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NeoCon 2023 with David Cordell and Joey Shimoda

Dr. Producer Lauren hits the road to NeoCon 2023 with interior designer—and Inhabit nerd—David Cordell. She shares highlights from his panel on the Principles of Sustainable Design, then heads into the podcast booth with him and co-panelist Joey Shimoda to get their hot takes on sustainability in design. Also: the Diddy clan.

Show Notes

The American Society of Interior Designers, or ASID, defines sustainable design—and how to take action on it—with its “Principles of Sustainable Design”:

  • Eliminate and sequester emissions.
  • Protect and restore ecosystems.
  • Integrate diverse populations.
  • Foster community cohesion and resilience.
  • Promote holistic health.

In their conversation, David and Joey mention a couple of other resources for a holistic approach to sustainability:

Two stats we didn’t include about the Mart in the episode: It’s the largest privately held commercial building in the United States, and on average 30,000 people visit it every weekday.

And on the “privately owned public space” tip, it was Joseph Kennedy—father of John, Robert, and seven other children— who began opening it to the public after buying it in 1945.

The pandemic-moment definition of “zombie buildings” can be traced to a May 2023 Boston Consulting Group report: “Buildings become zombies when vacancy rates and unused space under lease drive utilization to 50% or less.” However, it had a postrecession moment too, credited to Grubb & Ellis, emphasizing foreclosure and bankruptcy rather than use of the space.

It’s not as though they didn’t warn us:

1972: The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm. The outcome included the Stockholm Declaration’s 26 principles (!), as well as an Action Plan and the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme.

1992: Officially known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the Earth Summit convened in Rio de Janeiro on the twentieth anniversary of the first world conference on the environment. Among its outcomes was the creation of the Commission on Sustainable Development.

2015: At the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), 196 parties entered the historic Paris Agreement. The legally binding treaty established a framework for collective accountability for reducing carbon emissions worldwide.

2023: Inhabit’s very own Dr. Erika Eitland represented Perkins&Will at the 28th Conference of the Parties! We are so proud.

But no need to scratch your head. Here is Neil Smith’s explanation for, as Joey put it, “why things move fast and slow”: Uneven Development (Verso, 2010).

This episode features excerpts from our nerds’ NeoCon 2023 panel on sustainable design, convened by the ASID Committee on Climate Health and Equity. Get to know each of them a little better:

David Cordell is an interiors practice leader in the D.C. studio of Perkins&Will. In addition to the Perkins&Will studio redesign he mentions in his conversation with Joey, he led the interiors design for the ASID Headquarters and the US Green Building Council Headquarters, both in Washington, D.C.

Joey Shimoda co-founded Shimoda Design Group with Sue Chang in 2000, a small firm that specializes in the inside and outside of buildings. The studio’s 2008 design and 2018 redesign of the Steelcase Showroom in the Mart won loads of awards.

Jon Strassner is the chief sustainability officer for ASID.

Producer Lauren spots the sustainability principles in a few unlikely places:

  • And,” by Nicole Sealey: “the bystander wanders in wonderland.”
  • Uneven Development, by Neil Smith: Actually, the reason things move fast and slow.
  • The Gift of Fire,” Fireline: Earth spelled forwards.

“The Good, the Bad, the Ugly” session audio is courtesy of NeoCon.

This episode features music courtesy of Epidemic Sound:


NeoCon 2023 with David Cordell and Joey Shimoda

[low Inhabit rumble as jet plane approaches and flies by]

Inhabit Chorus: Inhabit is a show about the power of design.

[clock ticks and jet plane passes as Chicago-style blues–inspired track “Talk Back“ by Elliot Holmes/Epidemic Sound cues in on the downbeat]

Lauren Neefe: Hey, this is Lauren. I produce the show. Erika and Eunice took a little break to celebrate some big life events and enjoy some well-deserved time off. Sooooooo you get to hit the road with me for this episode. Like Erika said last episode, Inhabit nerds are everywhere. And last June I tagged along with one of those nerds, David Cordell, to NeoCon: the huge, gigantic, epic annual trade show in this huge, gigantic, epic landmark building in Chicago called the Mart. David is an interiors practice leader in our DC studio and leads the Committee on Climate Health and Equity for the American Society of Interior Designers, or ASID. This year for NeoCon, he teamed up with ASID’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Jon Strassner, and the LA-based architect Joey Shimoda, for a panel on what this important ASID committee is all about and how to translate its sustainability principles into action. You know at Inhabit we looove nerding out, but we love action even more. So for this huge, gigantic, epic Inhabit episode, we’re popping back inside to take the pulse of the interiors industry at one of the biggest design events of the year. Let’s just jump right in and hear Jon tee up the conversation about sustainability at their session in the Mart’s sweet new business center on the second floor.

[“Talk Back“ fades out]

Jon Strassner: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. Thank you guys for finding your way through the maze that is the Mart to this little room tucked away in an area that I don’t even know where I’m at right now, but I’m glad you all found it. Welcome to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Frank Conversation about Our Planet and How to Save It. My name is Jon Strassner. I’m with ASID—

David Cordell: David Cordell, with Perkins&Will in Washington, DC—

Joey Shimoda: And I’m Joey Shimoda, architect in Los Angeles.

Jon Strassner: So we’re going to talk a little bit today about saving the planet, which doesn’t sound like a big deal. But we didn’t talk about that much when I was a kid—you know, saving the planet—but now it’s more of a conversation. And the question we started out with was, Why is doing the right thing so hard?

