Architecture in Turbulent Times: Spotlight on sustainability

Sessions on the Framework for Design Excellence, and making the case to clients, covered sustainability from all angles.

AIA’s learning event, “Architecture in Turbulent Times,” featured a number of engaging and informative sessions on sustainability. Two of the on-demand sessions, “Framework for Design Excellence: A Reintroduction” and “Talking with Clients about Urgent Climate Action,” are representative – covering this critical issue from every angle: firms of all sizes, projects of all types and budgets, and stakeholders from all sides of the table: developers, consultants, architects, and academia.  

In “Framework for Design Excellence: A Reintroduction,” presenters walked participants through AIA’s journey to advance sustainable design and climate action. From the 2019 adoption of a member-led resolution in support of urgent climate action, to the finalization of the Climate Action Plan earlier this year, to Framework revisions approved in June, it’s been a period of accelerated and sustained action befitting the urgency of the climate challenge.

Using the Framework for Design Excellence

The Framework for Design Excellence is a key resource to guide architects in pursuing a built environment that is zero-carbon, equitable, resilient, and healthy. To help achieve those four primary outcomes, the Framework defines design strategies across 10 principles, formerly known as the COTE Top Ten.

Within the toolkit, each of the 10 principles has its own page that features:

  • best practices
  • high impact strategies
  • curated web resources
  • case studies that exemplify each value statement

With information tailored to meet firms wherever they are in their sustainability capacity, the Framework is intended to be accessible and relevant for every architect, every client, and every project – regardless of size, typology, or aspiration.

The four panelists prove that point –sharing their experiences implementing the Framework in small, medium, and large firms.

Large firms

Margaret Montgomery, FAIA, is principal and sustainable design leader at NBBJ – a firm with 12 global offices that reported 48 million square feet in its most recent 2030 Commitment reporting.

“Our work not only stands right now, but it’s shaping the environment for coming generations,” she says. Even in her large, international firm, Montgomery emphasizes, “We don’t have all the answers; it’s a continual growth curve.”

NBBJ uses several strategies to achieve progress – with the Framework as an indispensable tool to keep the “holistic spectrum” in mind. Montgomery cited the firm’s recent work on an electric substation that embodies not just the Framework’s principles on energy but also features a community center, dog park, and public art.

Montgomery advocates participating in the 2030 Commitment, stressing how important it is to “have this data in your hands” to help “identify where you are and where you need to improve toward that zero-carbon future.”

NBBJ uses the Framework and the 2030 Commitment to redefine success in its annual review of work. Ensuring sustainability is integrated into “every project, every team, every day,” the yearly review reports 2030 status, energy use intensity (EUI) and incorporation of at least one Framework principle for each of the firm’s 300 projects.

Medium firms

At San Francisco’s Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, the firm’s 35 architects and designers are “united around the idea that architecture can lead the way to a just, healthy and regenerative future.”

Founding Principal Marsha Maytum, FAIA, shares that the Framework is “immersed and embedded” throughout all phases of the design process for every project.

“It’s a great organizational tool, and it’s also an incredible communication tool,” Maytum says. “It can provide clear goals and strategies and a way to measure and check in not only with your internal teams but also with your consultants and clients.”

In the Leddy Maytum Stacy offices, a poster is displayed tracking every project’s EUI – fostering visibility, transparency, and “healthy competition.” Although colleagues are working from home through the pandemic, this practice represents the firm’s commitment to “measuring what we say we value.”

The firm’s work encompasses a diverse range of project types, including affordable housing projects. Even with tight budgets and site restrictions, the firm still manages to prioritize sustainability measures – achieving GreenPoints Platinum status and 54 percent reduction in energy use for Rene Cazenave Apartments. This AIA Cote Top Ten award-winning project provides supportive housing for the formerly homeless – integrating sustainability while creating quality housing.

Small firms

Mathison/Mathison Architects is growing. But Megan Feenstra Wall, AIA, can still remember when the Grand Rapids firm worked out of an office over the founder’s garage.

Recognizing “the joys and challenges” of small firms and sole proprietors – who must manage everything from bringing in business to keeping paper in the copier – Wall sympathizes with the idea that prioritizing sustainability can seem like an insurmountable challenge. “When you already wear so many hats, how can you add one more?” she posits. “How do you compete with firms who have a sustainability director or an entire sustainability team?”

That’s where the unique attributes of small firms come in. For starters, small firms can be “quick on their feet,” and the Framework can help: “It’s already there, with a toolkit to back it up.”

Wall has advice for using the Framework: “As a document, it’s not limiting. It’s rather freeing, and it fits with the design process. If this is a new document to you, I would recommend just pulling it out for one project and see what happens. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

She encourages small firms to “start where you are” and pursue “progressive improvement, not postponed perfection.”

Small firms can have “big relationships” – bonding with influential clients as neighbors and fellow small business owners. Any given project may have a small sustainability impact in itself, but when clients are decision-makers in their communities, and they understand the value that’s been added, the community influence can expand well beyond one project.

Referring to a recent residential project that used window coatings and overhangs to achieve energy savings while meeting the client’s aesthetic demands, Wall says: “What client doesn’t want to hear you tell them that you’ve captured key views, and you’re harvesting free daylight, or free warmth or prevailing breezes?”

