Firms embrace the emerging role of the sustainability guru
Hootman’s role within the USGBC is yet another hallmark of the sustainable design director. Many architects who championed green design early on in their firms often played significant roles in the development of the USGBC’s local chapters, as well as the national organization. For example, Ritchie has served for the past five years on the materials and resources technical advisory group for the USGBC’s LEED program. Another well-trod track for architects who have advocated green issues in their firms is the AIA’s COTE, which exists as one of the AIA’s “knowledge communities” with branches in the many local chapters.
Sandy Mendler, AIA, a sustainable principal in HOK’s San Francisco office, exemplifies both this persona of the early adopter and the USGBC advocate. Her interest in sustainability dates back to when she joined HOK in the early 1990s, when she helped develop the firm’s sustainable-materials database and went on to write with her colleague William Odell what became the HOK Guide to Sustainable Design, originally published in 2000. In those days, Mendler says, her work was motivated by a need to define sustainable design for the firm, since LEED wasn’t established and there were few guides for understanding the emerging green market. Mendler, a member of the USGBC’s national board of directors, currently spends most of her time leading project design, with only part of her job given to research and advocacy for sustainable issues. “I think a lot of people find themselves in the role of director of sustainable design out of their desire to raise the issue, but didn’t intend to find themselves not doing projects anymore,” Mendler says.
Although HOK, like Gensler and RNL, has multiple offices, its model for sustainable design practice is more like a network, with sustainable principals and directors in many offices, each with their own interests and focus. HOK’s sustainable network of architects includes those who don’t solely design, who can play a more supporting role on projects and help to guide the introduction of new technologies and materials into practice. This is true at many firms. At Gensler, Ritchie has recently developed what she calls a “swiki,” or a sustainability wiki, as a platform for sharing knowledge throughout the firm faster than preparing white papers or design guides. It’s also a way to keep the firm’s design knowledge on the cutting edge, as new technology and approaches can be added to the swiki. RNL has something similar with a green blog and a monthly internal e-mail blast focused on green products.
At HOK, the firm’s sustainable leaders now focus less on developing things like the materials database and more on creating an advanced understanding of sustainable design and its implications on a variety of the firm’s projects.
“I occasionally provide a peer review role, but I prefer not to do the sustainability consultant role,” Mendler says. “We’re focused on integrated design, and it’s important for the design team to address those goals.” She says lately a key piece of the practice’s work has been its support of postoccupancy evaluations of its own projects. “Based on the positive reaction from our clients, we are working to institutionalize this on each of our projects,” she says.
For firms where every project isn’t incorporating green strategies, sustainable design directors can take this long-haul approach—where the firm maintains an active role in a project from its inception and well into its occupancy—to both ensure consistency and also support the firm’s goals for true integrated design. An internal sustainability consultant, working hand-in-hand with design architects, sends a message to clients that the firm is committed to implementing its lofty green principles.
John Ware, AIA, thinks it’s difficult to play both the role of project architect and sustainability consultant, particularly on large projects. Ware joined Kansas City, Missouri–based 360 Architecture in September 2007 as the firm’s sustainability coordinator, having previously worked as an environmental consultant and as vice chair of the city’s volunteer Environmental Management Commission. “It’s an important distinction from a client’s point of view that a firm with in-house expertise can do green design as part of an integrated process,” Ware says, adding that it can be tough to achieve design integration with outside sustainability consultants. Although his plans at 360 include embedding sustainable design tactics into every aspect of the firm’s business, he doubts his job will become redundant any time soon.
McDonough’s Gould agrees that it’s unlikely that as green design becomes more mainstream this emerging role of the sustainability director would fade away, especially given that she finds architects, contractors, and particularly clients who still consider the sustainable design movement just another passing fad. However, she does note that the firms who are winning AIA/COTE awards and industry recognition tend to be firms that have sustainability embedded in their entire business strategy. Awards may not pay the bills—and Brad Pitt has yet to win an Academy Award—but as the market for green buildings expands, the need for sustainability gurus will follow.