Lauren Neefe: Why is doing the right thing so hard? [“Talk Back“ cues back in on the downbeat] OK, that’s a heavy question and we’re only two minutes into the show. So I’m just going to allow the deep moral weight of that to sink in for a few minutes. And while that’s happening, I’ll try to lighten the load a little bit by taking you into the Mart with me and giving you a feel for what it was like out there in the 25-story, 4.2 million-square-foot art deco building, the largest in the world when it opened in 1930. Think of it like the landscape version of the Empire State Building, which actually opened about the same time, in 1931. The Merchandise Mart, as it was then called, was a building that could only have been built in the era of electricity, because there are zero rays of daylight finding their way into the center of each floor. Also: elevators. When NeoCon takes over the Mart, though, it actually takes over just seven of the floors—one of the 4 million square feet—for exhibitions, demonstrations, presentations, professional education, about the products and trends that will shape our built environment in the coming year. Or, if you’re sustainability minded, the next 100 years…-ish. [“Talk Back” melody drops out leaving drums, bass, and piano] For NeoCon goers it’s a three-day whirlwind of innovation and networking. Our friends at the SURROUND Podcast Network even organized a pop-up podcast studio with industry partner snap cab, and I of course found myself there hanging out with my audio tribe. But eventually I took my mic out to talk to folx on the ground. And the first person I ran into was Lindsy Scherr Burgess, the founder of a company called green wall escapes. They actually designed and manufactured the moss walls inside the podcast is Lindsay is a multi-hyphenate she calls herself an artist, the manufacturer, designer, and the “Moss Boss.” And when I asked about her NeoCon this year, she told me about one of her adventures beyond all the goings-on inside the Mart—because big as the Mart is, NeoCon is so much bigger than the Mart.”

[Low ambient chatter inside the Mart cues in]

Lauren Neefe: Here I am at the Mart. I am at the NeoCon Podcast Studio powered by SURROUND. 

Lindsay Scherr Burgess: Hi. 

Lauren Neefe: You’re the Moss Boss. 

Lindsay Scherr Burgess: Yes. You are correct.

Lauren Neefe: Do you have any hot takes on sustainability this year at NeoCon so far?

Lindsay Scherr Burgess: I think that the focus on biophilic design is so inspiring. We did the tour at Salesforce office, and one of the things that they were talking about was like how important biophilic design is—bringing plants indoors, really using natural materials and thinking about the lifespan of those materials. It’s so crucial, and I think that a lot of people, especially millennials, Gen Z, they really want to know that like where they’re working is a healthy work environment, that someone is thinking about more sustainable uses of materials and bringing in recycling and then recycled materials, and then just the space being activated in a way that is really thinking 360 about the experience.

[Mart noise fades out]

Lauren Neefe: The Moss Boss captured a little bit of everything about what NeoCon is.

[“Talk Back” cues back in.] It’s manufacturers showing off their wares. It’s designers sharing what they’re looking for, what their clients are looking for. It’s small business owners like Lindsay finding out how companies like Salesforce are rethinking the workplace after the COVID revolution. But let me tell you, the NeoCon crowd is not hung up on furniture and lighting alone. I talked to product designers, healthcare designers, transportation designers. I talked to people who work at the Mart on those mysterious other floors that get their own dedicated elevators and security. I talk to young designers, young professionals, students in school students about to graduate students just graduated, I talked to one aspiring architect who, thanks to NeoCon discovered the importance of toilet design and smart plumbing, especially when it comes to accessibility. And I talked to people who’ve been going to NeoCon for years and years and years. But listen, I can’t do better than they did giving you the vibe of NeoCon 2023—and how sustainability showed up this year outside the room where Jon and Joe and David were presenting.

[Ambient Mart chatter fades in.]

Lauren Neefe: What brings you to the Mart this year and NeoCon?

Healthcare Designer: It’s actually my first time at NeoCon. It’s really cool to see what everybody’s doing, what new products are out there, and for me as a young professional to just get my feet wet and see what’s outside of the world of design that I do day to day. 

Lauren Neefe: Can you describe what you see around you?

Healthcare Designer: It’s very busy. It’s bustling. You know, I think everybody has been itching to get out and get back out there and do things post COVID.

Interior Designer: I usually come every two years, but since we had that COVID, it’s been four. This year seems a little bit more relaxed.

Lauren Neefe: What are you studying?

University of Texas San Antonio Graduate 1: We’re both for interior design, but she’s going back for her master’s in architecture.

Lauren Neefe: How does it compare with what you’ve heard about NeoCon?

UTSA Graduate 1: I was kind of expecting a lot more of like a younger generation, I guess, being here. But my friend was kind of like thinking the opposite.

Lauren Neefe: Issustainability something that y’all care about?

UTSA Graduate 2: Yes. Um, we kind of took a break. But we were actually studying for the WELL exam. And so seeing how different products and different materials actually impact—

UTSA Graduate 1: —our well-being—

UTSA Graduate 2: —our well-being, the like hands-free plumbing and how everything can connect. It’s all technology, but like it can connect to your phone, connect to Google and Amazon. And then also seeing how they implement cork. We’re seeing a lot of cork—

UTSA Graduate 1: Yes, a lot of cork—

UTSA Graduate 2: a lot ofrecyclable materials, and like—

UTSA Graduate 1: Plastic bottles, PET materials like with the acoustic panels. We’ve been seeing a lot of that. It’s just really interesting seeing the second life to a lot of the products that we use daily. 

Lauren Neefe: What brings you to the Mart today?

Grainger employee: I work here. [Giggles] I work for Grainger up on the 18th floor. 

Motorola employee: I work for Motorola.

Lauren Neefe: How many NeoCons have you seen? 

Grainger employee: Oh this is my second one. 

Motorola employee: This is my first.

