Layers of Sustainable Design for Every Project: How Runberg Architecture Group is Pushing Sustainability Forward in Multifamily Design in 2023

Designer Alaena Gavins leads the Sustainability Committee at Runberg Architecture Group, which tracks current sustainability efforts in Runberg projects and strives to continuously improve upon those design processes as technology evolves across the AEC industry. This post is a summation of her findings and on the firm’s progress in 2022, as well as its approach to pushing sustainability forward in multifamily in 2023.

2022 brought about many learning experiences. Last spring, Runberg attended the International Living Futures Institute (ILFI) conference, held digitally. Over the conference, several major themes used by sustainably practicing firms were identified to pivot to more effective uses of sustainable practice: mindset, regionalization, and process. Most interestingly, these are all small baseline steps that any firm can take on every project to create effective sustainable change. We at Runberg are excited that our work fulfills many of these themes already, but now look to them intentionally as a litmus test to better understand our future growth.

Practicing sustainability is no longer solely about innovation and ingenuity. These days, a change in mindset is the most critical tool in developing sustainable outcomes. ILFI speakers Pippa Brashear, Josiah Cain, and Jessica Dandridge discussed how their ability to embrace divergent thinking, as opposed to convergent thinking, was invaluable to assessing the possibilities for mitigating shoreline water intrusion in communities around the Mississippi River Delta. The active shift to a possibility mindset created a flexible framework for integrating local groups into stormwater code, moratoriums, and infrastructure changes resulting in a more equitable treatment of the issue. An open mindset primes us not only to be more receptive to critiques, but to create new answers to unique questions.

Understanding the possibilities of a question also requires understanding its context. Throughout the conference, regionalized design demonstrated itself as the gold standard. Intuition tells us that what works in one area of the country does not always work in another, but the process of assessing the site and typology is universal. Drawdown Georgia, presented by John Lanier and Nathaniel Smith at ILFI, demonstrated regionalized solutions as a key tenet to providing effective education for building professionals in Georgia. By delivering unique, microclimate-specific research into the hands of working professionals, they were then able to design using the most effective solutions for the area and optimize efforts for decarbonization in a hot, humid climate.

Another example of regionalized design is the Arch Nexus building in Salt Lake City. A virtual tour was given at the conference, outlining strategies such as regenerative water systems. A few of the project’s design challenges included severe temperature changes both diurnally (between day and night), as well as seasonally between cold winters and hot summers. Additionally, Utah’s minimal precipitation creates water scarcity. Using regenerative water systems, collected graywater is utilized for flushing fixtures and green walls as water is most precious in the region and must be used resourcefully in the arid Utah climate. The teams for both Drawdown Georgia and Arch Nexus needed to understand the local climate demands and resources to tailor their designs to have the best and most effective implementation of sustainable practices. To understand typology and program, regionalization is paramount in sustainable design practice.

Once establishing a project with the proper mindset and a regionalized approach, layering in a rigorous design process is the next step in setting a project up for success. Architects from several firms at the conference discussed the framework used to approach different design schemes using the markers: “Good, Better, and Best.” Marques King, of Fabric[k] Design in Minneapolis, described each scheme as “Good” being achieved through using the “low-hanging fruit,” “Better” as stretching the capabilities of the good schemes by adding modeling and testing exercises, and the “Best” schemes are aimed to achieve Passive House or Net Zero performance goals. King emphasized that once a firm establishes a standard internal process, it becomes easier and more economically efficient to implement into practice. As a universal framework, setting a simple strategy to a complex task is invaluable.

Excitingly, we at Runberg are already seeing the fruits of this process in action. Last fall, Brian Runberg presented at the Greenbuild International Conference in San Francisco with Brandon Morgan of Vulcan Real Estate and Shawn Oram of Ecotope to underscore some of the “low-hanging fruit” in our projects. Otherwise known as “Good scheme” strategies such as ERVs, building electrification, and rainwater management are widely available here in the Pacific Northwest region, and have been put to use in Runberg projects such as Sitka, Batik, and Cypress. Many familiar, daily decisions can easily accommodate “low-hanging fruit” solutions and help set our larger project goals up for achievable and continued success into the future.

If there’s one main take-away we are bringing into 2023, it’s that there is ample opportunity for anyone to make major improvements to all projects by keeping the following framework in mind: How we ask the initial design questions; How we understand our regional context; And how we develop those findings. Having already done the work to identify the “Good” and “low-hanging fruit” at Greenbuild and seeing our capabilities with the “Best” schemes with Hobson Place’s pending Passive House certification (featured in the header photo above), we are excited to improve upon our practice in 2023 and continue to deliver quality design and sustainable construction for multifamily projects.

About the Author

Designer Alaena Gavens, originally from Madison, WI, joined the firm in 2021 and believes strongly in introducing sustainable methods early on into design processes. She feels that how we design healthy living spaces is a direct reflection of the values we hold as a society and “as an active participant and designer, I want to look back at the work I’ve contributed to and not see something dated or out of fashion, but still see the space facilitating the health and well-being of its user.”


Cain, J., Brashear, P., & Dandridge, J. (2022). Shoreline Water Intrusion And Climate Change – Ecological Restoration Track . Living Future 22. International Living Futures Institute.

King, M., Kumon, J., & Schaap, J. (2022). Creating All Electric, Net-Zero Missing Middle Housing in Minneapolis. Living Future 22. International Living Futures Institute.

Lanier, J., & Smith, N. (2022). Drawdown Georgia: An Equitable Framework for Bringing Climate Solutions Home. Living Future 22. International Living Futures Institute.

Runberg Architecture Group; Vulcan Real Estate; Ecotope, Inc. (2022, October). The Sustainable Multifamily Housing Opportunity. Greenbuild International Conference + Expo. San Francisco: Whitepapers.