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Faculty Profile: Lynnette Widder

M.S. in Sustainability Management Professor Lynnette Widder

Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MSSM) professor Lynnette Widder has over fifteen years of experience teaching design, conducting seminars, and organizing architectural excursions for architecture students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. She is the Principal and Co-founder of aardvarchitecture, a small architectural practice that specializes in residential work with an emphasis on high-quality innovative construction. The practice’s designs have been featured in various publications including the New York Times, Time Out New York, and the HGTV series, Small Space Big Style. Prior to joining the MSSM faculty this semester, Lynnette was the head of the architecture department at the Rhode Island School of Design. This fall, Lynnette is teaching the course, Responsibility and Resilience in the Built Environment.

1. Why did you choose to teach at Columbia in the MSSM program?

The students’ multidisciplinary backgrounds are an excellent basis to address sustainability’s mandate. I come from a discipline – architecture – that has historically prided itself on its capacity to incorporate technical and cultural perspectives, but nonetheless is limited by its own internal demands and knowledge. The MSSM program and the Earth Institute offer unique opportunities to work productively with my discipline-specific knowledge outside of architecture and to act more assertively on my convictions about the need for a broad range of knowledge and perspectives in defining and addressing global concerns about sustainable practices.

2. What is new in your area of expertise?

Sustainability in the built environment is a moving target right now. New developments are beginning to recognize that human settlement and infrastructure can only be addressed by considering cultural and technical aspects together. Critical thinking is central to reframing problems of settlement densification, infrastructure expansion and equity: neither top-down nor bottom-up strategies alone can be a panacea. One major technical sea change specific to architecture is the shift away from energy “conservation” to energy appropriation from all available sources. Low-exergy approaches, for example, see buildings as conduits between atmospheric and geothermal sources, offering potentials for energy-intelligent building even in urban surroundings, where solar orientation may not be optimal.

3. What course do you teach and why do you think that it is important to the field of sustainability?

I teach some aspects of the “physical dimensions of sustainability” – a topic which is only 20% of the MSSM curriculum but a much larger percentage of how we experience the world on a daily basis. My courses, Responsibility and  Resilience in the Built Environment and Empirical Approaches to Building Energy Assessment, reframe the built environment as responsive and resilient rather than resistant to natural forces. I stress systems thinking, whether at urban or building scales. I also emphasize the advantages of precise visual representation to describe great complexity immediately, and to support our ability to reframe wicked problems. Valuing empirical knowledge and visual communication are both central to expanding the audience for a sustainability agenda, and to innovative problem solving.

4. What is your favorite part of your job as a professor?

The interaction with smart, demanding students who are ready to act on their beliefs is one of my favorite parts of teaching. Of course we learn from one another; but it is also rewarding to know that students will implement and disseminate what they have learned in a very broad professional context.

5. What do you think that your students need to know about sustainability that they are not learning already in the classroom?

Unfortunately, our society is not set up to value labor and materials highly enough. Many of the students in my class have worked on community farms or done humanitarian design-build or other hands-on work. I think that this kind of experience is vital in order to understand the greatest hurdles to achieving sustainability in a just-in-time, on-demand society: inadequate respect for the physical world.

6. What do you believe is the greatest benefit that the MS in Sustainability Management program has to offer its students?

Students in the MSSM program already know that their 36 credits is not a lot of time to learn everything they need to know or everything that interests them. The fact that many are returning to the program from established professional lives is evidence that what you think you are in school to study may not be everything you really need to know. I would encourage students to take advantage of the broadest possible spectrum of courses, to attend as many campus events (even outside the program) that they can, and most of all, to learn from one another’s very varied knowledge bases. Learning to think and communicate in new ways is a huge benefit to people who want to change a dominant paradigm.

7. What advice would you give to your sustainability management students who are not already working in the field of sustainability?

Like other wicked problems, sustainability requires agile problem-solving approaches that are not thrown off course when parameters change mid-stream. Try to use your time in school to open your mind to new ways of framing questions and to take seriously the kinds of discourses that in professional practice might be dismissed as “academic” or “impractical.” Innovation comes from turning a set a givens around into a new constellation, and to do so requires thinking that can deal with complexity rather than trying only to simplify.

8. What kind of research are you doing now related to the built environment?

My research focuses on the intersection between building construction, which tends to be absolute, and architectural thinking, which tends to be less interested in a single, optimized answer. I work with Joy Ko, a mathematician, on the innovative use of thermal performance software for architectural detailing. My dissertation is concerned with the way changes in curtain wall detailing in Germany from 1949-59 reflects changes in means of production and material culture. I have also done research on recent urban development in New York and Berlin and on humanitarian design both locally and abroad. My last two building projects have worked towards integrative design to reduce material intensity and promote sustainable energy paradigms.

The Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MSSM) program, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The M.S. in Sustainability Management program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Please visit our website to learn more about the program.

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Tom Ritchey
Tom Ritchey
11 years ago

Re: Wicked Problems, you might like to know about this recent publication:

“Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

You can see a description at:


Tom Ritchey