5 Questions With… Sustainable Architecture Visionary Lew Oliver – NKBA


5 Questions With… Sustainable Architecture Visionary Lew Oliver

The Georgia-based urbanist and master planner envisions and designs whole communities rooted in wellness and sustainable living.

By Donna Heiderstadt

Every day is Earth Day to Lew Oliver. While the world gets a reminder each April that sustainability should be at the forefront of everyday living, Oliver, Founder of Lew Oliver Inc., works 12 months a year to ensure that newly built communities — like Trilith outside of Atlanta — are designed with both residents and the planet in mind. As Oliver explained during his Disruptor Series talk at KBIS 2024, “The Big Picture: A Visionary’s Approach to Sustainability in Society,” he focuses on the pedestrian experience in each of his site plans, ensuring that both physiological and psychological wellness of residents are paramount. In creating all of his plans, he considers how to enrich the landscape and how to accommodate many lifestyles and multi-modal transportation.

NKBA | KBIS asked Oliver about his passion for “good urbanism” and what the design/build community can do better to embrace sustainable practices.

NKBA | KBIS: What was it that first sparked your interest in building sustainable living environments?

Lew Oliver: Making good urbanism — placemaking shaped by excellent architecture and pedestrian activity — has always been my aspiration, since early childhood. It just so happened that this dovetailed into low-carbon footprint development patterns and permanent construction. I have come to appreciate the idea that creating beautiful and inspiring places is truly sustainable. Such towns and cities based on good urbanism are recycled, sometimes for hundreds of years.

NKBA | KBIS: What is the biggest challenge when developing a new community with a softer environmental footprint? And are “whole town solutions” possible anywhere, or are they dependent on climate, income and other factors? 

Lew Oliver: The biggest challenge in creating sustainable communities based on good urbanism is the time factor. They are typically more complex than typical single-use suburban models that off-load complexity onto government-orchestrated road building. Good urbanism requires incentivizing by the government, which leads to a decrease in traffic and a greater sense of social and economic integration. The model is applicable anywhere and can morph according to the climate and availability of materials.

NKBA | KBIS: What can the design/build community as a whole do to better embrace sustainable practices — even if they aren’t focused on developing on a macro level as you are?

Lew Oliver: Sustainable practices are as easy as: A. designing for zero waste; B. sourcing materials locally; and C. promoting industrial production of wall assemblies and modules, reducing labor, cutting down production time and promoting less waste in factory conditions.

NKBA | KBIS: Are there specific practices or product innovations that can make kitchen and bath design more sustainable? What strategies and methods can builders and designers incorporate now?

Lew Oliver: In terms of kitchens, designers and builders can incorporate electric appliances into kitchens, choosing options that are highly functional and attractive to overcome the desire for gas ranges. Countertop composters that can reside in a pantry or scullery divert waste from the landfill, and actually build soils in the garden. Fresh, unprocessed foods could be celebrated with attractive prepping sculleries. Health and well-being, together, equal sustainability.

In baths, water-saving features are now everywhere. The space could be re-envisioned as a mini-spa, and with saunas, could lead to saving water.

NKBA | KBIS: How do you see sustainable architecture and design evolving? What do you envision as commonplace practices 10 years from now?

Lew Oliver: In 10 years, walkable, self-contained communities that are inclusive of all ages, all family makeups and wider ranges of incomes and cultures will be preferred by developers, builders and consumers. Homes and businesses will be largely factory produced, delivering a zero-energy ready shell that is efficient. Single-use suburbs will become rare as more enjoy a cleaner, more social lifestyle that features large natural areas for recreation.