Sustainability takes root

Green design grows, thanks to guidelines and stewardship of governments and owners

April 01, 2001 |

The word sustainability is popping up on building projects like weeds on a roof garden. All over the industry, projects are being painted some shade of green-much of that "green wash," however, threatens to render the words meaningless, according to sustainability professionals. But beneath the green lies a movement that may be more than a trend.

The movement is battling the perception that sustainability is expensive to implement, which experts say can be the case if life-cycle cost and sustainable elements are not factored and designed into projects early on. Yet, with businesses seeking to make sustainability part of their corporate philosophies, developers and owners, looking for effective marketing strategies, are turning to sustainable design to increase sales and pump up rents.

Faced with a tight labor market, sustainability is one way for companies to attract and retain employees. Studies show that sustainable workplace design can boost worker health and productivity. Increased energy efficiency and reduced operating costs are green byproducts that can help put a company in the black. Tax-incentive programs are being extended to businesses that build green. Governments and institutions are adding credibility to the movement by adopting sustainable guidelines.

New direction, long time coming

It is well known that Americans consume more energy and natural resources than do any other people on the planet, an effect made possible by the free-market, frontier economy and abundant natural resources of the United States. Now, however, the energy crisis affecting the West Coast and other parts of the country and water shortages in the Midwest are shining an energy-efficient spotlight on sustainability. "The '70s energy crisis certainly awakened us to the fact that we must better consider a building's operational energy-what a building consumes," says Todd Willmert, a sustainable architect with Minneapolis-based Ellerbe Becket. "But in the last decade, we have seen greater awareness of embodied energy-considering the energy used to extract, process and transport building materials."

"It's sad to say that an energy crisis is helping to propel energy conservation once again," says Christine Ervin, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). "The difference now is that instead of just making a building tight, it's being coupled with health and aesthetic benefits."

"The energy-efficient aspects of sustainability have to become that important to our society, and they will," says Lawrence Scarpa, a principal of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Pugh Scarpa Kodama Architecture, whose latest sustainable project is the Colorado Court affordable housing project for the city of Santa Monica. "But I'm a firm believer that Americans are fatalistic. Until it's an epidemic, it's not a problem."

Pressing environmental issues such as global warming also are calls to action. William Odell, sustainable design director for St. Louis-based Hellmuth Obata + Kasabaum (HOK), says sustainable design will be the norm in five to 10 years. "We really don't have a choice," he says, "and more and more people are realizing that, whether or not they use the word 'sustainable.'"

"It's time to develop strategies that are much more positive instead of negative," adds William McDonough, principal of William McDonough + Partners, Charlottesville, Va., considered the nation's foremost authority on sustainable design. "The exciting part about a sustainable agenda versus a green agenda is that a sustainable agenda is much richer. It involves culture, art, economics-the quality of life. This idea that we celebrate in the abundance of the world rather than simply bemoan its limits is galvanizing people to enjoy the prospect instead of simply feeling guilty and saying, 'I have to be less bad today.' It's a new direction that's been a long time in coming."

The movement's shakers

The evolution of sustainable design is reflected in its stewards, which today include more building owners and more government bodies. What is amazing to Odell is the variety of groups that have asked HOK to speak to them about sustainable issues. An added testament to the popularity of this mindset is the number of first-time clients in HOK's sustainable stable.

Karl Stumpf, associate vice president with RTKL Associates' Washington, D.C. office, and the firm's director of preservation, is involved in the sustainable modernization of three historic buildings that comprise Washington, D.C.'s Federal Triangle. When completed, the buildings will become the new headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "When I first got involved in the USGBC six years ago," says Stumpf, "the product manufacturers were actually leading the way. They were out in front in making their projects sustainable. Now it's the building developers and owners pushing it. Frankly, it's never been the design community; it's just trying to keep up."

Architects are trying to keep up with the increase in business related to sustainable design. "We used to deal with developers-early adopters who wanted to do the right thing. Now we're getting a large number of calls from architects going after projects that require a sustainability consultant on their team," says Huston Eubank, a senior consultant and research associate with Green Development Services, a sustainable design consulting firm affiliated with the Snowmass, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain Institute, an organization that fosters the efficient and restorative use of resources.

"Word is getting out that green buildings are feasible to do," says USGBC's Ervin, who prior to joining the council was the assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy in the Clinton administration. "Years ago, the feeling was that green buildings were OK for environmental companies, but that they cost money. As more case studies are developed, more interest is being attracted, like ripples on a pond."

More of these ripples of interest are being made by the private sector. A major example of corporate America's embrace of sustainability is the Ford Motor Co.'s restoration and expansion of its historic Rouge Center in Dearborn, Mich. The plan involves the environmental revitalization of the brownfield site using sustainable principles. "What Ford is doing is declaring itself native to Dearborn," says McDonough, whose firm is the sustainable design consultant on the project. "One of the ways you show this is to honor the place by healing it, making it healthy and fecund and returning it to the native condition."

LEED brings focus

While energy and water crises speed acceptance and adoption of sustainable design, much credit is being given to the USGBC for more clearly defining the concept. Through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program's "Green Building Rating System," the council is providing a blueprint for owners, designers and builders. "We provide tools to make sustainability as an integrated process easier to achieve," says Peter Templeton, LEED program manager.

Rapid growth of the USGBC's membership is further proof of widespread interest in green-building design. The council's membership more than doubled from 1999 to 2000, to more than 300 organizations. Last year, the council presented its first 12 LEED-certified projects (see "Lean and green," November 2000, page 47). Sixty-two projects are now in the pipeline awaiting certification in a revised version of the rating system.

The General Services Administration and EPA have adopted the LEED standards. Municipal governments such as Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Santa Monica, Calif.; and Austin, Texas, also are adopting the standards, as are many educational institutions (see "Seattle to strengthen its sustainable agenda," at left, and "Living machine," page 30).

"The guideline focuses on sustainability in a holistic fashion," says Scarpa. "It's terrific."

"LEED is an easily accessible, easily understood process that people can follow to get them started," says Odell. But, he says, the LEED rating system is reaching far beyond the 62 projects in the pipeline. "That's a misleading figure because we've used [the rating system] on 100 to 130 projects, but we have only one project that is certified; almost all of them could be."

McDonough supports the LEED system, but thinks the program's standards should be considered the minimum in sustainability goals. "LEED is great for those that need the guidance," he says, "but we like to try a thing we call 'innovation.' Sustainability is just the edge between destruction and regeneration. If it's a kind of maintenance, who cares."

The evolution of sustainability from a fringe trend to a mainstream design principle has its challenges. Experts say communication and education are needed to spread the message that change is necessary and that sustainability can be performed affordably and in an integrated fashion. Perhaps most important, experts cite the need for legislative and regulatory changes. Laws often hinder the use of green products on projects or prevent buildings from realizing their environmental potential.

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