Design Leadership and the Environment

June 25, 2010 · by James P. Cramer and Jane Gaboury

These are tough times for the environment. The old solutions don’t work any longer, and there are no simple answers.

Can anything constructive arise from the worst oil disaster in American history? If nothing else, the loosing of hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico has forced us to consider our collective and individual energy appetite. The BP spill will continue to engender finger pointing, litigation, and bad publicity that will stretch on for years, and there will surely be enough blame to mete out to any number of parties in this ecological debacle.

The event was not a wild card phenomenon. Attendees of previous Leadership Summits on Sustainable Design know that an offshore drilling disaster had been forecast and feared well in advance of this tragedy. Dire predictions have also been made several times at the think tank sessions of the Design Futures Council and from people of both conservative and liberal ideologies. We recognize now, soberly, that there has been a lack of will by leaders and regulators without a comprehensive agreement on environmental impact of deep-sea fossil fuel exploration.

Architects and designers can’t completely duck the fact that in a free market that exalts and rewards feeding the whims of the masses, we are each playing a part in consumer demand for plentiful and cheap fossil fuel. And thanks to the April 20 drilling rig explosion that killed 11 crew members and led to the massive oil leak, we are forced to confront some of the very real effects of our gluttonous, addictive behavior. The ramifications are no longer out of sight. They are bobbing in the Gulf, washing up on the beach, and killing the wildlife.

What continues to remain out of sight to most Americans are the voracious needs of our constructed environment. Our buildings account for 39 percent of the country’s total energy use, 12 percent of total water consumption, and 68 percent of total electricity consumption. [Editor's note: See a clarification in our blog.] This results in buildings being responsible for 38 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions. None of this data is news to the architectural community, which has articulated the green call to arms espoused by the U.S. Green Building Council, Architecture 2030, and the Design Futures Council, among others. But the outcries and new intellectual properties of environmental visionaries, designers, engineers, and scientists have not brought change fast enough. Denial and resistance — if not immunity to change — have slowed commitments to think and then build safer, better, and more sustainably.

We wonder anew, why drill for oil and dig for coal when you can conserve more and then harness clean and renewable energy sources? The potential of solar, wind, sea surface tension, biomass, and geothermal needs to be acted upon. Until we are successful in curbing our thirst for oil, we’ll have a long and tortuous journey. For yet ahead are even more forecasts of fossil fuel’s negative consequences.

These are tough times for the environment. The old solutions don’t work any longer, and there are no simple answers. Deep-water drilling has proved to be a short-term solution and a dangerous one as well.

Sustainable Design Survey

The current research from Design­Intelligence, our 2010 Sustainable Design Survey, tabulates the responses of 240 architecture and design firm leaders. It shows that within the surveyed firms, an average of 36 percent of the overall staff holds certification or other credentialing that recognizes their sustainable design knowledge. Think about that for a moment: more than a third of all staff — not just architects and designers. That proportion was nearly zero less than 10 years ago. We see this as a positive response to market demand. Even though the general public may be slow to understand the voracious appetite of buildings, owners are realizing that there are opportunities here, and this, combined with the voice of the design community, is driving needed change.

It is a conundrum of sorts that only 54 percent of survey respondents are satisfied or very satisfied with their own firm’s progress in achieving higher levels of green and sustainable design. And what about the 20 percent of survey respondents who are unsatisfied with their own firm’s progress? Here we find some of the true leadership organizations in sustainable design that will never be satisfied that they are doing enough.

Forty-three percent report being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with U.S. policies promoting the effective use of energy and the advancement of sustainability. No wonder. It’s frustrating for those who have worked hard, exerted personal energy, and become leading voices in the green movement to look over their shoulders and wait for the rest of the pack to catch up.

Respondents to our survey remind us that we need a new tool kit with new ideas and especially new commitments. Only 64 percent of leaders in architecture, engineering, and design indicate that half or more of their firm’s body of work could be considered environmentally responsible, with 39 percent of the work meeting or exceeding LEED Silver or equivalent levels (regardless of whether or not it’s enrolled as such).

Many firms have worked long and hard to get to where we are today, but the 2010 survey results remind us how far we have to go.

Moreover, all this greenery comes at a price, respondents tell us: Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) believe there is an added cost to designing sustainable projects. And of those who believe that’s true, they estimate an average cost difference of 11 percent more than traditional projects. This is up from last year’s projection of a 10 percent premium. Firms are measuring like they mean it, and some firms are finding innovative ways of bringing solution costs down further. This is a recipe for winning in the challenging situations we find ourselves in.

And what of the associations, non-profits, and other organizations that are forwarding the green design and construction movement? Survey takers cited the U.S. Green Building Council, the American Institute of Architects, Architecture 2030, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers as being the most effective. In a separate question, respondents admitted a lack of knowledge with regard to how well most other organizations are faring in their leadership and resource deployment to move sustainability issues. This says to us that not only do associations need to work better together, but they need to find stronger voice and address their still 20th-century inefficiency and overhead. The design disciplines need to stop seeing themselves as self-contained units that create competitive value and get used to the idea of virtually integrating with others to meet the challenges of the 21st century — offering integrated value propositions.

We were mightily disappointed in the results from two specific questions about Architecture 2030 in this year’s research, specifically about the 2030 Challenge program, which asks the global architecture and building community to adopt a set of performance targets. The majority of our respondents (60 percent) noted that their firm has not committed to adopting those targets, and many (44 percent) indicated they didn’t believe that 2030 Challenge targets could even be realized. (For insight into the significance of the 2030 Challenge, read R.K. Stewart’s article, “It’s a New Decade, But Is There a Difference?”) Many members of the Design Futures Council have adopted the 2030 Challenge, as have many cities and associations. We need to rededicate ourselves to these targets in all possible ways. It is a sea change from past behavior, and it is more compelling now than ever before.

This year’s survey data is a call to faster and wiser actions on the part of the design and construction community. The bottom line reminds us not just to talk about the value of sustainable design but to live it. When this happens, it will change forever the way clients and the public think about the value of design and construction. An industry that is hopeful, clean, and efficient.


James P. Cramer is founding editor of DesignIntelligence and co-chair of the Design Futures Council. He is chairman of the Greenway Group, a foresight management consultancy that helps organizations navigate change to add value.

Jane Gaboury is the editor and associate publisher of
DesignIntelligence. She is Greenway’s principal for publishing and editorial as well as a senior consultant.

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