Innovator Spotlight



Holly Lennihan

Director of Sustainable Design
Hickok Cole

For architect Holly Lennihan, a building isn’t just a mound of concrete and metal. It contributes to the life of a city and it can help save the planet.  As the director of sustainable design at architecture firm Hickok Cole, Lennihan sets the example for how to view building with a green lens. Under her leadership, the firm designed the first renovation of an urban, East Coast, existing commercial office building to target net zero energy — the American Geophysical Union headquarters.

Sparkfund: What role do architects play in advancing sustainability efforts?

Holly Lennihan: An architect oversees every aspect of design, from the building details to its urban gesture. This affects how people experience the city. Design decisions range from landscape elements down to conserving energy by selecting the right type of glass. We use active design principles, like the beautiful stairs in the American Geophysical Union headquarters, which will hopefully make people use the elevators less. We also try to save energy by not duplicating things, like only having one cafeteria per building.

What’s one unexpected thing you’ve done to foster sustainable design?  

I’ve become very interested in the urban biome and biodiversity. If you have space on your site, even if it’s on the roof, you can create spaces with plantings that allow for pollinators and birds. I think it’s so important to design a green city that’s not lacking in flora and fauna.

For a current client, I am hoping to create a list of existing site plantings and fine a new home for some of these plants when their plaza is re-designed. It is not at all related to my architecture work, but I like the thought of giving some specimen plants to another garden.

What's a best practice that a small architecture firm without a sustainability team can implement tomorrow?  

Get on email lists for good publications so that reading about innovative products and projects are part of every day.  Don’t be afraid to call another professional for help or information. And that goes for organizations, too. Find groups that share your experience, provide trainings and facilitate learning for your staff at every level of expertise.

What’s an industry trend you think flies under the radar/isn’t talked about?

Reuse would be a trend-in-the-making if I had my way! We’re too geared towards disposables in our culture.

Any time you break down a building, you should be able to reuse as many components and pieces as possible. The fun example we cite for the AGU building is the toilets. They are ceramic, so we crushed them up and put them in the terrazzo flooring.

What’s a crazy idea you came up with to innovate that was a huge success?

Our team has been doing a lot of research to get mass timber into a project and were looking for a way around this problem. We came up with a “long shot” solution. We had previously created a master plan for a nature center for Kingman and Heritage Islands that had these small wood structures, and applied for a grant from the National Forest Service to fund designing it with cross-laminated timber and related wood product. Happy ending: we won the grant.

What’s one small thing you do every day to be environmentally friendly?

Lots of things! I bike to work. I turn off the lights when I’m not in the room. I try not to use single-source plastic bottles. I compost. I’m obsessed with gardening and planting trees. I have a bat box and a bee box in my yard.