Leadership Roundtable: Sustainability's Future Looks Bright

August 15, 2004 · by DesignIntelligence

What follows are questions and answers with five leaders whose roots in sustainability go far back. Beyond being informed, their opinions matter as they are involved in setting policy in large, world-wide, award-winning firms.

As next month's 3rd annual Leadership Summit on Sustainable Design approaches, we thought it would be a good idea to start the conversation going early. We asked a few of the sustainability leaders in the United States about their thoughts on the forces shaping the realm of sustainable design and what’s coming next.

What follows are questions and answers with five leaders whose roots in sustainability go far back. Beyond being informed, their opinions matter as they are involved in setting policy in large, world-wide, award-winning firms. They are: Robert Berkebile, BNIM Architects; Alisdair McGregor, Arup; Sandra Mendler, HOK; Cecil Steward, The Joslyn Castle Institute for Sustainable Communities; and Scott Wyatt, NBBJ. Let's go—

DI: Please begin by explaining the progress your organization has made relative to sustainable design.

Berkebile: The progress BNIM has made relative to sustainable design includes the creation of a subsidiary division, Elements, which is intended to improve our evaluation and delivery systems for holistic, integrated design; resource mapping/materials selection; and energy and natural ventilation modeling. Elements provides services to other A/E firms and clients. We have also developed a software tool, Baseline Green (with Greg Norris and Pliny Fisk) to evaluate the upstream environmental impacts of our design decisions. We have enlarged our database, improved our LEED tracking tools and use Environmental Building News’ Building Green suite of on-line tools. Project examples include the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Headquarters—to be complete this year, and which is in line for platinum certification without increasing the typical state office building budget. The School of Nursing on the Houston, Texas, Medical Center Campus should be done later this year, and is in line for gold certification. Both represent new benchmarks for healthy buildings and pedagogy.

McGregor: Arup has always been at the forefront of sustainable design. In the early 1970s our founder Ove Arup was talking about the importance of the ecological and social impact of our projects—he stressed that good design cannot ignore the larger impact of a project. In recent years sustainable design has been moved to the forefront of our corporate culture. From a design standpoint we want to have sustainable thinking intrinsic to our design, as we believe that good design must be sustainable. On the other hand, to receive adequate remuneration for the extra design effort required we have to separate out sustainable design as a stand-alone feature of our design services.

In the U.S., we have learned much from our European practice about cutting-edge systems and design. However, we have found that to get these systems incorporated we have to clearly demonstrate the benefits to the client. Much of our efforts in the last three years have been directed at improving our tools for quantifying the benefits of sustainable design. These have included the development of a sustainable assessment tool called SPeAR, which we have used in the U.S. for assessing several master plans. We find that clients increasingly want to see quality life-cycle cost analysis to justify design decisions and we have developed software that allows us to do this efficiently. However, there is still much work to be done in getting better data and case studies on benefits beyond avoided utility costs. Increased productivity, increased retail sales, reduced time for planning approval, etc., can all be far more significant to the economic health of an organization than reduced utility expenses.

Mendler: HOK has become a recognized leader among firms: We have more completed “green” buildings than any other firm, and these have been consistently recognized with design awards. We have seven projects that have been included in the list of “top 10 green projects of the year” by AIA COTE and we now have more than 150 LEED-accredited professionals at HOK.

Over the years we have developed a strong commitment to our “real world vision” for sustainable design. Our work has consistently focused on design challenges that have high goals yet real world constraints in terms of budgets, schedules, tolerance for risk, etc. We take great pride in the way we have worked within our constraints to create solutions that add value. Because of this many of our projects have been pivotal in making the business case for sustainable design.

We also have developed an informed and integrated design process. Our HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design provides detailed guidance in the sustainable design process, recommended actions, and case studies. We have a sustainable design group firm-wide that includes members from all of our offices, and an intranet site that we use to build our experience and to share our lessons learned.

Finally we have nurtured an impressive number of passionate advocates who take the time to seek out innovative solutions, describe the benefits of sustainable design strategies, and win support for their use. All of our successful projects have benefited from individual personal commitment–we have found that there is no substitute for this. As design and planning leaders, we encourage and nurture advocacy in our consultants and within the client team as well.

