Greening your design culture to gain a competitive edge
According to Batshalom, most firms that have already begun greening themselves have still not internalized the “all-green-all-the-time” philosophy she espouses. “They’re getting their staff LEED accredited,” she says, “but they don’t understand the management ramifications or the internal commitment they need to make as company in order to do it efficiently and cost-effectively.”
The 80-person Portland, Oregon, firm SERA is approaching the “all-green-all-the-time” goal. About 80 percent of its projects are now aimed at LEED certification. In addition to working with mechanical engineers early in design, the firm has hired one to work in-house. According to SERA associate principal Clark Brockman, AIA, its staff engineer conducts energy modeling well before working with consultants. “She provides guidance early on, when things are happening fast and furious,” Brockman explains, “when designer and client are trying to figure out whether the building makes financial sense, before sustainable design is typically a driver.” He notes that beginning with constraints such as building orientation and optimum glazing area is much more effective than inserting these ideas later in design.
As part of practice-greening, Brockman encourages architects to get involved in public policy work. He advises at the city, county, state, and federal levels and marvels at the effect of progressive policies on green building. In Portland, incentive programs pay for the “soft costs” — LEED paperwork, energy modeling, building commissioning — making clients more enthusiastic and making it one of the greenest cities in the country. Brockman also advises firms to sign on to the Architecture 2030 Challenge. “The design profession has the ability to change U.S. energy use more quickly, on a greater scale, than almost any other sector. I don’t think a lot of the profession knows it yet.”
Brockman also believes it’s useful to get involved with local chapters of the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) and of the U.S. Green Building Council. This involvement can teach architects how to talk about sustainability issues for various audiences. “It’s very different trying to sell a green building to a university and a developer,” he notes. “Learning how to make the case for both kinds of client is really valuable.”
Some of the skills needed in building green are ones that few learn in architecture school. Brockman jokes: “I can’t believe how much time I spend, as an architect, talking about finance and chemistry. Firms need to understand all the workings of how buildings are built, financed, and developed, in order to make the case for green building.” They should also understand the chemical composition of materials and their impact on people, as well as other characteristics such as their source, embedded energy, and recyclability. Brockman adds, “We went through architecture school assuming we didn’t have to take finance or chemistry. But understanding both is now a priority.”
In 2006, SERA completed a LEED-Gold remodel of its own offices. The firm introduced daylighting, nontoxic materials, energy-efficient windows, and mechanical systems. It encouraged employees to find transportation alternatives and collectively altered its attitude to energy and resources. This change of firm culture, Brockman says, is spilling over into design practice. “If we’re going to ask our clients to do more with less,” he says, “we need to show them we’re doing the same.” SERA’s reputation as a green design firm has attracted clients seeking more sustainable alternatives. For firms just beginning to green their practice, Brockman suggests getting their own house in order is a good first step.
Is an economic downturn an appropriate time to worry about process changes and office remodels? Why not? If your workload is light, what better time to change some light bulbs?