Last weekend, a small cohort of activist architects bellied up to a conference table at Harvard University to chart the future of the Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Network, as they had done nearly eight years ago when it was established.
In theory, SEED is design’s take on the triple bottom line; it aspires to address the ecological, economic, and social issues shaping the built environment. SEED members nobly pledge to work with historically marginalized communities, engage as those populations as partners, and build local capacity.
The SEED acronym is a play on the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) prolific LEED program, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED was launched in 2000 and adopted as a federal building standard in 2007.
SEED was the brainchild of architect Kimberly Dowdell, who coined it eight years ago while interning in the Office of the Chief Architect within the General Services Administration—the federal government agency that figured prominently into the adoption of LEED. “I realized these new environmental policies were missing language about social issues,” explains Dowdell. “I immediately jumped to the conclusion that there should be a LEED program for cultural considerations.”
Through LEED, industry stakeholders are accredited as green building professionals, while individual buildings and even entire neighborhoods are certified for their environmental performance. Nearly 200,000 professionals and 55,000 projects—representing more than 10 billion square feet of construction space—have been accredited or certified as part of the program. Individuals vying for the most basic LEED accreditation must pass a four-hour, 200-question exam, while evaluators judge buildings against a long checklist of criteria. By the time LEED concluded its seventh year, the USGBC had a staff of more than 50 people, an annual budget over $20 million, 70-plus chapters nationwide, and projects certified in all 50 states.
By contrast, SEED certification counts roughly 600 individual members among its ranks, and SEED has certified just one building—a public theater in Durham, N.C.—while 143 projects are reportedly under review. Individual candidates must sit through a two-day stream of lectures, culminating in a 20-question exam with very basic questions, such as “How much does it cost to join the SEED Network?”
Whereas LEED is institutionalized throughout the building sector, SEED is a slow-growing, grassroots initiative. Since its inception, SEED has been administered as a program of a small nonprofit based in Raleigh, N.C. called Design Corps. Founded by designer Bryan Bell in 1991, the organization’s corps program now consists of a single member whose primary responsibility is to promote and coordinate SEED trainings. The two-day SEED trainings are presented under what Design Corps calls its Public Interest Design Institute. The result is a confusing, often redundant mash-up of brands that would be difficult for an organization many times the size of Design Corps to maintain.
SEED needs a redesign if it is ever to reach beyond a small choir of do-gooder designers. To engage a critical mass of mainstream building-industry practitioners, actual users, and the public at large, SEED should partner with the USGBC and LEED.
To be sure, the USGBC and LEED have vocal critics of their associated costs and organizational biases, evidenced in The New Republic’s just-published report on the energy performance of the celebrated Bank of America Tower in New York. Yet they still provide the clearest possible vehicle to take the founding principles of SEED to scale.
Rather than remain a shoestring operation, SEED should leverage the USGBC’s vast network and resources. Both SEED and LEED would become stronger programs for it. Such a partnership—between the Congress for New Urbanism, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the USGBC—led to the development of the LEED for Neighborhood Development (or LEED-ND) standard, launched in 2009. It provides an environmental strategy for entire communities, while also addressing many of the economic and social elements espoused by SEED, albeit only at one particular scale.
Another crucial area for any certification program is its training curriculum. At present, SEED’s training program consists of two-day workshops at select universities across the country. At best, it suggests that designers can gain the know-how to serve historically marginalized communities in a two-day crash course, listening mostly to other designers. To date, the program has trained approximately 600 people, charging up to $450 per person. Taking a different approach—a hybrid of online and on-the-ground training—IDEO.org and Acumen’s inaugural “Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation” course has attracted upwards of 15,000 participants. This free, five-week introductory course keeps practitioners in the field and avoids travel costs, while building community and fostering peer learning by requiring that participants form local teams on the ground.
For all of SEED’s challenges, its moment has not passed. “It remained clear to the 25 of us at Harvard this weekend that the principles, the tools, and the network are as relevant and needed as they’ve ever been,” explains Jess Zimbabwe of the Urban Land Institute, who trains mayors across the country to be the chief designers of their cities. “We recommitted to moving the work forward into its next iteration.”
Those of us committed to SEED’s principles have reason to be hopeful. Dowdell, now a newly licensed architect and one of the few African-American women in the profession, has stepped in once again to steer a new and long-needed advisory council. The goal is to ensure greater shared governance of SEED to help achieve its potential.
Dowdell and her team have their work cut out. The payoff, however, is potentially huge—focusing on the vital social aspect of design is a logical evolution for the greater green movement. More importantly, it’s a step toward creating more dignifying design that’s socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable.
“Once SEED articulates and delivers the value of joining, success would mean expanding the network to a truly diverse audience that goes beyond the design community,” envisions Dowdell. “It should include everyday people who want to be supplied with the resources and know-how to make their communities better by design.”