Project Manager and Sustainable Design Leader, Dyer Brown
Industry experience: 10 years
Laurel Christensen’s mission is to wean commercial tenants away from a throwaway mentality when designing and building out interior spaces. Christensen, a Kentucky native, worked as a manufacturers’ representative for ventilation specialist Big Ass Fans talking to architects and designers about incorporating their products into building systems. Christensen began her architecture career in New York City before relocating to Massachusetts and Cambridge-based Anderson Porter Design. She now leads the sustainable design practice at Dyer Brown, which co-hosted an industry forum at its Boston headquarters in August on incorporating sustainable building materials that benefit the climate and human health.
Q: How did your work in the manufacturing sector lead to the transition to architecture?
A: When I finished graduate school with my master’s in architecture, Big Ass Fans were starting to look at changing their market presence and marketing directly to architects and designers to get specified into projects. My job was talking to architects and engineers about how we can design mechanical systems differently.
ASHRAE 55 allows us to utilize air movement for thermal comfort rather than relying so heavily on cooling, and this method can be more efficient. Many of the engineers I spoke with were just used to designing to a certain setpoint and were less willing to factor in a more passive method of maintaining thermal comfort using higher air velocity, even though the code allowed it. Several years of doing that really set the stage for me questioning, “Why do we always do things like this, and is there a different way?”
Q: What’s the history of the relationship between Dyer Brown and mindful MATERIALS?
A: Mindful MATERIALS has been around since 2014 as an industry-led initiative to make sustainable materials more accessible to everyone in the built environment: to try to help manufacturers see a return on investment for sustainability. I had gone to Dyer Brown because our focus is on a lot of interior projects. In 2019, shortly after starting with Dyer Brown, Steelcase hosted an event and a handful of manufacturers presented about how mindful MATERIALS was helping their business, and also allowing designers to find products that meet sustainable standards. I reached out saying, “How can I get involved?”
Until a couple of years ago, mindful MATERIALS was a totally volunteer initiative. I started the first architect and designer engagement group, a working group of professionals around the country who met every month to discuss how we could collectively encourage manufacturers to continue investing in sustainability. I pitched to Dyer Brown forming a specific position in sustainability, and in 2021 that happened. This year, I returned from maternity leave and had an opportunity to work with mindful MATERIALS, which is transitioning into a nonprofit, coming back in a part-time capacity and splitting time with mindful MATERIALS and Dyer Brown since March. At Dyer Brown, our focus is primarily on interior spaces, and interior finish materials are where we can have the biggest impact potentially. The building systems are already in place in most cases.
Q: What are some examples of how Dyer Brown has successfully incorporated environmentally sustainable materials into a project?
A: There was a lot of focus in previous years on operational efficiency. Then there was a shift in terms of materials and starting to look at human health impacts. The Healthy Building Network is a great resource that has put out a ton of research about what materials to look for and which to avoid. We look to their “hazard spectrum” for materials guidance for multiple types of finish selections. In commercial interiors and offices, the leases are maybe five or 10 years, but if the material in the space has a 15- to 20-year lifespan, then are we sending it to landfill before it’s gone through its usable life? Is there an opportunity for reuse or remanufacturing?
Q: What new or potential regulations do designers and developers need to be aware of that affects these decisions?
A: We just facilitated a big gathering of building owners and property managers, demolition and flooring contractors and got everyone in one room to talk about the real barriers for reusing carpet tiles instead of sending them to landfill. [Boston’s commercial building energy use regulations] BERDO and BERDO 2.0 are high on our radar and if there was an incentive related to the actual impacts of our building [materials], we would see incentives to make different decisions. As of now, there isn’t anything, but in the future iterations that could be a possibility to incentivize designers and owners to choose more sustainable materials.
Q: How can design and material decisions address the urban heat island effect?
A: That is an area where we find alignment with our clients, understanding our material selections and what we do with materials in their current spaces. Those kinds of decisions can impact their ESG reporting, and that’s an opportunity for them to tell the story of how they are considering the impacts of design decisions and material choices beyond the walls of the spaces they are occupying. That gets back to how the materials affect social health and equity.
Traditionally, designers thought about effects on occupants. That’s who we’re designing for. But it’s incumbent on us as designers to start thinking about the impacts of our material choices not only on building occupants but on all those who are impacted throughout a materials lifecycle – the laborers who extracted the raw materials, the people who live near the processing and manufacturing of those products, or the contractors installing the materials. The sphere of influence or our design decisions is only getting bigger and with data and transparency, we’re able to understand and visualize that impact.
Five Favorite Climate-Related Reads
- “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis,” by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
- “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,” by Naomi Klein
- “Braiding Sweetgrass,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- “Drawdown,” by Paul Hawken
- “The Carbon Almanac,” edited by Seth Godin