Pedagogy and practice

In addition to his role as a co-founder of Atlanta’s SHAPE (Studio H Architecture Planning Environments), Herman Howard, NOMA, shapes the next generation of architects as an instructor at Georgia Tech.

His students are engaged in exciting, real-world work that puts Framework principles into action – including a project in Atlanta’s Vine City area, where Martin Luther King Jr. lived and led some of his final marches.

With a topography prone to several floods per year, the challenges are both ecological and economical. Working with the city and community, the Vine City project aims to devise an aesthetically pleasing system to capture and store 30 million gallons of rain and flood water, while enhancing quality of life for surrounding neighborhoods by creating a functional park and other green spaces, enhancing walkability, and bringing opportunities for urban agriculture to this food desert.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to bring sustainability to the urban fabric,” Howard says. “How can you really work with what’s there? It’s a term known as ‘everyday urbanism’ -- giving people the chance to walk, to communicate with their neighbors, and also take advantage of the rich history that’s a part of their area.”

In addition to Georgia Tech, the project includes contributions from Atlanta University Center Consortium, which encompasses the largest concentration of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) students in the nation.

“I don’t think there’s any student now who isn’t thinking how about how to create healthy, safe, sustainable environments and buildings,” Howard says. “Now is a great time to have these conversations in the academic world.”

Talking with Clients about Urgent Climate Action

Even with all the training, resources and good intentions in the world, architects can’t implement sustainable practices alone. That’s the recognition behind another dynamic session, “Talking with Clients about Urgent Climate Action.”

In adopting the climate action resolution in 2019, architects acknowledged that the built environment contributes almost 40 percent of carbon emissions and “took responsibility” for the issue, says Betsy del Monte, FAIA. “We have made it our goal to do better, but we can’t do it by ourselves,” del Monte said. “We must have our clients as partners.”

The client’s perspective

As a principal at Trammell Crow, one of biggest commercial developers in the nation, panelist Adam Weers provided invaluable insight to the client perspective. A nationwide firm that develops industrial and health care projects – as well as mixed-use residential, retail, and office projects – Trammell Crow does not have a company policy on climate action.

As a for-profit company, Weers acknowledges that the bottom line is always part of the conversation. “If we do projects that perform better over the long term, maybe there’s an economic impact, but it’s hard to tell,” Weers explains. He speculates that the company’s work in sprawl-reducing infill and mixed-use projects produces sustainability benefits, but “the direct cause and effect is hard to determine.”

The influence of capital partners who fund the projects is paramount, Weers says, along with local government requirements and the interests of the clients and tenants who will ultimately occupy the building. What architects can bring to the table is a collaborative conversation about the effects of climate change and the benefits of climate action. “Help me influence the other people whose opinions on this matter, often more than mine,” Weers advises. “If there is a cost on the one hand and a potential benefit on the other, capital partners are going to get fixated on the cost.”

Making your pitch

In an enlightening portion of the session, del Monte engaged Weers in role-playing conversations that demonstrated these concepts in action. A pitch centering on green design as a marketing tool got a lukewarm response, while pitching around the idea of green buildings as investments that grow in value over time fared slightly better. It was when del Monte appealed to the motivations of capital partners, and offered to organize a meeting bringing potential investors to the table, that Weer’s interest was piqued.

In this hypothetical pitch, del Monte pointed out that potential investors like financial institutions and pension plans often have internal social responsibility goals, and they might not realize how much real estate investments in green buildings and sustainable design can contribute toward meeting those goals. Would a developer like Weer be interested in meeting with these potential investors to discuss the value of sustainable architecture to meeting everyone’s goals?

“Yes, I am always eager to meet more people who invest in real estate and help me do what I do,” responded Weers. “That’s a meeting I’d want to be at.”

Putting it all together

Such a discovery-driven client development approach may take more research and planning on the front end, but Kelly Fehr, principal consultant at Cameron McAllister Group, breaks the process down into a five-part model:

  • Vision – Know where you’re going, discover what clients care about, then build on shared interests.
  • Focus – You don’t have infinite time and resources, so choose a limited number of clients with whom you share a vision, in order to cultivate a deep understanding of their interests.
  • Friends – Develop a network that adds value to the work you deliver with target clients.
  • Action – Proactively think of ways to grow closer and more trusted relationships with clients. For example, the winning pitch in the role-playing exercise harnessed the client’s interests to further relationship building, not just an individual project.
  • Huddle – Come together inside your firm and, working as a team, share knowledge about clients. Then put it all together.

In addition to sharing your own knowledge, investing the time to reach a greater understanding of the client’s interests is especially effective. “Let's say that my firm is very community-oriented, and we’re really trying to understand how we can make a difference not just within the building but within a whole neighborhood,” explains Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA. “Looking for where those community interests might align with the client's community drivers and bring benefit to both our firm and the client” can help find alignment.

Weers points out that much of the information you need to have a successful conversation with developers is publicly available through resources like press releases that development companies issue about projects.

“Coming to a conversation with knowledge that shows you understand my world, know about the project, and know who my capital partners are – that’s impactful,” Weers concludes. “You can use that same information to think strategically toward the next level: who my capital partners are not yet, and who I might be interested in talking to. Bringing that information to the table is a really compelling thing.”

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