A Systematic Approach to Sustainability

Nov. 2, 2006
To ensure a formalized best-practices approach to sustainability, building professionals should follow 10 “big-picture” zones

Although green design begins with a decision to build, modernize, or upgrade, forward-thinking organizations have begun to embrace sustainability as a comprehensive, integrated business practice that involves collaboration, innovation, and a course of action. "There's no denying that green design has become a powerful cultural issue in a fairly short period of time," concedes James P. Cramer, chairman and principal at The Greenway Group Inc. (www.greenway.us), Norcross, GA. "But, many [professionals] have been talking about sustainability for over 4 decades."

Cramer believes that the industry still considers the concept as more of a label than a discipline; as a result, he is resolute in his desire to promote more formalized environmental-initiative methodologies to his industry peers - practitioners in building design, development, and ongoing management. He founded the Design Futures Council leadership network, a sought-after source for practical, tangible, leading-edge design management strategies, including a systematic approach to better business plans it calls the "zones of best practices." In transforming best practices into a competitive advantage, Cramer and his think-tank colleagues are challenging traditional design management models with a new leadership posture - one that integrates green and sustainable design and development with all dimensions of design excellence. In a recent interview with Buildings magazine, he applies the formalized best-practices approach to the topic of sustainability, defining 10 "big-picture" zones.

1. Challenging processes; continuing improvements.
"When we think about continuous improvement, we're talking about raising the bar on performance. What was once considered the best-of-class, gold standard of going green is being reinvented. If you look at HOK and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, they're talking about zero-energy buildings that harness the use of wind, solar, and fuel cells. Fuel cells, which are becoming more cost efficient, are now using nanotechnology, so it's possible to create a building that will produce more energy than it consumes. Although techniques such as biomimicry (the application of methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology), for example, are still in their infancy, there is a coming together of engineering and design and the pragmatic use of natural resources. This is the language that architects are speaking and, increasingly, it's the language that contractors and developers are also speaking.

"So, we look at continuous improvement as something that presents a more hopeful future. Within organizations, it means that people are constantly learning about new methods and materials to create a more sustainable environment. We work with many developers and building owners, ranging from the [General Services Administration] to private entities, and they are all looking at life-cycle: What are the costs of the life-cycle and what is the return on investment? The thing to keep in mind is that the professionals in the construction industry, especially building owners, need to look at a proposed new building and answer the question,...“Does this benefit future generations?' However, does it also serve short-term needs? Can we develop a building for today's occupants and owners without limiting the possibilities of future users?"

2. Vision clarity; the ability to inspire others.
"We have those issues. Are we being good ancestors? That's No. 1. And, No. 2 is efficient life-cycle design. Because just like people change, buildings change. Equipment wears out and needs to be replaced; furniture and finishes need to be refreshed and renovated. When we think of life-cycle design, we create new ways of providing services and new value propositions for everyone in our industry. This is what makes for better buildings.

"Often, clients want to pay for green and sustainable design because they understand that they're: 1) taking better care of buildings, so it's a smart investment, and 2) taking care of the environment, so that's a smart investment. It may cost them less-far less-than neglect. As a result, more and more facilities managers, owners, and others in our industry - the whole team, really - is talking about life-cycle design in much smarter ways. So, we need to be thinking in terms of recycling every building - not only how much it costs to put a building up, but what it costs to take it down. These are some of the things that smart building owners are asking today; frankly, some of these building owners are ahead of their architects, and we need to learn from each other.

"With everything in flux, we need a direction - a vision of a better way of doing things. This may really inspire people, or it may threaten people, because a new vision begs the question, 'What's wrong with what I'm doing right now?'"

3. Systematic priority planning; enabling others to succeed.
"Zone 3] is a continuation of the theme. Systematic priority planning is to set things up so everybody understands what matters most. It's good project management and it requires digital processes. What we're doing is systemizing so that we do not constantly need to reinvent things from scratch.