Steward: The Joslyn Castle Institute for Sustainable Communities (JCI) is unique in this discussion, as a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization with offices in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska. I founded the organization while still serving as dean of the College of Architecture at the University of Nebraska. In 1996 I had reached the conclusion that neither traditional practice nor the mainstream of architectural education was moving at an effective pace to embrace sustainable principles. And I felt that a new, more interdependent, and collaborative organization was needed.

Much more than a design specialization, the JCI embodies the “eco-spheres principles” of sustainable communities, whether we are recycling building materials, designing buildings or communities, helping to plan entire regions, conducting educational programs, or stimulating leadership capacities.

The JCI currently has projects that allow us to demonstrate sustainability principles at the materials/construction, urban design, regional planning/development, and international “best practices” scales of community habitat. (See our site: www.ecospheres.com)

Wyatt: NBBJ has had for a number of years a “sustainable design group” operating as a grass-roots initiative to influence our work. What began as small efforts by a number of passionate individuals has now become a strong, unified firm-wide collegial group including staff from studios across the firm with a budget and a strategic action plan for each year. At this point, NBBJ’s leadership has a clear recognition of the importance of sustainability–we now prefer to set our sights on regenerative–design. Because of our studio structure, we find the best way to change the practice and make progress toward that goal is on the ground, within projects and within studios. There is a shared corporate and studio-based commitment to education and innovation that helps to further firm-wide goals through the leadership of the sustainable design group.

DI: Clearly, you have made a lot of headway in the last three years; what’s next? What upcoming projects do you think will be ground-breaking, or best represent the principles of sustainable design?

Berkebile: The next improvements we anticipate are:

a. More care with client selection and goal setting which we believe will improve efficiency, performance and profitability.
b. Improve the efficiency of our collaborative process (education, partnering, communication) to increase time available for exploration, discovery and innovation.
c. Improve educational programs to increase capacity of our associates and consultants for integrated high-performance design.
d. We have several projects under design that we expect will go beyond LEED Platinum to “Living Building,” some of which will create new tools, processes and materials.

McGregor: I find it difficult to predict which projects will be seen in the future as icons of sustainability. The Gap Office in San Bruno was by no means ground-breaking but it influenced a lot of buildings that came later. From our San Francisco office I would choose two very different projects:

The California Academy of Sciences with Renzo Piano and Chong Partners is aiming for LEED Platinum. The building itself is part of the educational aspect of the museum. Although the building is very much a one-off design, the alignment of the design intent with the Academy’s mission of environmental stewardship should help drive the sustainable agenda forward on a broad front. Our Sustainable Business Consulting group has also been working with the Academy to help them develop their operations and organization in a more sustainable way.

At the other end of the architectural spectrum we are working with Wal-Mart on two experimental stores, one in Texas and another in Colorado. These stores are being used as a test bed for new energy and resource conserving technologies. Systems include wind turbines, fuel cells, micro-turbines, waste cooking-oil-fired boilers and building-integrated photo-voltaics. The buildings will be monitored for performance over a three-year period and the results made public. The opportunity to get high-quality building in-use data is very exciting. However, even more exciting is the market influence that Wal-Mart has. Should Wal-Mart decide to use any of these technologies on all new stores, volume will increase and the prices should come down.

Mendler: We are focusing on increasing both the breadth and depth of our sustainable initiative in the coming years. We want to drive sustainable thinking into all of our projects to create truly innovative projects that will break new ground and advance the industry. We are very pleased by the increasing diversity of our clients who are embracing sustainable design, and we are deliberately exploring sustainable applications for diverse building types, including hospitals, research laboratories, museums, convention centers, airports, multi-family residential and others.

Some of our new projects are exciting because of their enormous scale and the boldness of the sustainable strategies, such as the new Jacob K. Javits Convention Center with its 22-acre vegetated roof (currently the world’s largest living roof), innovative daylighting integrated with a 73,000 sf living wall and PV, and a possible cogeneration plant. New airports in Indianapolis and Doha Qatar are using innovative daylighting strategies over their expansive roof structures. A new university in Vietnam is designed around a planning strategy that favors pedestrians and bicyclists and supports exemplary water resource planning. We are also actively engaged in planning abandoned post-industrial areas, such as the county wide study for Erie Niagra.

We are also broadening the scope of innovative building materials and technologies in our projects. For example, a bus-maintenance facility in southern California is being constructed of straw bale, and an office building in northern California is using special daylight redirecting glazing that was originally developed for the automobiles.