Grainger employee: It’s never really like this. When I come down here, it’s like a whole nother world.

Lauren Neefe: Are you from Chicago? 

NeoCon employee: Yes.

Lauren Neefe: Have you been to the Mart at other times of year?

NeoCon employee:This is actually my first time ever being down here. Yeah. So this is, all of this eye opening.

[Ambient chatter fades out]

Lauren Neefe: It was really eye opening for me too, for sure. And I’ll be sharing more of what the show goers shared with me throughout the episode. But now that you’ve got the lay of the land [“Talk Back” cues in on the downbeat], it’s time to get back to the work. Yeeees, remember that part? The part about doing the right thing? We might be on the road, but we are still the same Inhabit. You’re welcome. So the truth is “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” wasn’t entirely about why the right thing is hard to do. The moral question was just the provocation for Jon, David, and Joey to offer up some concrete ways for anyone to start taking action on sustainable design and decision making. Maybe, like me, you’re just anyone—not even a designer—who is terrified about climate change, and what we needed to have taken seriously more than half a century ago. Say, in 1972, when world leaders and NGOs met in Stockholm for the Human Environment Conference, which was a full 20 years before the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. And even then, we had to wait another 20 years and change before the Paris Climate Accords in 2015—which we here in the U.S. pulled out of and then got back into in the last seven years. There’s your climate policy History in Three Key Dates, by the way. But maybe you are a designer, and maybe you are terrified too and ready to dig in. Maybe you’re in school and you’re wondering what sustainability means in the real world of professional practice. That’s what “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” was really about: how to get started. So back to Jon, welcoming everyone into that room [[“Talk Back” ends] somewhere deep in the Mart that Jon doesn’t even know where he is.

Jon Strassner: I think that this is a difficult conversation for us, because we have a really hard time dealing with threats that are 50 years, 75 years, 100 years out, right? We, we see a lot of science out there and a lot of research that says, Well by 2100— And then as soon as you hear “2100”? [big loud yawn] “OK, well, I’ve got to pick the kids up from soccer practice, and I’ve got a lot of stuff to do. And I’m not going to worry about 2100 today, but it’s on my list. I’ll get to it.” And I think that that’s a real challenge. We do great reacting to threats that we can see, right? Like lions and tigers and bears, right? The adrenaline kicks in. It’s fight or flight, you know? Just don’t be the last one. Push your best friend down and run. But, but things that we can’t see like PFAS forever chemicals, right? Or carcinogens or— Hey, here’s one! How about an airborne virus? I don’t think we did very well with that one, either. It’s hard to react to things that you can’t see. And I think sustainability is a journey, right? And at ASID, what we really try to get across is that it’s a long journey. We don’t have all the answers, right? But we want to figure them out. And we’re not guaranteeing that we’re going to solve all the problems, but we just want you to come along with us on this journey. We thought a really good starting point to help membership—and to help the industry—as well would be to create a platform, or framework, that would help designers really get started on this conversation. So what we did was we created something called the Principles of Sustainable Design. And so right now, we’ve got about 25 researchers out there, collecting and curating all of the research papers that they can that supports each one of these principles that I’m about to show you. And the point of that is that we want designers to be practicing with evidence-based design. So these are the five principles. We’re lucky that we have a national steering committee called the Committee on Climate, Health, and Equity. And we’re lucky as an association that we can tap into people like like Joey and David. So we thought, let’s start with these five principles, right? Eliminate and sequester emissions. Protect and restore ecosystems. Integrate diverse populations. Foster community cohesion and resilience. And Promote holistic health. And we feel that, you know, you can’t do everything in each of these principles, but if you can incorporate something from each of these principles in your work, you’re addressing sustainability in a more holistic manner. 

Lauren Neefe: So Jon set the table by introducing the Principles of Sustainable Design that Joey and David and the rest of the ASID committee on Climate Health and Equity formalized. Then David presented, sharing a couple of examples of how he has identified a client’s “signal issue.”

David Cordell: All of this stuff can be really overwhelming, right? Do you focus on products that are low embodied carbon? Do you focus on products with healthy materials? Are you using the, you know, Design for Freedom Toolkit to try to figure out, you know, supply-chain equity? And the, the answer to all of those is, is yes, right, so how do you prioritize? And I think there’s, there’s an opportunity in this broadened definition of sustainability to bring clients along for the journey by figuring out what matters most to them and then kind of use that as an entry point. You know, maybe you have a client who’s made ESG goals to getting to carbon neutral by 2050 but no idea how they’re gonna get there. They’ve just sort of, you know, made this commitment. And so you can use that as an entry point and talk about embodied carbon and operational carbon and then link to, you know, a lot of these embodied-carbon materials are also really healthy. And then that becomes a way to bring them along to the journey to start talking about health. And then that becomes a link to, you know, talking about social equity. Maybe you’ve got a client who is really focused on creating an inclusive workplace. You can talk about the importance of inclusion, and then say, Wouldn’t it also be great if in addition to this inclusive workplace, it’s really healthy, that you’ve optimized the air quality indoors so that people are healthy when they’re there? So the way, I think, to start addressing this is to first understand what the signal issue is for your client. Use that as your entry point, and then bring them along for the journey and show them how all of these, these issues are interlinked. And the best design solutions, of course, are going to be the ones that cross multiple themes. And that’s how you take kind of all of this overwhelming science, all of the data, and by kind of telling a story that’s compelling and meets your client where they are, that’s how you translate that into actions.

Lauren Neefe: Joey closed out the session by talking through his relationship with Steelcase and how they approached the award-winning design and award-winning redesign of the company’s showroom in the Mart.

