10 Questions with... Margaret Montgomery, NBBJ's Sustainability Leader

Margaret Montgomery, sustainability leader at architecture firm NBBJ, believes that daily access to nature is a basic human right. Raised by a dad who “never wasted anything” (an engineering professor, he collected outdated phone books on campus and gave them to the food bank to use as fuel logs) and a mother who, after reading “The Silent Spring” by conservationist Rachel Carson, banned pesticides from their yard, Montgomery comes to her passion for nature, well, naturally.


At the Seattle-based NBBJ, she’s working to strengthen our connection to the natural environment in a variety of contexts, among them the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s headquarters in Seattle. Formerly an asphalt parking lot, the 640,000-square-foot campus is the largest non-profit LEED-NC Platinum project in the world; green space covers 40 percent of the site, including two acres of living roofs. Montgomery also helped plan the upcoming Denny Substation for Seattle City Light, the city’s public power utility. Not usually known for their beauty, this substation aims to be a prototype for more aesthetically pleasing infrastructure and will include artwork by sculptor Ned Kahn, an off-leash dog park, and a landscaped quarter-mile walking loop.


Here Montgomery discusses biomimicry and biophilic design, her vision for a future where cities and wilderness are indistinguishable, and how our addiction to fossil fuels is making us stupid.


Interior Design: The term biomimicry seems to be applied a lot lately to designs that are visually striking, but aren’t actually drawing upon natural organisms and processes to develop real solutions. Can you give me some examples where biomimicry is being applied successfully in design and architecture?


Margaret Montgomery: One really simple example is the difference between a storm water pipe and a rain garden. When we pave over the land, forcing rainwater to gush into storm drains and take our pollution with it, we then have to invest a lot into treatment plants that take the pollution back out of the water, or we let it discharge into our rivers, lakes, and oceans, where it diminishes the health of yet another ecosystem. On the other hand, natural systems have a terrific ability to deal with rain—it comes down, plants use what they need, some of it runs to bodies of water, where it is stored and the rest percolates into the water table to become a life-giving resource to others. Plants can even take care of the pollution.


I’m really excited about some of the research in materials that’s happening in academia. The Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab has created a water-based digital fabrication platform that springs from the idea that everything in nature is mediated by water. They’ve taken a ubiquitous natural material—ground chiton shell—and turned it into a biodegradable construction material that can be fabricated into an object with varying structural properties as well as visual transparency. This is pure research at this point, but I can imagine the potential for a new generation of building materials.


On the structural side, one of our teams worked closely with structural engineers to design the Hangzhou Stadium with 67 percent less steel than comparable stadiums. It’s based on the form of flower petals, which are notoriously strong yet beautiful.  


ID: How can biomimicry help us build better, more resilient cities?


MM: If you look at human history, we’re doing pretty well for amateurs. But we need to learn from this planet’s older inhabitants if we want to be around long enough to become truly sophisticated in our approaches. So far, most of our industrial processes are of the “heat, beat, and treat” variety, as Janine Benyus says. We need to learn ways of being that allow us to bend with the forces of nature, instead of thinking brute force can control it.


ID: In terms of biophilic design, why do you think it’s important that we have easy access to nature in our cities?


MM: It’s so absolutely clear that we need easy access to nature in order to be our best selves. On so many fronts, the evidence piles up. We co-evolved with the rest of the species on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years. We’ve become a predominantly urban species over the last decade or so. We can’t just cast aside what has made us human for all this time by force of will.


ID: What are some of the most important biophilic design strategies? What would you like to see more of?


MM: I worked with Peter Kahn and Patricia Hasbach, both psychologists, on a project recently to incorporate something they call a “nature language” of interactions between humans and nature. Those build from the native place itself and incorporate both universal patterns of interaction and site specific interactions. These are similar to the biophilic patterns described by Stephen Kellert, but I found them intriguing in that they were grounded in behavior and psychology rather than describing the physical objects like designers do. How we interact with nature can be a deeply enriching part of life—anywhere from smelling the rain, to eating outdoors, to walking a scary bridge over a ravine.


One strategy that accomplishes so many things is simply opening the windows. Our office in Seattle has windows that open—crazy that it’s such an exception in an office building—and the difference is amazing. Between the mechanically delivered, even-temperature air and the puffs of breeze, the freshness, and oxygen-rich air from outdoors, the sounds of the neighborhood, and the coffee or flower scents that drift in depending on the season ... no choice, really. 


ID: Numerous studies point to the physiological and mental health benefits of engaging with nature, including spending time among trees. What are some recent findings that you find particularly exciting and motivating as an architect?


