Strength, change and conversation: GIG’s Activists on what sustainability means to them.

The Global Impact Group (GIG) Activists cohort is a group of next-generation climate activists who represent the future sustainability leaders of Woods Bagot.

Architects and designers whose work and advocacy endeavors to counter the impacts of the climate crisis – the defining context of their professional careers – the GIG Activists work in parallel with our GIG leadership team as an international network to advance our Global Impact agenda and implement sustainability practices across our studios.

Aware that our global studio has much to learn from the perspective of up-and-coming voices, our activists were asked a seemingly simple question: What does sustainability mean to you?

Nuanced and considered, the below answers share the perspective of those who have only ever known the climate crisis as a real and present danger – reminding us of how entwined our relationship with sustainability is with how we live and work. 

“Talk to people on the street.”

Sustainability, to me, means more than just environmental stewardship; it encompasses a broader spectrum of responsibility, including social and economic considerations.

During my student workshop in Spain, I explored the vibrant streets of Barcelona. In a beautiful street filled with charming architecture and lively cafes, a fine lady approached us and asked if she could have some of our food.

This encounter left a deep impression on me, and it made me ponder our role as designers. Were we unintentionally focusing solely on wealthy clients, leaving out those who couldn’t afford the buildings we designed?

It struck me that while we talked about sustainability for the environment, we also needed to consider social sustainability – making sure that everyone, regardless of their economic status, could benefit from our work.

Sustainability should embrace the concept of equality, ensuring that our creations positively impact the lives of all people. Designers play a pivotal role in shaping the world around us.

We can make a difference by incorporating affordability into our designs. Just like how we strive to create buildings that harmonize with nature, we should also aim to create spaces that harmonize with the needs of diverse communities.

– Delaram Abouameri, Dubai.  

“Let the planet be your client.”

I grew up in Canada in the 80s and 90s, raised by a hippie mum, eating tofu and wearing Birkenstocks.  We didn’t have a car, so we walked and cycled everywhere.  We shopped at thrift stores, were expert clients and organizers of garage sales and regulars at flea markets and churches’ basements where bazaars were hosted and where my grandmother volunteered every Sunday.  Most of my clothes, school uniforms and books were pre-loved.  Some of it was for practical, financial reasons; most of it was for environmental and ideological reasons. 

On the weekends, my grandparents would take me to their cabin in the bush, teaching me, in hindsight probably without even realizing it, the basic principles of sustainability: taking care of the river, the land and the forest, foraging wild berries and mushrooms, only taking what we needed and leaving some for the animals and for next year’s harvest.

During my teens, I hated this way of living; I wanted to be like everyone else, have this new shiny thing, those news shoes, those new clothes, without thinking about the amount of energy or resources ‘stuff’ took to be made. 

This was a phase, obviously, and during my 20s, I founded a small upcycling business with a friend.  All those years of thrift shopping and tagging along at flea markets had instilled in me a passion for the pre-loved object, the story it holds and what it could become.  We were fittingly called Les Redoreuses (translates literally to The Reguilders) and we upcycled small furniture and homeware pieces.

I feel like I’ve now come full circle. I became an interior designer on the verge of my 30s, whilst the climate crisis worsened overwhelmingly worldwide, from Canada to Australia.  The more I work in the built environment industry and learn about how imperative it is to rethink the way we build, the more I am committed to changing it and to be part of the solution.

I recently read this quote from singer and activist Pete Seeger that really resonated with me:

‘If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.’

There are so many available resources on this planet.  As designers, it is our responsibility to utilize those existing resources, shift our creative thinking towards sustainable and durable outcomes, demand better products, materials, and supply chains, and truly consider planet Earth as one of our clients.

Laurence Clément, Melbourne.  

“Be open to change.”

Growing up constantly hearing about the environmental crisis initially left me feeling helpless and depressed. However, I soon realized that we have the power to help through small adjustments in our daily lives and/or by choosing more sustainable options whenever the opportunity arises. My journey toward sustainability began with a simple yet profound choice: adopting a vegetarian lifestyle 20 years ago, subsequently eliminating dairy from my diet, and finally becoming vegan seven years ago. 