Joey Shimoda: So just for round numbers, it was about 30,000 square feet and evolved into about 60,000. Halfway through the process, they actually lost this space and they gave it back, because the division that they were working with, it didn’t make sense for them to be there. But they did a very smart thing. They, they took all of that glass wall, and they put it in a closet, a storage room someplace, just in case some day, they to get it back. And lo and behold, within a few years, they did. You know, that storefront was a pretty expensive storefront, because it’s all curved glass. So we were able to just really minimially reuse that material and actually give the same presence and same design concept to the extension without having to do very much. So this idea of reuse-recycle-repurpose was really how we approached everything in the project at that point. You know, these words are, they’re much more salient now. Because I think we’re all looking at a situation where we have to figure out how to move forward in working with so many spaces that are going to have to be redone in some way and with new tenants and new life. In 2008—the Mart, as you know, is such a hard thing to navigate when there’s so many people in it, so you feel like you’re in this tunnel—we wanted to really figure out a way of creating continuity. And so the, the idea of how we were creating this diagonal geometry that you’ll see in the space was really talking about similar patterns, different scales. But then when we come around to 2018, the world was sort of really changing, you know. The world of sustainability was much more prominent on people’s lips. We were working in a condition where limited resources were much more the norm. But we were also in a world that was very tactile and natural. Everybody seemed like the worst thing you could do is have the word corporate attached to your space. And so we were doing everything possible to make things not feel corporate. And when, you know, David, when you were talking about the impact of your environment—that mental impact, physical impact—it is also a reflection of the sign of the times. And that’s the times that we’re in now.

Lauren Neefe: Both David and Joey highlighted that the second and third life of materials played an important role in the success of their projects. And then Joey left us all with one last bit of advice, coming from his perspective as the principal of a small firm but really wise words for any project manager to take to heart: Treat your clients budget like your own. In the rest of the episode, we joined Joey and David inside one of the recording booths at the NeoCon podcast studio, where after the session and after lunch, they picked up the sustainability thread they started earlier in the day. And I just want to give another big shout out to the SURROUND Podcast Network team, especially Wize Grazette, who engineered the show for us that afternoon. Inside the booth, Joey and David dug a little deeper into the designer’s obligation to people and the planet and what designers do and don’t have the power to change. But what you’re also going to hear is that our NeoCon nerds speak all of Inhabit’s love languages. Of course they do. A minute ago, you heard Jon underscore that the ASID’s Principles of Sustainable Design are grounded in serious research. And in just a few minutes, you’ll hear David point out that principles are only as good as the policy that embraces them. And not just government policy, but organizational policy—for example, ESG reporting and accountability. And Joey zeroes in on how we reach decision makers—even the ones we never meet—as well as manufacturers, so we can move the industry towards sustainable impact at every step in the supply chain: labor, sales, construction, delivery, those apocryphal “end users” and ultimately the second client: the planet. Research. Policy. Design. Power. See? On the road. Still Inhabit. So, as Erika and Eunice would say, let’s get into it. We pick up the conversation with Joey and David reflecting on this Bizarro World pandemic moment and doing the right thing at NeoCon. Did you know, by the way, that the actual name of Bizarro World in the Superman comics is Earth spelled backwards? I won’t even try to pronounce that, but that is definitely our world right now. Anyway, here’s Joey.

Joey Shimoda: You know, one of the things that is always apparent to me is we’re in a particular time in life, right? And the world is changing so quickly in so many different ways, and we’re just getting back to, Hey, we can be all together in places, whether it’s work or play! And how do we start to transform that because we’re, we’re seeing a situation where workplace may not be populated nearly as much as we thought it was going to be. So there’s behavioral changes, cultural changes, but the space is essentially are, you know, they’re not moving. Maybe we can figure out a way to make mobile offices and, and for large amounts of people. But for the most case, we have a lot of great architecture, a lot of great buildings that we’re going to have to figure out what to do with and how to touch them sensitively.

David Cordell: It’s interesting, you know, in this whole return-to-work transition that we’re in, as an industry, we want to demonstrate value, we want to win work, right? We want to tell people that we have the answers. And sometimes it’s easy to forget that space can support a cultural change, and it can support you know, people’s behavior. But if that isn’t sort of part of the policy that an organization has from the top down, you know, I think we run into a danger of overselling what design can do, you know, it can’t create the change. It can just support it and make it easier. 

Joey Shimoda: This notion of doing things that are the right things to do, somehow always gets translated to the client as cost as something that says, Hey, do I have to buy the full package? Can I just do this? Or can you do it this way? And, and I think that, that there are ways of doing that there are there strategies. And so I think as designers now we’re going to have to think much more seamless ways of integrate this that don’t necessarily cost any more money. And I think that’s what we’re all hoping this ends up at some point, the decisions, we don’t have to make a decision. Everything that we participate with will be healthy or be sustainable, it’d be responsible [David: Or all three] Yeah, or all three. And it’s, I mean, it’s not impossible. But you know, we also live in a world that it’s a capitalistic world. And there’s, there’s reasons things happen and reason things move fast and slow. Yeah.

Lauren Neefe: MMMM, why things move fast and slow. In my grad school days, I learned that’s called “uneven development.” But talking to folx out in the Mart, you get a sense that everyone, wherever they’re at, whatever scale they’re working at, we are all moving in the same direction. 

[Low ambient chatter in the Mart fades in]

Lauren Neefe: Do you have any hot takes about sustainability at the show this year as a person who comes every year?