The Government of Canada building in Prince Edward Island Canada is remarkable because of the highly-integrated design strategies that address sustainability, connectivity and security to create a new model for sustainable design. The project includes a pair of separate, yet linked atria spaces; mixed-mode ventilation with operable windows; and underfloor ventilation with a chilled slab. The green roof is integrated with a building-wide water reuse and recycling system. We anticipate a LEED gold rating.

Finally, a new Buddhist University has given us the opportunity to explore sustainable design solutions on a community scale, as this project includes a resident population of 700 people. Chilled slabs, cool towers and operable wall panels are integrated to create a nearly zero-energy building design, and strategies to systematically eliminate waste include organic agriculture and biological wastewater treatment wetlands.

Steward: Architects, designers and builders have the opportunity to influence more than 50 percent of all the energy and natural resources used in this nation. We will not achieve our potential destiny unless and until we embrace sustainability, not as a special area of expertise, but as a core value.

In the 19th and 20th Centuries we have been a profession and an enterprise that has supported and facilitated the “consume and throw away” mode of the American culture. Can we fully and comprehensively embrace sustainability? Or, do we see the trend as just another changing market?

Architects and designers must become much more than designers of “one-off buildings.” We must move beyond the building as artifact, and the notion that any artifact is suitable for any culture and any environment on the planet—so long as it wins awards.

Our principal thrust for potential impact on the future of architecture/construction will be through the Nebraska Center for Sustainable Construction (NCSC), a new division of the JCI. The NCSC will work locally to mitigate demolition and construction waste from entering landfills by deconstructing and storing donated building materials for resale; supporting low-income housing construction with donated materials, and conducting national research and education programs focused on “designing for deconstruction/disassembly and reassembly.” The local programs are designed to demonstrate transferable practices for other national and international contexts.

Wyatt: One of our current projects that we’re proud of is the Veteran’s Administration Skilled Nursing Center in Retsil, Wash., soon to be completed. The building will be naturally ventilated, which required a variance from State Department of Health regulations. We believe that this building will serve the VA for many years as both a responsible energy user and a nurturing environment for the veterans who will live there. This sort of innovation has the potential to shift the direction of future projects not only for NBBJ, but also for the Veteran’s Administration, the state of Washington and beyond.

The most important “projects” for us are probably not the ones you are thinking of. To us, the most important effort is seeing that the sustainable performance baseline is raised for every project we do. Because our studios have a tremendous amount of operating freedom, we’re able to innovate and do ground-breaking work on particular projects easily, and the firm encourages such innovation. However, that same freedom and “quickness” can work against us in establishing a common framework that applies to ALL of NBBJ. Because our clients represent a broad market spectrum in a variety of industries, it’s important to us that our baseline work represents sound sustainable practice. Currently we’re creating tools for teams to use through the design process as they implement sustainable strategies and reach toward the ultimate goal of regenerative design.

DI: How genuine is the commitment of your entire organization to this vision? What concrete steps have you taken toward instilling sustainability as a long-term, firm-wide priority?

Berkebile: BNIM is in the process of re-visioning and restructuring the firm, BNIM 2020. Results to date include redefining our mission. (BNIM Architects creates with our clients and communities unique vitality through innovative holistic design.) And we’re doubling the number of owners (from four to eight) to support the goal of continuing to define the future of high-performance architectural practice. There has been new clarity and some pain realized in this process—two of our valued, senior associates left as a result.

McGregor: At the overall Arup Group level the following organizational structure was instigated at the start of this year.

The Board (OPEX) recognized three components to our global sustainability business:

OPEX also agreed three elements of Arup-wide leadership for sustainability to develop strategy, give overall direction and provide coordination for the whole firm. These three areas are:

I define the three areas of our sustainable business as:

1. Corporate Sustainability Business

Our Corporate Sustainability Business requires particular skills and experience; it will only be carried out by professionals having the necessary market and business expertise in this field. This business will have an Arup-wide leadership team responsible for ensuring that we have a consistent style and approach to our clients, and for developing a successful and profitable Corporate Sustainability Business for Arup. This business may vary in detail to suit different markets and geographies. In the U.S., this effort is led by Jean Rogers.

2. Sustainability consulting business

Our sustainability consulting business consists of sustainability projects for clients and includes the use of SPeAR and related techniques and tools. This work requires specialist skills and experience and is carried out by qualified professionals.