This decision has not only transformed my personal wellbeing but has also allowed me to contribute to our planet’s health. Initially, my shift to vegetarianism was driven by compassion for animals. However, I later became aware of the detrimental effects of animal industries on climate change and deforestation. It was while watching documentaries that exposed the staggering carbon footprint of the meat and dairy industries that I felt compelled to act. 

I began exploring plant-based alternatives while also taking greater responsibility for my own health. I monitored my health regularly to ensure a balanced diet. Interestingly, I suffered from anemia when I consumed meat, a condition that improved within a year of becoming vegetarian.

Today, I feel a profound alignment with my values of compassion and sustainability. My choices reflect a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving precious resources like water and land. 

I hope my journey serves as a reminder that each of us can make a difference, one little step at a time. Positive change can emerge from a simple yet significant choice. 

Karina Villouta, Sydney.  

“Start by building on your own strengths.”

I came to Perth in the early days of 2021. My first impression of Perth was that it was a large country town masquerading as a big city. You know the type I’m referring to – the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. And some days, that feels almost true. With the closest major city being a 4-hour flight away (sorry Adelaide, I’m talking about Melbourne) it is deserving of its moniker of “the most isolated big city in the world”.  

But it is also this very isolation, that plays a crucial role in our cultural identity and connection to place. The relative isolation has made the city a bit more self-reliant than its counterparts and for the most part, it has fostered a close bond with nature. Does this isolation (or as Russell puts it, ‘being an island, within an island’) have negative effects? Yes, it does. From the transportation of goods and its associated carbon emissions to water scarcity – Perth has its own challenges.  

But rather than focusing on the challenges, let’s focus on the positives, shall we? Perth has a unique opportunity to embrace sustainability, and not just in terms of architecture. Unlike other major cities in Australia, Perth has never had the luxury of vertical growth of the city. The city has been expanding horizontally, so much so that the metropolitan area is said to extend a whopping 125kms North-South and 50kms East-West.   

As we look to expand upwards and consider ways to densify the city, sustainable development opportunities are plenty. This is quite different from other Australian cities where the challenges of building sustainably within the existing high-density structures are immense. In our own quaint way, we have a clean slate to work with.  

With the densification of our city, we can prioritize walking and biking, reducing the need for cars. Before we brush past the idea, consider that it has been successfully done in Melbourne. Also, as someone who has lived in Perth for almost three years without a car, trust me, it is not that often missed. Medium-density development would allow for more efficient land use and optimally strike a balance between low-density sprawl and incredibly tall and out-of-place skyscrapers. It means we won’t have to build houses all the way out at Alkimos, where I imagine life would be hard without a car and the daily commute into the city would be draining.   

Without droning on and on (had to limit this to 250 words, I have already failed at that), let’s quickly look at something else that Perth could lead the world in. And this is something I realised a few months ago. Western Australia has a strong timber industry. We have, in our regulations, firm policies that enable and ensure sustainable forest management, rotational harvesting and regeneration.  

What we lack is the ability to scale up. New sustainable timber buildings in WA have been built with timber bought in from Victoria and Europe (It’s like going to Melbourne to get some sunny beach days – huh? We have the best beaches here). With more and more timber structures being built, our timber industry is gearing up for a rapid change and skilling up so that our city can have local timber to further our sustainability commitments. And just as I sit here thinking about this, it occurs to me, that medium-density buildings could be perfect for timber construction. Phew, I’m glad that came back to a full circle.  

So, while we may be the most isolated city from the rest of the world, our unique situation offers us a chance to lead the way in sustainable development. Maybe in a few years, we could be reading another architectural graduate dissing on Melbourne and talking about how Perth is leading in the sustainable movement. We might just be able to show the bigger cities a thing or two about building more sustainably.  

Naveen John Thomas, Perth.