MM: One of the most stunning findings I’ve seen lately is the Harvard study published last fall on the cognitive impact of fresh air—both in keeping the levels of carbon dioxide well below what code allows and keeping the office a low-VOC [volatile organic compounds] place, including the consumables we use every day. The study found that in a series of cognitive functions there was a significant impact to occupant function with varying levels of CO2 in the space, as well as when the VOC levels emulated green building standards.


This challenges me as an architect to find win-win strategies where we can increase fresh, oxygen-rich air to indoor spaces without increasing energy use. On a larger scale, this tells me that our contributions to climate change through our ravenous hunger for fossil fuels are making us stupid. The more CO2 in the atmosphere, the less potential we have for our highest cognitive function.


A term coined in Japan, shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” is a walk in the forest—literally. But not just any walk. Forest bathing is aimed at slowing down, taking in, and appreciating the surrounding nature. This has been associated with up to a 50 percent increase in production of natural killer cells, or NK cells, that fight infection and tumor production, as well as improvements in depression, anxiety, and stress. The best part? The effect seems to last a month. One theory says this is related to the phytoncides (essential oils) from trees. I think, from my completely unscientific perspective, that it’s probably more complex. There’s a whole trend around shinrin-yoku, reinforcing what we know intuitively about our connections to nature as a species.


I should note that the same effect can’t be achieved by going for a walk in the city, which to me is an issue of equity. Making cities differently, where a much richer experience of nature is possible without an excursion to the forest, is an imperative if we’re to have a thriving species in the future, where the factors of well-being are available to everyone.


ID: How has this research influenced your work at NBBJ?


MM: Creating places of respite—the idea that there’s a place in nature that is not dedicated to treatment but simply provides a place “away”—is vital to our healthcare work. This takes what we’ve learned from research and interprets it in a more urban form to help build cities. For example, in a recent project, Meridian Center for Health in Seattle, the water flows on the site are incorporated into a natural rain garden and surrounded by mature trees and shrubs. This is especially important for a patient population that most likely is unable to get out into a forest for that infusion of nature.


ID: What are your biggest hopes for biophilic design and biomimicry? What is your vision of the city of the future? 


MM: I passionately believe our future as a species is intrinsically tied to, and interdependent with, all other species and with the planet itself. Unless they thrive, we won’t. The more urbanized we become, the less of a conscious tie we have to the rest of creation, and the more deliberately we need to work to rebuild that tie, reinterpreting wildness to create a stepping stone in our cities to a time when cities and “nature” are indistinguishable. Won’t it be cool when we can’t find a city from Google Earth because it’s so green? And when the sounds of traffic and machines are replaced by birdsong?


Biomimicry is essential—brute force is exhausting! The path of least resistance for building a thriving future is to learn from nature and let that amplify our creativity. Right now, we waste too much energy doing things the hard way. We are an imaginative species, and if we can set aside our egos just enough to learn from other people and other species, we can do just about anything.


ID: What are the main impediments to sustainable design? Where does most resistance stem from?


MM: I think that often the biggest impediment is the idea of change. Not that any particular design idea creates resistance, although that happens too. But that our world moves so fast and our daily demands are so intense that it’s very hard for people to maintain the level of concentration required to learn and assimilate something new. It takes a number of repetitions to really make new habits, and we need to acquire the new habit of asking deliberate questions at every step.


I’m a big advocate of slowing things down, although I think I’m tilting at windmills.


ID: How do we eliminate that resistance and get everyone on board? 


MM: The more mainstream sustainable design concepts and sustainable products become, the easier it will be to “do the right thing” by default, rather than by choice. For instance, we’re currently building a critical mass of transparency disclosures for materials. Remember when LEED first came out and it was such a challenge to find low-VOC paint? And all the contractors objected because they didn’t think it would be durable enough? We’re at that point with transparency. We’re asking for HPDs (Health Product Declarations) and EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations) so that we can make more informed product selections, and right now it’s challenging to get the information. As the movement snowballs, however, we’ll get to the point where most manufacturers are providing this level of information and the market will self-select for products with lower environmental impact, or products that have eliminated particularly pesky chemicals. Competition will change the market and we’ll get to a new norm.


ID: What are some ways that you connect with nature in your own life? How do you bring those experiences back to your work?


MM: Being in nature is, of course, one of the privileges of living in the Pacific Northwest, and there’s nothing more wonderful than breathing deeply in the springtime in a forest—the air is sweet, damp, and slightly spicy with new growth. Having a backyard to garden in is also a privilege of living in a single-family neighborhood, even in the city. It shouldn’t be a privilege, though. It should be a basic human right to be grounded in nature every day in one way or another. For me, this is why it’s so important to rethink our cities and strengthen this interaction so that it’s pervasive for every inhabitant of every block in every city.

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