DLR Group and 2030 Commitment: An evolving approach to sustainability

Canyon View High School

Canyon View High School, Arizona is designed to achieve a predicted energy use intensity of 22 kBtu/sf/yr for a construction cost premium of 1% - it exceeds the 2030 challenge at 78% reduction over an average high school in AZ.

DLR Group has spent the last decade making sustainable design—and AIA's 2030 Commitment in particular—part of its firm DNA. While some practices had long been a part of the firm’s scope (such as solar projects going back to the 1970s), in the mid-2000s the firm’s leadership accelerated efforts to make sustainability a consistent priority across the firm. From early support of widespread LEED certification to joining the 2030 Commitment as an initial signatory and developing a sustainability action plan in 2009, DLR Group increasingly elevated sustainability in its planning and vision for the firm.

As the firm has continued to expand—from 460 people in 2006 to 1170 today, in 27 locations across 10 market sectors worldwide—there is a “constant regrowing of our culture,” according to Prem Sundharam, the global sustainability leader who has helped grow that culture since joining the firm in 2004.

In recent years, DLR Group has worked to “jump-start” its sustainable practices, which includes enhancing its leadership in environmental stewardship, and treating the 2030 goals as not a target, but a baseline. To get there, culture is key. Efforts underway include training more than a hundred 2030 Champions, assigning one of those champions to each project as a point person for energy reduction, and establishing a Performance Design team of 15 full-time employees, who look at all aspects of building performance, including human productivity. The firm has developed a beta version of an electronic 2030 Scoreboard, incorporating data from AIA’s 2030 Design Data Exchange (DDx) with internal metrics, and is currently gathering input from teams across the firm to make the Scoreboard an effective platform for communication and visualization of the 2030 Commitment.

installation of a 2030 Scoreboard in the DLR Group Phoenix office. Similar installations are underway across the firm.

Sundharam says that the top three things other firms who are looking to make 2030 and sustainability part of their culture are: process, people, and technology.

  • Process: It starts with encouraging leadership to ask the questions, how close are we to the 2030 Commitment, and what are we doing to get there? The 2030 Commitment is integrated into everyday work by linking it to quality control processes, documents and even software, such as the DLR Group’s project management program. For projects over a certain threshold, DLR Group has also started allocating a small, set percentage of fees to performance modeling as part of the process and not an optional service. Reporting data into the DDx is a built-in component of the design workflow. And even when a client does not prioritize energy savings, DLR Group works to come up with a suite of options of carbon neutrality to offer the client—even if only a handful are implemented, it’s still a start.
  • People: By assigning 2030 Champions to every project, DLR Group has ensured that the Commitment is consistently linked to practice. The Champions serve as the go-to person on energy savings for a given project, and as a resource for other colleagues. In one case, the 2030 Champion for a new hotel project in Arizona searched the database to find a high-performance hotel project in the same climate zone that had met the 2030 target without using any renewable energy technologies. The 2030 Champion connected with their counterpart on the completed project, who shared strategies to enhance the design of the Arizona hotel.
  • Technology: While the processes and people are the most important part of the equation, technology is still needed to get the job done. DLR Group works to support two main types of tools: those for experts, whose main focus is performance modeling, and those for everyone else, ensuring that their design process incorporates some level of feedback on performance.

As an early supporter of the 2030 Challenge and an initial signatory of the 2030 Commitment, DLR Group’s sustainability efforts have evolved alongside the complementary programs. From early education initiatives in 2007—a “global teach-in” on the 2030 Challenge broadcast to all its offices—to the enshrinement of 2030 Commitment targets in the firm’s last few five-year vision statements, DLR Group has made 2030 a pillar of firm culture. DLR Group has done so with the understanding that its focus is good for the environment and good for business.

“Performance design is a when, not an if. You’re either going to do it, and well, or you’re going to go out of business,” Sundharam says. “Energy codes will continue to change and energy modeling is going to become part of what we do—you can embrace it before it happens, or wait in line after it happens.”

Melissa Smith Nilles is an account director at Fifth Estate, a communications firm in Washington, DC.

Image credits

Canyon View High School

DLR Group

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