Lawrence Technological Institute Student 1: I’ve noticed, since I’m going to say 2021, it’s increased a lot. I’ve noticed too, in the education system, we’ve been learning a lot about it, which I like, and it’s become like a mandatory thing to incorporate in our projects. And hopefully, we can bring that into the real world.

Lauren Neefe: Do you have any hot takes on sustainability of the show this year? 

Product Designer: Oh, wow. No, I’m definitely not the expert on that. So that’s not my forte, for sure. Are you hearing about sustainability? We are definitely hearing more and more about sustainability. But I would say that I’m not looking for things on that end, I’m really just kind of exploring more of the aesthetic side of of things right now.

Lauren Neefe: Are you a student also?

LTI Student 2: I’m in transportation design. So car exteriors and our tours, like it’s all the same sustainability issues that interior design would have with materials, I’d say outside of that scope, there are plenty of stability issues with transportation design, just as a whole system. It’s not so very efficient, just dealing with congestion and trying to push more plans for public transportation and whatnot. That’s kind of the angle that a lot of people are talking about right now. I don’t know enough to comment about the sustainability of certain materials. But I’d say that as a system, there are definitely things that could be improved.

Lauren Neefe: Leave it to the transportation designer to be thinking at the level of systems. But that’s actually where David and Joey turns next. There’s no way to think about sustainability that doesn’t involve a mash up of systems, even setting capitalism and transportation aside at the organizational scale companies or governments are decision-making systems. Designers are always having to learn to maneuver within their client’s particular system without losing their footing in those sustainability principles.

Joey Shimoda: Well, there’s also that the other aspect of the client you never see it You know, we do, we’ve started do a fair amount of international work. And even in very high end corporate work, you may never meet the people who are actually making the decision. And I’ve noticed that that. I mean, I know that that’s also a mechanism to do business, but it doesn’t help when you aren’t able to understand and reach the audience you really need to reach. I mean, I think we see that tremendously, you know, powerfully negative in government work, where sometimes a law will supersede common sense. And sometimes hierarchy will also supersede common sense. So there’s a lot of work to be done in that world.

David Cordell: Yeah, I think sometimes you don’t get to interface with the decision maker, like you’re saying. Or sometimes you get the decision maker, but you’re not getting to talk to the people who might actually be working in this space. But to your point, that’s still all the client body right? And we can’t forget that the unseen person that we’re designing for is the planet—or our society—either of those. And this kept coming up in sort of all three of our presentations. Like, we do design for people, and so we have to honor that. And I think the unspoken part of that is that designing sustainably and responsibly is designing for people. Sometimes people don’t know what they’re, they’re asking for, right? And I think we have an obligation to help them understand why that may or may not be a good idea, or equally, what some of the maybe it is a great idea. But there are also some co benefits, and we’re gonna help you understand that so that you can then tell the story of the design, once it’s your space. 

Joey Shimoda: You know, it’s an interesting ask that we seem to get from a lot of our clients is using roof space. Outdoor space. Like anytime we go and look at a new building or new, not necessarily in high-rise, but you know, smaller-scale buildings that have rooftops, the first thing they always ask for is, Can we go and hang out on the roof? And it’s perfectly logical, I mean, connection between indoor and outdoor space is really natural way of being healthy. And it’s great, right? And that’s a big challenge, because most buildings are not, they’re not built to handle people from either an exiting point of view or a structural point of view. And so you know, they’re always asking for it. But we then we may go, Well, how far do we need to go before we can figure out this is a yes or no. And it’s usually kind of sometimes it’s fast. But some people are, I really want that outdoor space.

David Cordell: I feel maybe I have a heightened awareness of this, since the entire Northeast was just getting this forest-fire pollution, right. But the air quality outside isn’t always great. And so just inherently spending time outside isn’t always you know, beneficial of air quality is poor. And you know, we’ve been working in commercial office buildings that have operable windows, you know, that has to be paired with having sensors that tell people what the air quality is and whether or not they should be opening or closing the windows. So I think that’s an example of there’s something that seems very desirable, but you have to give people the tools and the education to be able to know when and where and how to use that, which I think is important. 

Lauren Neefe: Wow. Yeah. David’s taking me back to the summer 2023 smoke storm. So much weather has happened since then. But Erika and Eunice, you’re hearing what I’m hearing, right? David’s talking about indoor air quality? Joey’s talking about privately owned public space? It’s like a remix of all our Inhabit episodes! And one of our favorite topics! Getting our social systems to align around healthy outcomes. Speaking of which, I talked to a healthcare designer at the Mart who is definitely aligned with David about sharing knowledge with clients.

[Low ambient chatter fades in]

Lauren Neefe What corner of the industry are you in?

Healthcare Designer: I work in healthcare design, primarily. So lots of really cool stuff. Lots of great healthcare manufacturers out here this year. You know, it’s really cool seeing how they brought tons of life and color and stuff into their products. 

Lauren Neefe: Do you have any hot takes on sustainability? 

Healthcare Designer: Maybe just like more promotion of sustainability? You know, I think knowledge is really big for designers to just have that knowledge and to be able to share that with clients. I don’t think that it’s necessarily something that clients are always thinking of, and it’s definitely our job to kind of push for it whether or not they’re asking for it. 

Lauren Neefe: Here’ssomething clients aren’t asking about quite yet but might be very soon: neurodiversity. During the morning presentation, David took us to the research intersection of health and equity in the workplace by sharing his team’s evolving approach to inclusion, and it piqued Joey’s interest too. Listen. 

Joey Shimoda: Thatwas a good conversation about the neurodiversity and neurodivergence, understanding the difference.

