Lance Hosey Helped Define the Shape of Green

The architect and writer has died at 56 years old.

Lance Hosey

Lance Hosey

Years ago, green design and good design were very different things. It is one of the reasons that Graham Hill founded Treehugger with its ironic name as a design site with nothing on it that had any sort of hippie treehugger aesthetic. The division was so stark that the American Institute of Architects had two awards programs: one for "good" design, and the AIA/COTE awards for "green" design. When I started contributing to Treehugger in 2005, it was actually hard to find good green buildings to write about. In 2009 I wrote in a now-archived post, "Why is so much green architecture so ugly?":

"For many years the starchitects who were getting all the press in the design magazines, the Franks and Zahas and Rems, were not particularly interested in the mundane and mechanical fixings of green buildings. One also sees a lot more of lousy green buildings as it still doesn't take much more than a LEED badge to get in the press or on the blogs."

And then there was Lance Hosey. He wrote often about the rift between design excellence and environmental performance, most famously in Architect Magazine in 2010 after a notorious Vanity Fair article about "the greatest buildings of the last 30 years," almost none of which even had a tinge of green. Hosey wrote:

"Sustainability, it seems, is not much on the minds of the architectural elite. While green building has become increasingly popular over the past three decades, the gap between standards of design excellence and of environmental performance could be getting wider."

It became Lance Hosey's mission to bring beauty and sustainability together. In 2012 he wrote the now-classic book, "The Shape of Green," still in print from Island Press. In it, he argued that you actually can't have sustainability without beauty.

"Long term value is impossible without sensory appeal, because if design doesn't inspire, it is destined to be discarded. 'In the end,' writes Senegalese poet Baba Dioum, 'we conserve only what we love.' We don't love something because it is non-toxic and biodegradable, we love it because it moves the head and heart. When we treasure something, we're less prone to kill it, so desire fuels preservation. Love it or lose it. In this sense, the old mantra could be replaced by a new one: If it's not beautiful, it's not sustainable. Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern, it's an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet."

I learned so much from Lance. I concluded my review noting that he changed the way I looked at and wrote about architecture, and about the way I taught my sustainable design class.

"'The Shape Of Green' deals with the fundamental issues that I could never quite express to my students about the importance of aesthetics, design, and, yes, even beauty, to green building. I could never quite justify why I would post some projects on Treehugger and skip others that might have a higher LEED score. After reading 'The Shape of Green,' I am much more confident in saying that if it doesn't move the heart, it doesn't move the needle on sustainability."

Lance Hosey changed the way we think about sustainable design. His death at only 56 years old is a tragedy. I met him at a conference in 2008 and did a really terrible interview of him, and have considered him a friend ever since. Architect, writer, and speaker Eric Corey Freed knew him much better. I asked him for a few words, and will end with his:

"Lance was brilliant but infuriating. He loved to argue (and was really good at it!). He was Hemingway-esque in that he lived LOUDLY: loud drink, loud jazz, loud belly laugh ... but he wasn’t what you’d assume.
But I’d usually find him not in the center of the room as the center of attention, but rather holding court in a dark corner at the back of the room. To know him was to be challenged by him. His very existence challenged your perception of the Ivy League, white male architect: he was fighting for more equity, more equality and women’s rights, more beauty from our buildings.
Just when you’d think, 'Well who could argue with those ideas?' Lance would find a way to argue with you and expand your thinking in a way you never considered."

A lovely obituary has been published on Lance Hosey's website.