"You would think project management would be a core competency of many organizations, but, in fact, great project management is rare. The reason it's rare is that processes haven't been put into place; people are working in the project rather than on the project. When you work on a project, you are able to orchestrate the pieces to put the system together. Once the system gets put together, a flywheel effect takes over.

"Architects used to create drawings; now they're creating models. As such, sustainable design is becoming more possible because of building information modeling (BIM). Here, an integrated database - which not only describes the design attributes of a building, but incorporates all kinds of [engineering-system] data and costs - is assembled in a model in various ways. The result is a much richer language than drawing, this language of models, with artificial intelligence embedded into it. We will be able to find more efficient ways because of BIM; building owners will benefit dramatically. Some building owners are requiring BIM, but they're still the minority. However, BIM technology is a revolution, and there are going to be leaders and laggards in that revolution."

4. Role model; stature in the field.
"Every organization has a brand, and successful organizations understand and use the power of the brand. So, these role models - leaders (companies and associations) - are those that are confident about where they're going with green and sustainable design. They know why they're doing it and they have found ways to differentiate themselves in their product (what their buildings look like and how they present them to their users). They also understand that sustainable and green buildings have a unique value proposition.

"This all leads [to the conclusion that] buildings really make brands. And, the authority and success of a product - or building - creates great organizations, which become the role models."

5. Boosting morale, especially during times of stress.
"We encourage successful people to avoid cynicism; it's kind of a disease and it's counter-productive. This is not blind optimism - rather, it's strategic optimism. Building owners respond to confidence. They want to deal with professionals on these environmental issues who are knowledgeable, creative, and have expertise in their building type. We should expect to achieve success in green and sustainable design."

6. Building financial resource strength.
"When we think about financial success, we're saying that all buildings - like all products - need a business plan. We live in a complex time, so we're looking for buildings to provide experiences ... that make people want to use them. The experience of a building plays a major factor in the financial success of the business plan. Today, part of the experience of a building - an office, library, or restaurant - is green and sustainable design.

"When people walk through a building, what is the emotional content of that building? What is its efficiency? What does it contribute to the environment? What is its productivity? The experience of retail, for example, is driving higher sales. In a hospital, the design experience can help in the healing process. Every individual's experience with a building will create a return on investment; people will pay for that experience. Look at what people are paying at Starbucks, for instance."

7. Communication at exemplary levels.
"The quality of communications is the quality of life. There are internal communications and external communications. How do building owners create value for their occupants? How do they create a platform that communicates value? When you communicate value, is it high-definition or not? Sometimes we think we're communicating, but we're really not because it's not clearly defined.

"Building owners are in the communications business, and everything hinges on how well they're communicating. Of course, it goes without saying that it also depends on how well they're listening."

8. A collaborative spirit; enriching people and organizations.
"As it relates to green and sustainable design, you can be much more effective if you leverage a team. So many people talk about collaboration, but so few are really committed to it. Collaboration isn't easy, but it can move mountains when all participants of a team pull together in the same direction."

9. Steady and strong, without alienating egotistic pride.
"Here, we're talking about leadership. Richard Farson, a colleague of mine at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, says, “There are no leaders; there is only leadership.' Titles mean nothing; a leader's strength is determined by the number of people following. Unfortunately, for our industry, we have a shortage.

"That's one of the reasons that green and sustainable design have not been as successful to date as they otherwise might have been."

10. Applied brilliance; building rapport, respect, and admiration.
"Increasingly, we have a world of haves and have-nots. When I was born in 1947, there were 2 billion people on the planet; today, we have 6.5 billion inhabitants and over 2 billion who do not have electricity or clean drinking water. If we don't want to move forward into a world of population chaos, we need to find ways to create policies that can create wise use of our planet's resources.

"That's a pretty tall order, but building owners should see themselves in this picture. Once they understand the importance of shelter and wise stewardship of our resources, they will recognize it's not just about building buildings, but it's about making the world a better place.

"There are better ways of doing things. Best practices are about preparing for what's next. Green and sustainable design are tremendously relevant."

Linda K. Monroe ([email protected]) is editorial director at Buildings magazine.

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