What is Truly Sustainable Design?

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Meet two architects designing with a deeper concept of sustainability.

The term sustainability has been gathering popularity within the design world – but what does it really mean? And how truly sustainable are policies and accreditations within the design world? Can we be doing more? Architects and design thinkers Mario Cucinella and Liz Ogbu are going beneath the surface to adopt a broader concept of the term ‘sustainability’.

Mario Cucinella, Mario Cucinella Architects

Italian architect Mario Cucinella believes architecture should have a positive cultural, social and economic impact, as well as an understanding of place. Cucinella developed his ‘Theory of Creative Empathy’ as a holistic vision for sustainable building that takes technology and performance into account, as well as the relationship between architecture, landscape, and identity. “Creativity is the idea and empathy is the way you understand you understand a place,” the architect has said. “Creative empathy is the tool to transform this information into a building and create an architecture of belonging.”



For Cucinella Sustainability has no simple definition, and needs to be adaptive to its location. Cucinella compares sustainability with an ecosystem – it is dependent on the characteristics of place, including climate, culture, resources or technology.

Mario Cucinella Architects recently completed the Guastalla School in Reggio Emilia in Italy. The site replaces two earthquake-damaged buildings, and has been inspired by the whale in the story of Pinocchio. The building uses natural and recycled materials in a slated structure that is both earthquake proof and chemically safe for children.


Liz Ogbu, Studio O

American Architect Liz Ogbu uses design to tackle systemic problems within socially challenged communities. She has worked with non-profits, local councils, and independent companies, and has made it her mission to make a difference where it is most required. Ogbu’s version of sustainability is bound in the social nature of architecture, and the power of the practice to make positive change.



Liz Ogbu, Studio O - Day Labour Station

Liz Ogbu, Studio O – Day Labour Station


What Ogbu describes as an “architecture identity crisis” has become the catalyst for a career delivering powerful projects to create significant social impact. Some of her projects include the development of the Smartlife social enterprise in Kenya for delivering clean water, health and hygiene products to the community, designed to work within the existing social structures and ecosystem; and the delivery of tactical urbanism community engagement projects within the San Francisco community of Hunters Point, once a vast industrial zone, and now set to be developed into a place that can be embraced by the challenged community and surrounding neighbourhood

For Ogbu, sustainability equates with a level of social responsibility in architecture. “It is such a faux pas to be critical of anyone who says they are doing socially engaged work, but if we can’t have the right conversations and understand what is and isn’t a socially engaged project, then those who suffer will be the community members who the project is for. We need to be able to call [the bluff] on the projects that are not as good as they should be.”




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