David Cordell: Yeah, so it’s something that Perkins&Will has really been investing some time in to research recently. Every person brings their personal history to how they interact with the built environment: your age, your race, your gender, your orientation, like everything. Your, you know, your religion, your education. All of that impacts the patterns, the, the spatial qualities, the preferences that you have for how you like to work. And so, you know, this idea of neurodiversity, literally it’s a net that captures every single person in the space. And it’s a pretty fascinating lens to look at your design decisions through. And you know, we’re just starting to really dig into that and understand what the implications are. But I will tell you, it’s something that’s resonating with every single client that we’re talking about designing commercial office space with now. So there’s, there’s kind of two categories that the strategies fall under, it’s helping people understand and intuitively navigate the space that they’re in. So that’s high contrast finishes for things like doorframes, so that people understand where they’re transitions between spaces visually, or really clearly defined circulation patterns, you know, with changing finishes in the ceiling or the floor so that people understand what circulation what’s not that and then the other side is giving people kind of a sense of control over their space and their preferences. And that really comes down to choice and controllability offering high and low stimulus environments. You know, I think we tend to think of collaborative spaces as being high stimulus and heads down spaces as being low stimulus. But really, there are people who love doing heads down work in that sort of coffee bucks, coffee Pucks and that Starbucks, sort of environment, right? That’s high stimulus, there are people that liked doing that, and can be very successful there some of the research that we’ve done, actually, it kind of blew my mind, but it was talking about high and low stimulus, natural environments. We’ve talked about access to nature, and people immediately go to that kind of restorative wellness, focus space. But outdoor also supports play and group eating, and very active lifestyles. So you know, even there, there’s an opportunity to think about high low stimulus sides of the coin. 

Joey Shimoda: It’salso amazing to me that we were really pushing this idea of customization, you know, because office populations will continually change, people will come and go. But I think culturally, we’re really expected around environments to perform for us, and that we are comfortable, and we kind of get what we want from it. You know, I guess the more people you have together, the more potential either agreements or disagreements you have on those. So it’s a real challenge to figure out how to make everybody happy. I mean, I love the the idea that you had in your office in DC, where you had certain temperature zones, and I don’t know if it’s literally, you’re saying this is the 65 degrees own versus the 80 degrees out, but I know that that’s, that seems to be one of the biggest elements and office space that are even whenever anybody’s the other, I go to my mom’s house, it’d be like 800 degrees, and she’s perfectly fine. And she’s got a sweater on, and I go, what’s going on, but it’s for metabolism. It’s so all of us have a different way of being in space. I think technology is going to help us bridge those gaps. But you know, if you’re not thinking of them, then they’re also making somebody uncomfortable.

Lauren Neefe: I actually had a conversation with a family attending NeoCon together—the Diddy family, for real—whose observations about accessibility and comfort at this year’s show echo David and Joey’s conversation about customization. 

[Low ambient chatter fades in]

Lauren Neefe: It looks like you’re all here for NeoCon. What brings you here this year? 

Peter Diddy: To check out all the exhibits

Lauren Neefe: And what’s your corner of the design industry?

Beverly Diddy: Professional interior designer.

Lauren Neefe: OK. It’s the first one since COVID? 

Beverly Diddy: Yeah. Yeah. Since COVID. 

Lauren Neefe: Oh wow. How does it feel? 

Beverly Diddy: So yeah. A little different. In the past, it was just crazy. But moving around was easier. It’s just that I wish they would have more ADA accessibility, like a family restroom would be nice to have on at least a couple of the floors, because I have a handicapped husband that I have to attend to. And then better accessibility to go up and down the elevators, except for the freight elevators is the only place that where we are able to have more room.

Lauren Neefe: How do you think about public space in the Mart?

Sarah Diddy: As long as there’s plenty of spaces for seating, especially since you are at the Mart for looking at furniture. You would hope there’s furniture around to sit at since you are walking all day. 

Lauren Neefe: Are you seeing that? Do you feel like there’s enough? 
Sarah Diddy: Especially since you can go into a showroom and then at least take a little break in there, especially with like the new pods that they have going on, that are quiet areas. So you kind of go into a pod and kind of relax and decompress.

Beverly Diddy: Like I had to wind down, because the noise in the area and the acoustics were too loud. But I went into one of the booths to just sit down and wind down for a little while—for five, ten minutes—and when I got out, then I felt better. I know NeoCon is mostly like for the up-and-coming generation, younger people, but some of us older generation have been in this for a long time. And, you know, we need some comfort too.

Lauren Neefe: Shout-out to the elders!

Beverly Diddy: Yeah. 

Lauren Neefe: We’re all going to be elders. Do y’all mind sharing your names? 

Beverly Diddy: Yeah.

Sarah Diddy: I’m Sarah Diddy,

Beverly Diddy: We’re the Diddy clan. I’m B. Diddy, Beverly Diddy. This is S. Diddy, Sarah Diddy. And this is P. Diddy.

Peter Diddy: Peter Diddy.

[Ambient chatter fades out]

Lauren Neefe: OK, so it sounds like the Mart has some work to do on accessibility. But I love that manufacturers are listening to designers about the need for respite and privacy. Manufacturers are listening! And in this next part of their conversation, Joey and David talk about bending manufacturers’ ears about circularity and waste and not just one lifecycle, but multiple life cycles of materials.

