Green Horizons: Teresa Jan on Her Role as Director of Climate Positive Design and the Studio’s Goals for Climate Justice

April 18, 2023

When did your interest in climate-positive design occur?

My interest has always been there; however, the voice got louder, and I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

I grew up in the urban center of a small city in Taiwan, where I could hear the school bell ring from my house and play at the riverbank under wooded canopies in the hot summer. My father, a first-generation college graduate, always brought us back to our family farm, where everyone shared the same last name as me. My mom always told us to eat fruit and veggies when they were in season, and my aunt frequently reminded us not to waste food, energy, and water.

I spent my high school years in an affluent and picturesque, primarily white suburb in East Bay, California, living the “the American Dream.” I love my extended family and friends who embraced me and drove me around, but my American suburban experience cemented my pursuit of being an urbanist.

My undergraduate curriculum at UC Berkeley rooted me in climatic and culturally responsive design. I recall architectural history classes illustrating how thriving ancient civilizations all the way to modern vernaculars have become manifestations of climatic geopolitical resources. During graduate school at Yale, I was confronted with studios that focused purely on form-making, where a project’s concept was not be derived from the environment or cultural references. Shocked by this revelation, I double-downed on sustainable design.

Teresa and her family visiting relatives in Taiwan during her childhood.

Tell us about how your career started. Did it immediately begin with an interest in sustainability?

I started my career in New York City in 2004 at a “productive architecture” firm. What made the studio unique was that each project had a kick-off charrette with the owner group that focused on sustainability. To minimize carbon emissions, we explored avenues that incorporated Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV), green roofs and façades, geothermal technology, and bioswales. I learned about the rising sea level when working on the concept for the Bronx River Boathouse in 2007 and began thinking about resiliency through a different lens.

I took those design lessons with me when I moved to China and began working on the design of Mars China Headquarters. While there I integrated the organization’s global branding with the local culture, which aligned their corporate mission to the goal of 2040 carbon neutrality. I also reimagined a biophilic campus for Huabao, which at the time, was repositioning itself to a global fragrance supplier.

In China, I experienced firsthand the struggle of living with constant health hazards like smog, dust storms, avian flu, and food impurities. It was hard to witness the American sprawl, where highways now impact our global community. After my time in China, I returned to San Francisco to raise my own family. A city I love for it natural beauty, walkability, clean air and water, and its dedication to zero waste and decarbonization policies.

You were recently promoted to Director of Climate Positive Design. What goals do you have in this role?

My main goal is to ensure our studio-wide culture and resources support our mission: to integrate multidisciplinary design strategies and operational commitments to meet carbon neutrality. With positive and resilient outlooks, our team creates solutions that promote social equity, economic mobility, and climate justice through decarbonization and biophilic design approaches we cross-pollinate ideas and strategies from research to projects, from sustainable financing to policy making.

Multistudio's San Francisco team connecting -- soon to be a different studio location.

Why is your role as Director of Climate Positive Design important for a practice like Multistudio?

Climate and equity have finally become forefront issues for all organizations. Consumers and investors don’t just buy products and services; they buy into a corporation’s missions and values. As a result, we hold this institution accountable for providing Environmental Social Governance (ESG) reports. Millennials evaluate their job options by aligning their missions and holding their business leaders accountable. Many colleges have committed to achieving campus-wide carbon neutrality goals and are reshaping their curriculums to solve the climate crisis and restorative justice to attract talented students.

Teachers, parents, and school districts are working on obtaining bond measures passed to construct healthier learning environments. Ultimately, these spaces will empower future generations to thrive by growing their resiliency knowledge.

There has been a wave of decarbonization codes being passed in cities, such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) which amended regulations to eliminate nitrogen oxide (NOx) from furnaces and water heaters from both residential and commercial buildings. The resolution advances health in communities of color and low-income communities that face the most burden, the regulation introduced by BAAQMD passed in a near-unanimous vote.

Multistudio, an employee-owned company, holds itself responsible for creating a climate-positive built environment. In doing so, we engage our clients, end users, and community closely to meet both the community and climate’s urgent needs and make long-term resiliency measures through clever interdisciplinary design solution. Scale does not matter, whether it is city planning for green infrastructure or branding for foodservices, what matters is the impact of our design choices.

Can you elaborate on a recent or current project you are collaborating on and share some of the methods/interventions you’re executing?

For Oakland Unified School District, We worked closely with like-minded consultants to kick off and set goals for Laurel Child Development Center early with the CHPS (Collaborative for High-Performance Schools) framework. Collaborative efforts of rightsizing programming, a sustainable design approach, and life cycle cost analysis led the client to rethink their school district standards and commit to investing in a healthy, all-electric biophilic preschool. We anticipate a zero energy and zero carbon school completed this year!

Designing equitable engagements to be “with,” not “for” the community has been a meaningful tool to immerse ourselves. We have done that for Longfellow Middle School, South Central Transit-Oriented Development, and several others. The last few years, we have been forming a collaborative of design experts and non-for-profit organizations to rethink the Central Freeway near our San Francisco studio. With the community as a client in mind, we are applying for grants to host a series of trauma-informed engagements to reconnect residents back to their neighborhoods.

The Laurel Child Development Center is an all-electric, decarbonized early child development center for an underserved California public school community.

What is a piece of advice that you would share with an aspiring designer who is passionate about the environment?

Research, research, and engage!

The world needs more champions and do-ers to achieve a regenerative built environment. There are so many aspects of environmental stewardship and climate justice that you can get involved in; find one that inspires you. Learn, research, and exchange ideas with a local collaborative group and apply sustainable analyses and approaches in your own studio projects—regardless of the scope, approach the issues that face the problem through the lens of sustainability. It’s critical to remember that it does take time, but it’s never too late, and you are never too young or too old to make a difference.

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