3. Sustainability integrated into our design work

This will be achieved by a number of means. Primary dissemination and exchange of knowledge is through Skills Networks and the Sustainability Skills Network is the primary conduit for this. In addition, the Sustainability Coordination Group has been established to provide advice on matters relating to the development and application of sustainability throughout the firm. Several electronic newsletters are published, including a Sustainability Newsletter for the U.S. and a worldwide “Sustainability Now” information note.

Mendler: We have seen a steady surge of interest and commitment to our sustainable design initiative over the past decade. It comes from all levels. Bill Valentine, our president, has led advocating a proactive approach to sustainable design, including staff LEED accreditation and pursuit of LEED ratings for projects. HOK has set a goal for each office to have a minimum of 30 percent of professional staff LEED-accredited, including all project leaders. More importantly, our design leaders are engaging in dialogue about the future of design. As we do, our focus becomes the impact our buildings have on people. How are we creating better, healthier, more vital places, while increasing value for our clients?

We continue to build our internal Knowledge Net and our external internet site for information sharing. Our Web site: www.hoksustainabledesign is deep in information and tools, and we publish a quarterly e-newsletter. We have found that external communications enhance our communications internally. This work is coordinated by a dedicated group within the corporate office.

Our sustainable design focus has had a very positive influence on our ability to attract and retain quality staff at junior, intermediate and senior levels.

While we do have projects that have not yet engaged a sustainable design agenda, we estimate that approximately half of all project work firm-wide is being designed and developed with a conscious focus on sustainable design.

We are now revising the HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design. The new edition will include detailed post-occupancy evaluations of projects, updated case studies and enhanced metrics. The technical content is being reorganized to more clearly reflect the stages of the design process. We have found that the book has helped us a firm to communicate our commitment internally and externally; the systematic documentation of case studies has greatly enhanced information sharing and creates a shared enthusiasm for our sustainable design mission firm-wide.

Steward: Sustainability in the built environment must be based upon a principle of long-term, life-cycle economics, as opposed to the traditional value of “first-cost, sell, demolish” pattern of community development. We have allowed and propagated practices and public policies which institutionalize this throw-away pattern in the misguided belief that our profession/enterprises benefit from a rapid replacement rate in the urban environment.

Genuine, comprehensive sustainability, at any scale, must take into account five domains: The environment and use of natural resources; the social and cultural well-being of people; appropriate technology, efficiently applied; economic realities which affect the other four domains; and, public policies that are required to facilitate the other four domains. These are the “Ecospheres Principles.”

The JCI has evidence, and models of experience, to demonstrate that a holistic analysis of the ecospheres principles, performed at any scale, micro-to-macro, will yield design strategies for greater sustainability. The commitment is to continue to search for refinement and more “best practices” for more universal communication and discourse about the future of a planet with finite resources.

Wyatt: The commitment is genuine, but we have plenty of progress we can make in actual performance. Because NBBJ is such a large firm, you can well imagine that not everyone understands exactly what sustainable design means to their project or to their own contribution. We’re working on that.

NBBJ’s Sustainable Design Group is the vehicle through which the vision is developed and implemented across the firm. We also participate in sustainable industry events; sponsor and encourage attendance at conferences, in-house seminars and other learning opportunities; and we make ourselves available to project teams as sustainable advisors. One of our important roles is to encourage teams to develop their own expertise to make the knowledge base wider and deeper.

As to the firm’s commitment, one development that speaks to this is that we have two partners who are LEED-accredited professionals, and our total of LEED APs has grown from about a dozen to 35 in the past six months. Our internal “Project of the Year” award criteria includes sustainable performance, and has for several years.

DI: What can the USGBC and other associations do differently to advance the present and future success of sustainable design?

Berkebile: It may be appropriate at this moment for USGBC, AIA, and scores of other organizations and stakeholders involved in transforming the design and construction industry to pause and celebrate the level of transformation at this point. But it is far more important to acknowledge that we have only just begun the process, and most of the work is yet to be defined. The focus so far has been on doing “less bad” with our design and construction projects, accomplished primarily with LEED tools that are, at best, a limited tool that assumes all of North America to be one bioclimatic region—and until recently, one building type. Continuous improvement of the LEED tools and simplification of the documentation process is critical. Equally important are new tools, materials, and processes to inform and improve the collaborative integrated design process. More emphasis on beauty and elegance is essential.