Joey Shimoda: We all want to feel like we’re doing the right thing. And so we put our purchasing power to do that. I think a lot of the things that we’re hoping that when you come to NeoCon, manufacturers are being more transparent about how they’re using are showing the work. And I think the commercial world is actually really far ahead of, of, you know, certainly the residential and basic consumer products, in really saying that we’re concerned about how it’s made, how it’s delivered, how it dies. For me, the big thing is about understanding second life, third life, circularity of products. I think that’s going to be a next big topic. You know, there was a time when this idea in Japan where if you design something, you had to be able to take it apart, and you had to be able to get rid of the bad parts, or the parts that would be used up or no longer good. And then figuring out ways of making the materials recyclable. We were hearing this morning that Colgate, I guess, had developed a particular toothpaste container that was from recycled materials. I guess they thought it was so brilliant, they shared the technology with everybody. And so I guess everybody’s making their toothpaste containers out of the same thing. And so they’ve sort of insured themselves a recyclable product, because now all the containers can be recycled the same way that everybody can share and that recycling. And they’re going to make money too, because they’re gonna save money by reusing. And they’re going to save time, because everybody’s on the same platform. So I think we’re going to see maybe desire for more collaborative in manufacturing so that recycling processes are simpler. 

David Cordell: The other thing that I’m really interested to see is the Design for Freedom Toolkit was rolled out last year, which looks at labor force in your supply chain and identifying certain materials, you know, like brick and metal that globally have issues with forced labor in their supply chains. And it sort of identifies some materials that are riskier than others. And I think that’s starting to help bring awareness to, you know, we’ve been so focused on the health and the embodied carbon of our supply chain, but we’re not as good about thinking about the impacts socially of supply chain. So that’s what I’m hoping to talk about. And I think that’s one of the powerful things about coming to someplace like NeoCon is it lets you use your voice and get in front of a lot of manufacturers quickly and let them know what’s important to you. 

Joey Shimoda: Yeah, I’d like to maybe jump back up a couple different scales and talk about this from what we’re seeing from a real estate point of view. You know, my understanding is in the next three years, 60 percent of almost all leases will be coming up for renewal. And we’re seeing tremendous vacancy in offices all throughout the United States, well, the world. We call them “zombie buildings” I think? 50 percent or less occupancy. And most all of them I remember when we were doing some projects in Washington, DC, and my friends were looking at me and going, you know, we’re going to have such a problem in the next few years. Because not only are the leases coming up, most of these buildings’ HVAC systems are getting to be in the 30- to 40-year-old range. They’re going to just fail. They’re going to completely fail. And so how do we fix that? How do we deal with that problem? You know, in, in California, things like earthquake retrofitting is something that’s going to be a big deal for the longevity of buildings, but it’s also about the use of buildings. So because we’re going to be forced into reinterpreting what buildings will be, they’re going to have to perform better because our expectations of environmental health are so much higher. So that means, you know, the great new buildings that are being designed that are on the cutting edge are going to have a lot more success, but we’re still going to have this population of other buildings that we don’t know what to do with. So this notion of reuse and, you know, how do you make something workable again, is going to be a big question for All of us,

David Cordell: That’s a really important question. And I think when you’re talking to a bunch of furniture manufacturers whose job it is to sell things [chuckles] you know, to your point like that’s, that’s our economy, right? So how are they thinking about their role in this differently?

Joey Shimoda: You know, one of the things that’s always bothered me about how we install furniture is the waste of the boxes, the materials. And you know, I really feel like I want to ask everybody is like, what are you going to do? Can we do something about that? 

David Cordell: I always try to be respectful of the fact that none of us pivot on a dime? Is that the expression? Like none of us, you know, can turn on a dime. And, you know, I try to ask some leading questions and say, like, these are some of the things that clients are starting to ask us for. And so I’m curious what you, manufacturer X, are doing about this or this? And is it something that you’re thinking about? Because we are in it together, right? We work as a partnership with our manufacturers.

Joey Shimoda: You know, there’s always a little bit of a distance between the design portion of a manufacturer and the sales portion of the manufacturer. And I often feel like the sales force gets a little bit left out of understanding what the design theories are the design intends. You know, most of the cases designers really painfully thought of. There’s 20 no’s before there’s a yes or “that’s good enough.” And so I always hope that the better firms, the design and the sales are working more closely together to communicate the ideas. Because NeoCon is so fresh, too. Like a lot of times people won’t even share what they’re doing until you know, two days before to their sales teams. And you know, and then sales teams have to really pivot on a dime or [chuckles] turn on a dime to go, I understand this, I’m going to make it all work.

David Cordell: That highlights again, to me how important education is if the design side isn’t sharing their Salesforce. So if we as designers aren’t sharing with our clients, what goes into these projects and why we’re making the decisions that we’re making, and bringing them along, it ultimately impacts the outcomes that a project is going to have.

Joey Shimoda: I guess for me when I think about the relationship I have with the client in terms of being able to incorporate more progressive ideas about sustainability, I usually very cynically start with a zero. You know, when it comes to sort of health and light and air, most people don’t have objections to those kinds of things. But you know, if it’s become some kind of an educational program where you have to label what you did right or what you did wrong in a space, it does get to a point where it’s like, “That’s not important to me.” So for me, I think the level that we can achieve is often the level that we engage in the conversation that we can establish a common goal.

David Cordell: Part of what’s exciting thing about where we are now, compared to even eight years ago is there’s more of a focus on health and inclusion. And I think everybody who cares about their health or the health of their loved ones. You know, most people want to be in environments that are inclusive. So when people say, “My clients aren’t asking for it,” I think what they really mean is that my clients aren’t asking you to spend a bunch of money that they don’t understand where the trade-off is. So again it comes back to education and explaining the value of things and making smart choices, right? Joey, you had a great point: Treat your client’s budget like it’s your own and be good stewards of that. And you know, you still have to have a table, right? So if that table is made up of toxic stuff or if it’s made up of healthy things, like, wouldn’t you want that the healthy one? Like why wouldn’t you go for that? So comes back to education?

