It is unfortunate that SUSTAINABILITY is such a buzzword since it is such a simple and straightforward concept–having the ability to keep doing what you are doing. It is just common sense to build and operate in ways that do not cost us in the long run, that are healthy for ourselves and our neighbors. Even a high performance building, though, can have room for frivolity.
We think it is important to START AT THE BEGINNING, with why one wants to build. That reason why becomes the purpose of the project. With that purpose, and an understanding of the human needs it expresses, a designer can shape a building, or a product, around the satisfaction of those needs. Churchill's observation that "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us" underscores why it is key to get it right from the get-go. The good architect will understand the needs, design for them, and thus make someone smile. It could also be described as designing from the inside out.
The second major step in design is to look at THE PLACE, and what is on hand. What on the outside is going to influence the project? The climate, views, transportation, labor market, and all the other existing conditions mean no project really starts with a blank slate. We have made a deep study of our "slate" and that is why Laurel Architecture works only in a tight geographical area. The connections to outside forces push and pull at a building, and the building will in turn exert influence on its surroundings. For instance, a need to pause for a morning cup of coffee is tied into where the morning sun comes in, with room for a seat, and a little buffering from noise, and having fresh hot water on hand, plus someone transporting the beans from the grower to the cup. Maybe "place" should be thought of as where on the web of all the connections something is.
That everything is connected seems pretty clear; and that is why we think that Vitruvius, the Roman who wrote the big book on architecture, had it kind of wrong when he talked about BEAUTY AND FUNCTION in buildings as being separate. They are part of the same spectrum. Just consider what a strong effect on mood beauty has, and its opposite. Depressed and resentful will not be the right frame of mind for a dentist to do her best work. Nor do most people want their tax accountant sleep-deprived and a little sick because the places he lives and works are unpleasant. Evidence is being gathered all over about the positive effects of beauty on the bottom line. Hospitals have become convinced to invest in more windows because a view to a natural scene helps patients feel better and heal measurably faster. When a task is pleasurable, people will do it better and more willingly. Beauty comes in a lot of flavors, of course, so we like to think of it as delighting all the senses.
One of the other big aspects of buildings that does not get quite enough attention is TIME. We think it should be an out-loud part of why one wants to build. Knowing how long something ought to last can uncover a whole lot of answers to later questions like what a reasonable payback period is, or how much upkeep can be afforded, or how important risk hazards become, and where the priorities lie in the fast/cheap/good triangle.