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Sustainability is a loaded term. It covers too broad a range of subjects—the term is used for everything from electrification, material use and resiliency to diversity, equity and inclusion. One minute we are discussing something as specific as the number of bike parking spaces, and the next we’ve moved onto something as broad as how our project supports health and resilience for the community. Some of sustainability’s core concepts, such as energy efficiency, come with a glossary of technical terms and acronyms, while others can seem vague and overgeneralized.

It is no wonder that many clients, architects and industry professionals feel overwhelmed when trying to talk about sustainability.

Preparation is Key

To speak on a subject as expansive as sustainability, contractors need to develop a very broad skillset.

First, they need to stay current by reading up on new technologies, familiarizing themselves with different frameworks such as LEED, or the Living Building Challenge and experimenting with new software programs. They should go to conferences where they can hear from other contractors about what has worked for them and what pitfalls they faced.

Second, it is crucial for contractors to surround themselves with a team of experts, engineers and consultants that share the firm’s commitment to sustainable design. No one person could ever hope to be an expert on all aspects of sustainability, but the right team can be much more impactful than any individual.

Last, to ensure success, contractors must also become an expert on the regulatory landscape—more and more states and local municipalities are introducing stricter and stricter codes for energy, carbon and water use. New York City has introduced several ambitious carbon reduction targets and Boston have begun discussions on carbon-neutral zoning policies.

Buildings that meet the bare minimum today may be outdated by the ribbon cutting or, worse, they could become the target of costly penalties throughout the life of the building or require expensive renovations to achieve compliance.

It All Starts with a Conversation

The first meeting is a conversation, not a presentation. There are no renderings involved and no model on the table. The beginning is all about listening.

Start by gathering a better understanding of the client. How knowledgeable are they? What does sustainability mean to them? What misconceptions might they have?

When dealing with a concept as broad as sustainability it is crucial to start the conversation early to understand where the client is coming from and tailor the approach to meet their goals. Sit down with clients and listen to what they need from their building.

Different clients have different goals and come to the table with different amounts of knowledge. Some are focused on issues of climate change and reducing our carbon footprint. Others are focused on conservation of water and preserving natural ecosystems. Still others are concerned about the impact of the materials used, where they are sourced and what they are made of and if they are potentially harmful to the environment or the occupants of the building.

Set Goals Together

Help clients set specific, measurable goals. As the design progresses, those goals will serve as concrete commitments to different aspects of sustainable design.

Remember that the goal is not to turn clients into experts on these subjects. The goal is to come to a common understanding and a common set of goals that will lead to a building design that is beautiful, functional, on-budget, has a low-impact on the climate and uses limited natural resources responsibly.

It’s Nothing New

One of the biggest misconceptions facing sustainability is that it’s “new.” People are skeptical of new technologies. Will they work? Will they last? Are they expensive?

Sustainability is not a new concept. What is new is that over the last hundred years other technologies have advanced to a point at which, for a moment, we thought we could throw out all the old rules. Passive cooling was practiced for thousands of years before air conditioning was invented. A root cellar uses geothermal cooling. So does a basement. All materials were locally sourced before there was global shipping. The Pyramids contain no asbestos. The Colosseum is free of BPA.

In the last few hundred years, buildings have gone from contributing nothing to greenhouse gas emissions to contributing a whopping 40% of all global emissions. That’s more than every car, truck, plane, train and ship on earth—combined. All in the blink of an eye, and all while we already knew how to do without.

When you think about it that way, the problem seems so more manageable. If buildings used to produce no carbon emissions, then we just need to find our way back. Not through invention, but through rediscovery.

It’s Common Sense

Before we can begin to build for the future, we need to be reminded of our past. There is almost always a parallel between our current understanding of sustainability and some ancient rule of thumb, some piece of common sense wisdom.

For example, when discussing a concept like “high-performance building envelope,” instead talk about “closing the door to keep the heat in.” Instead of “embodied carbon” think of “doing more with less.” Instead of water conservation, think: “waste not, want not.”

Reducing these ideas down to their fundamental concept helps clients connect with them. They become the bridge between our clients’ goals and the technical solutions needed to achieve them.

Don’t be Afraid of Data

In today’s design environment we are focused on measurable goals and that means having measurable results. This is where our expertise as architects, designers and engineers is meant to shine. There are a range of tools, including building energy modeling software, that can be used to prove that the design is meeting the client’s goals.

This should be more comfortable for designers and contractors. This is the part where they get to have a presentation behind them, where they get to test, build models and experiment. Yet often this feels like the scariest part because many are not yet comfortable with the software or not yet familiar enough with the newest technologies and design practices. It is crucial in this industry to engage in lifelong learning.

All too often, value engineering can strip sustainable features from designs because we cannot provide adequate reasoning, or because it isn’t a priority for the client. As much as architects might disagree, sustainability is not a reason in and of itself to make a design choice. Do not be afraid to use your data to defend your design. It is much harder to value-engineer away something that has a measurable impact on achieving your clients’ goals or saves them money than something that is simply there for the sake of being “sustainable.”

Never Forget the 'Why'

 Nelson Henderson famously said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

This is the heart of sustainable, ecologically-responsible design and construction. Thinking about sustainability challenges us to think beyond the walls of buildings, beyond even the boundaries of a construction site and about how design impact the community, the climate and the world at large—for today, tomorrow and for decades to come.


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