McGregor: I think we have moved as far as we can go in preaching to the converted. I think USGBC and other organizations need to focus on moving public policy ahead. We have political leadership in this country that thinks Global Warming is not real, that destroying pristine environment or destroying other countries to secure oil supplies is preferable to developing renewable energy and that good environmental policy is bad for the economy. And water is an issue that is not getting enough exposure. In the West, we have a major water crisis, which will hit everyone in the near future unless we learn how to allocate resources in a sensible way.

Mendler: As sustainable design has emerged in the design and construction industry we have been focused on the problem statement and the tangible successes that have been achieved through select exemplary projects. This was a good place to start. The USGBC, AIA and other associations have done a good job securely establishing a niche market. The next step is to grow this initiative by catalyzing change on multiple levels. To do so, we need to do the following:

Externalities related to the built environment include impact on public health, national security, biodiversity and global environmental systems. The linkages between these and the built environment need to be more rigorously defined so they can be addressed through public policy and adjustments can be made. Dialogue between design professionals, sustainable design advocates and policy analysts can advance this initiative.

Sustainable design also needs to be better validated for both qualitative and quantitative benefits. To do so we need rigorous economic modeling tools that are user-friendly for design professionals. We need tools and metrics that enable us to convincingly capture qualitative benefits. We also need clearly established protocols for post-occupancy evaluation, and support for this to be developed as a service. The associations can help by developing consistent tools and methodologies for this work.

Finally we really must engage planners and architects together in a coordinated effort to bring the sustainable design agenda more fully into the planning arena. Good models exist for this work. But the adoption of sustainable design into the planning arena is slow, and better tools and metrics are needed. Plans are underway with the USGBC for a new LEED system for planning- scale projects, however more participation is crucial from planners for the program to be successful.

Steward: The USGBC, the AIA, the IIDA, the NSPE, the ASLA, the ASID, the AGC, the APA, the CSI, and all of the other associations which purport to represent “specialists” in the design/construction industry should be more inclusive and less independent in their missions, practice principles and membership criteria. Sustainability of the planet, communities, and cultures should be principle No. 1 for each of these noble and historic (but challenged) organizations. Anything less diminishes our collective potential for real professional service to the health, safety, and welfare and the preservation of the natural environment—which is to say, the preservation of human-kind.

Wyatt: The USGBC was conceived with a brilliant vision of market transformation. That transformation has been very quick over the past few years and seems to have momentum that will continue into the future. Our biggest concern is that as the organization grows and becomes more mainstream, it will lose its edge. We hope it can avoid becoming a political machine that is more concerned with pleasing its constituent base than with catalyzing change. The current discussion about industry trade associations is one example that comes to mind.

There are a lot of particular efforts that can advance the success of sustainable design, such as research that clearly establishes the business case for sustainable design; redesign of codes and regulations to support and enable sustainable technologies; supporting research and development of new technologies and products–and high on our list–working toward a common life-cycle analysis reporting database that would help the industry to make smarter decisions based on more than first cost. We fully expect to see all of these things happen in the near future, but not without the design community’s support and participation.

Robert Berkebile is a founding principal of BNIM Architects. He is a board member of the USGBC, the Nature Conservancy and the Center for Global Community. He was the founding chairman of the AIA's national Committee on the Environment, and a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council.

Alisdair McGregor joined Arup in 1981 and worked in their London office until moving to San Francisco in 1988. He is a Principal in the Americas practice with responsibilities for Mechanical Engineering Design and Sustainability. In 2004 he was elected to be an Arup Fellow, one of six in the firm worldwide, in recognition of his contribution to the sustainable design agenda.

Sandy Mendler has been integrally involved with developing and implementing HOK's sustainable design program, since 1992. A senior fellow of the Design Futures Council, she co-authored The HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design and is lead author of The Greening Curve, Lessons Learned in the Design of the EPA Campus. She has received the "Sustainable Design Leadership Award" from IIDA.

Scott Wyatt is NBBJ's managing partner, overseeing the talents, accomplishments and business strategies of the firm's seven offices in the U.S. and abroad. Wyatt has led the creation of headquarters for some of the world's foremost corporations, including Reebok, Telenor, Adobe and Amgen. He serves on the board of directors for The Nature Conservancy, Seattle Opera and The Henry Art Gallery. Scott's responses were compiled with the assistance of NBBJ's Margaret Montgomery, senior associate.

Cecil Steward is president of the Josyln Castle Institute for Sustainable Communities, former dean of the University of Nebraska College of Architecture and senior fellow of the Design Futures Council. He served as president of the AIA from 1991-92.

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