Joey Shimoda: Yeah, getting people to and instead of war? Yeah. Yeah.

Lauren Neefe: Get to And. Leave the Or. If I’m hearing them, right, what Joey and David are saying is: We can have our tables—and our health—and love our planet too. We really, really can. The sustainability mindset at NeoCon 2023 shows that the work pays off. The people who came looking for real-talk sustainability at “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” got all the research, policy, and design goodness they could have hoped for. But you heard it earlier. Even the people who didn’t come looking to save the planet were called in to saving the planet. But you know, we’re in this middle of this series on public space in Toronto, so I couldn’t let David and Joey leave the podcast booth without sneaking in a question about public space at NeoCon. The Mart is such a fascinating case study in privately owned public space. And wouldn’t you know? They might specialize in interior design, but Joey and David had some feelings about public space—at NeoCon and beyond—that brought us right back around to sustainability. 

David Cordell: You know, Joey and Jon and I have all done presentations in NeoCon in the past and been in these less-than-stellar sort of environments to present and, and now on the second floor, they done this whole business center that has conference rooms with great technology and acoustics. And before the presentation, I was just kind of going through my notes and I walked around the corner and they had focus rooms that I could sit in, that had glass front, and I could sit and plug in my iPad, and I could go through my slides. And I was just thinking how nice and civilized.this is as a presenter. You know, right now in the throes of NeoCon, obviously the business center is pretty much taken over by NeoCon, but the rest of the year that business center is an amenity for the office spaces—because half of this building is office space; it’s not all showroom. Similarly, some of the outdoor spaces along the Chicago River here—maybe it’s a party event venue right now, but what an amazing resource that river is. You know, they’ve created these amazing floating gardens that are helping to clean the water and the river and they’re also creating these really inviting environments. And if you worked here, the Merchandise Mart you just pop down there and have access to all of that. So in the years I’ve been coming to NeoCon, it’s changed a lot.

Joey Shimoda: You know, our latest project that we’re finishing New York is really a unique project because first it’s a renovation of a 1933 building—a WPA-period post office building—and we’re putting a two-acre park on top of the building for the building tenants. And it’s a fantastic park. It’s probably the biggest private park in Manhattan. But the idea is, is that now you have no excuse. You can be outside, when the weather is nice, and you know, air is good, and it’s not too super noisy, you can go and be outside the whole time. I think that this idea of places that you go that are not your workspace—public spaces, shared spaces—are even going to become more attractive and more desired. And building owners are going to do that too, because they’re gonna have some extra space. They’re going to have to figure out how to entice people to be there.

David Cordell: Yeah, I think, going back to this idea of displacement and people relocating back towards urban centers. I think we just know that city center areas are going to continue to densify. And we know that people aren’t spending all their time in the office and so they are looking for those sorts of interstitial spaces. I’ve been thinking a lot about how a lot of these topics are nonbinary, like, I think we like to say there’s like a right ratio: You’re working in the office or you’re working at home, right? There’s either the right material to specify because it’s embodied carbon or there’s the wrong material to specify. But really there’s a myriad of materials depending on your client’s goals and what’s right for the project. So I guess one of my takeaways from this whole thing is embracing the gray area between right and wrong, right? Between the good, bad and the ugly, there’s, there’s the gray area, right? 

Joey Shimoda: [laughs] Yeah.

[Chicago-style blues-inspired track “Cross My Heart & Hope to Die“ by Chester Malone/Epidemic Sound cues in]
Lauren Neefe: Embrace the gray! OK, we hear you, David. Climate, health, equity: they all shade into each other. Doing the sustainable thing is hard. But here’s what you can do as a designer: Lead from your client’s signal issue, because that will impact all kinds of decision making. Treat your client’s budget like your own, because that will drive decision making toward the second and third life of materials. And leverage your purchasing power with manufacturers. Tell them what you’re looking for! And build relationships, so you can have frank conversations about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thank you, David. Thank you, Joey. Jon, too. For the real talk. That’s a wrap on this extra episode of Inhabit. Next episode, we are back in Toronto with Erika and Eunice talking about the public space that is parking lots? Yep, parking lots. And how one suburban neighborhood reclaimed some unused parking spots to take back a little corner of paradise for their community. You are listening to Inhabit. Find show notes, pictures, links, and more juicy episodes at our website Julio Brenes does our illustrations. Find him on Instagram and follow us @inhabit.podcast. All our music is courtesy of Epidemic Sound. We recorded David and Joey’s conversation live from the NeoCon Podcast Studio, powered by SURROUND and sponsored by SnapCab. We heard our voices crystal clear thanks to Master&Dynamic, the official headphone sponsor of the SURROUND Podcast Network. Conference session audio courtesy of NeoCon. Thank you again to Wize Grazette for engineering the show. And of course, thank you to our advisory board: Mide Akinsade, Yanel de Angel, Patricia Foreman, Casey Jones, Paul Kulig, Yehia Madkour, Angela Miller, Rachel Rose, Kimberly Seigel, Gautam Sundaram, and Stephanie Wolfgang. Inhabit is a member of the SURROUND Podcast Network. Check out live NeoCon episodes from Clever, Deep Green, Barriers to Entry, and Design Nerds Anonymous at I’m Dr. Producer Lauren. Really all of us do all the things, but I produce and edit and sometimes chime in on the show. Catch you next time. Thanks for listening.

[“Cross My Heart and Hope to Die” ends]

Inhabit Chorus: People, first and foremost, Places Power, Design, Change, Now.

[Snap echoes into empty room]

Lauren Neefe: A Perkins&Will podcast.

[SURROUND mnemonic]