to do with great design. I would also say that some architects like Raphael Pelli, Robert Fox, Randy Croxton, Ed Mazria—and some engineers like Guy Battle—have made it their business to learn what it means to design green. As a result of their self-education, and their generous sharing of knowledge, the architecture and design community is better today, more environmentally conscious than it was even three years ago.

Highrises such as Cook + Fox's Bank of America building, under construction now in New York City, are dramatic expressions—on a very large scale—of sustainable design. The fact that European architects likes Renzo Piano and Norman Foster, who took the early lead in green design, are now building in the United States and adapting themselves to our peculiar construction and development industries is adding to the high-level discussion about going green.

How is green design reflected in your work?

As a design magazine editor, I and everyone working with me have a responsibility to report on forward thinking in all areas of design. And today, with the aid of new technologies, sustainable design occupies the leading edge of thinking about the built environment. So our editors look for projects that make news in this area, report on them, analyze and criticize them when necessary.

I'm also fortunate because I serve on various boards, such as the Council for Interior Design Education Accreditation (formerly FIDER), where I hope to have some influence. I teach at Parsons and do guest lectures at many other schools that ask me to talk about the ethics of sustainable design. I spearhead panel discussions and conferences on the subject, and as an ASID Distinguished Speaker, I chose design ethics and the environment as my topic.

How do carpets or rugs come into play with sustainable design?

The U.S. carpet industry is doing a great deal―be it reformulation of fiber content, recycling programs, smarter designs, more sensitive manufacturing methods—that is helping to clean up notoriously filthy practices.

In the area of handmade rugs, I'm encouraged by American importers whose purchasing power and expanding marketing programs help create socially sustainable craft communities in parts of the world where these rare activities still flourish. I personally am attached to my antique Turkish kilims and embroidered Moroccans and am happy every time I see rugs made with these time-honored methods, supporting families and communities in areas that have no other source of income. Social sustainability is an important part of the big sustainability picture.

There are myths that it takes small fingers to tie the knots in handmade rugs. What's your opinion on this?

Nimble fingers come in all sizes and most of them don't belong to kids.

What’s your overall perspective on child labor in the carpet industry?

It seems like the image of carpet making is suffering from some outdated ideas. It has inherited the old system that called for large families where every adult and child was needed to eke out a living. Now that the West values handmade crafts more and more, now that there are people who can afford expensive rugs, it is possible for adults to make a living wage and not use all hands available in the family. It's a new day for the floor-covering crafts, and it's time we realized this.

Are you involved with GoodWeave’s Campaign to End Child Labor?

All I can do, in my role as a magazine editor, is to report on the news that comes from GoodWeave and make sure there are public discussions, via panels, about child labor in rug making.

What are your general thoughts on the design and production of carpets and rugs?

I admire the handmade, the traditional, but I also love the new and timely designs that come from traditional craft shops. My rugs provide the aesthetic focus of my tiny loft. I love looking at them, and I hope others have that same pleasure too. I am supportive of any ethical and humanistic means to keep the craft of rug making alive.

Why should people be interested in green design?

For their own health and well-being, if nothing else. Also, because that's where the exciting things are happening.

Who are other leaders in this field?

Ray Anderson of Interface, Ken Wilson in interior design, Norman Foster in architecture, Stephanie Odegard in handmade rugs, Rick Fedrizzi of the U.S. Green Building Council, Jaime Lerner in urban planning, Guy Battle in engineering. And this list is growing.

Where can people learn more?

The obvious place, without being self-serving, is Metropolis magazine. And the Web is turning into an incredible source of green information—just Google it!

Tell us your favorite websites.

www.metropolismag.com, which links to thousands of sites.