Slumps in the construction economy are good times for firms to rethink many things, including the philosophies that underlie their design work and the way they collaborate with consultants. One strategy that potentially accomplishes all of these things, according to consultant Barbra Batshalom, executive director of the Boston-based Green Roundtable, is to “green” your practice. Many U.S. firms are already encouraging staff to earn LEED certification and research sustainable materials, but she believes this is not enough. Truly greening your firm requires a substantial restructuring of firm culture and design processes.

Greening your design culture
Illustration ' Edel Rodriguez
The economic slump may allow your firm the time it needs to rethink its green design culture, and to gain a competitive edge in the process.

High-performance buildings are not simply a collection of new materials and equipment plugged into conventional shells. Rather, they require attention to sustainable goals during programming, siting, and massing design. This means inviting mechanical engineers to collaborate from the outset. If they get involved in design early, they can provide data that informs shell design, for instance. If a curtain wall responds well to sun and wind, the building can rely more on natural energy, and the mechanical equipment can be smaller. But such opportunities for sustainability are lost if the engineer sizes cooling units based on the assumption that the building’s skin will be conventionally, and therefore poorly, designed. This may be the hardest part of greening your firm, Batshalom says. “It’s easier to figure out how to make your internal standards or your specifications LEED-compatible, but to change the process of design and your relationship with your mechanical engineer takes a lot longer.”

In a program she dubs “Green Design Boot Camp,” Batshalom guides firms through a process of restructuring. She believes that in successfully integrating green design — product and process — firms can achieve business performance and quality that are not thought of as related to green, including profitability and internal process efficiency. “These traditional business goals are a priority for any architecture firm and also relate specifically to producing healthy, high-performing and cost-effective buildings,” she says. These goals, along with a better-educated staff and better relationships with clients and consultants, all weave together in a framework created when green becomes fundamental and not just a design add-on.

Some firms still avoid sustainable design because they believe it is a time-consuming profit drain. But the opposite can be true, Batshalom argues, if the firm recognizes that a lot of design effort needs to be “front-loaded.” Preliminary decisions made collaboratively with engineers can save time later in design — in reducing change orders, for instance. Staff time can be saved through process efficiencies that come with integrated design. Green-construction costs, often perceived as a barrier for clients, can also be at or below conventional construction costs. “The money you’re saving by right-sizing your mechanical equipment,” she points out, “can be put into finish materials if the contract is structured properly.” And if life-cycle and future energy costs are factored in, sustainable design can be vastly less expensive for building owners.

Firms that develop reputations for such buildings will have a market advantage during hard times and be able to draw in new clients. Many clients today, Batshalom argues, still perceive that firms offer more “greenwash” than true ability, so she advises her architect-clients to base their marketing on a solid foundation of metrics and performance data for greater credibility in a competitive market. For instance, a firm can expand its scope of services to include carbon-footprint analysis, green operations, and maintenance plans.