Researcher, Carbon Leadership Forum
Allison Hyatt is a Researcher with the Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington. With years of experience as an architect, she prioritizes forging links between architectural practice and research. As a graduate student at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, her research assessed metrics to compare among operational carbon savings, embodied carbon expenditures, and monetary costs of different decarbonization strategies over time.
by Allison Hyatt
For a long time, two of my greatest passions, architecture and rock climbing, seemed at odds with each other. Whereas architecture entailed clearing land to build structures, climbing culture preached leaving land unscathed. In my mind, they were contrasting interests best kept separate. However, as I continued my trajectory as both an architect and climber, these interests began to inform each other. Perceived contradictions between climbing ethics and architectural pursuits transformed into opportunities to better integrate built and natural environments.
In college, I was most inspired by the power of design to build connections between occupants and their environments. I was drawn to expansive glass partitions blurring lines between indoor and outdoor spaces, minimal structural elements giving way to sweeping vistas, and long cantilevers preserving the outdoor space below. After graduation, I continued exploring similar interests at a small architecture firm in San Francisco. After seeing a handful of projects through from launch to completion, I grew concerned by the significant resources involved in the design and construction of our highly customized projects and wondered how we could achieve a similar design caliber in a more resource-efficient manner.
Striving for design improvements with positive environmental impacts felt like a step in the right direction, one that further aligned with my lifestyle. Over numerous climbing trips, I had adopted a strong “leave no trace” ethic, for if climbers left behind waste or significantly altered the landscape, they posed a threat to natural ecosystems and risked losing access to climbing areas. I came to believe the same ethics – minimal resource consumption, site disturbance, and overall impact – should also apply to architectural design.
Later, I joined Siegel & Strain Architects where I learned to incorporate my sustainable ideals into building designs from coworkers I respected as both architects and environmental stewards. There, I had the opportunity to perform the firm’s first Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment (WBLCA) in Tally, which inspired a newfound love for quantifying and exploring the environmental impacts of different design approaches. WBLCA gave me a way to answer complex questions about environmental trade-offs and helped me substantiate design decisions that had previously seemed very subjective. However, in practice I was often unable to implement these low-carbon design solutions because clients would insist that I replace proposed sustainable features with more standard systems to accelerate city approvals.
Feeling disillusioned, I enrolled in graduate school to explore how novel design approaches could shift cultural attitudes toward and reshape built and natural environments. I dove into classes on sustainable design, environmental policy, earth science, material science, and industrial ecology, where I quickly learned that the challenges I encountered in practice were in no way limited to the architecture profession. My teachers described familiar challenges: forging links between academia and practice, encouraging industry to move away from business-as-usual approaches, and working across disciplines to propose practical and well-informed solutions given available data, tools, and funding.
Though the world has grown increasingly polarized in recent years, confronting climate change demands a valiant effort from individuals and organizations across ideological, economic, and social spectrums. It took me a long time to understand that my interests in land preservation and land development can be mutually beneficial, and I am excited to see how the data, tools, and methodologies that I will be working to develop will be enriched by the wide range of perspectives from those within and outside of the CLF community. And although differences in perspectives may initially appear insurmountable, I suspect that these same differences may also hold key opportunities for growth. Throughout my research with the CLF, I endeavor to grow from our differences and use those experiences to help design a sustainable path forward for the benefit of our shared environments.