Sustainability Leadership: From Stagnation to Liberation

June 29, 2011 · by James P. Cramer

For better or for worse, architects, designers, planners, and their clients make up the central elemental force with regard to the environment and a sustainable future.

For better or for worse, architects, designers, planners, and their clients make up the central elemental force with regard to the environment and a sustainable future.

While the economic downturn lingers, environmental degradation continues apace. Recent think tanks by the Design Futures Council have been sober experiences. Moreover, they forecast yet more gloom. There are plenty of warnings of what may happen unless we do things differently. In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, author Jared Diamond offers poignant case studies on past civilizations that self-destructed: They failed to develop the needed technologies and behaviors and went on to destroy their local environments one day at a time.

Since the first Design Futures Council Leadership Summit on Sustainable Design in Nantucket, Mass., 10 years ago, the DFC has gathered information, statistics, and success stories on sustainable design. We have come to understand better the challenges, scenarios, and models requiring leadership ingenuity. Indeed, we understand better the gravity and the urgency of sustainable design.

Presentations by thought leaders at recent Leadership Summits point to hopeful adaptive change enabled by technologies, behaviors, and product innovation. And in their new book, Sustainometrics: Measuring Sustainability, Cecil Steward and Sharon Kuska present a system that measures human activity in the built environment and offer optimistic scenarios for the survival of human communities.

Human actions have been tipping the planet in the wrong directions. Readers of Design­Intelligence don’t need to be told that the A/E/C industry has been one of the most significant contributors to the current condition. On the other hand, design of interconnected processes that aim toward zero carbon emissions and healthy communities is also well underway.

Sadly, according to our latest research, sustainable practices are not yet in the mainstream of architecture and design. Why? Inertia. Add to that denial and resistance. In some instances, this is due to a lack of knowledge, anemic leadership, poor self-confidence, and confusion as firms and organizations ride into a paradigm shift they did not wish for nor feel ready to address. Many in the professions have not yet fully embraced the changes required. The urgency gets delayed one day at a time. (Okay, just one more school using old tools, products, methods, and codes.) Many are pokey in their old habits. They are not cognizant that architects, designers, and clients are the central elemental force — for better or for worse — with regard to the environment and a sustainable future.

The critical mass of professionals is still behind the sustainability curve. But there are pioneers and exemplars to look up to.

The 2011 DesignIntelligence Sustainable Design Survey singles out five people as being role models in sustainable and high-performance design:

  1. William McDonough
  2. Ed Mazria
  3. Bob Berkebile
  4. Ray Anderson
  5. Amory Lovins

Three architects, one product manufacturer, and one engineer/scientist. And coincidentally, all five are DFC senior fellows who have served as keynote presenters at DFC Leadership Summits. These five were the most often cited exemplars by survey respondents. Diverse leaders, they all embraced sustainability when few others took it seriously. They are leaders with staying power, too. They have had significant influence on the A/E/C industry and the global community and continue to inspire and teach us, for which we can be grateful.

The tenuous economic recovery has put some sustainability models on hold. But according to MIT’s Sloan Management School, more than two-thirds of businesses are strengthening their commitment to sustainability. The new study found that 69 percent of companies surveyed plan to step up their investments in and management of sustainability this year. Just over one-quarter plan no change, and only 2 percent intend to cut back their commitment. There may be fewer dollars spent on traditional capital projects, but there will be more resources deployed developing green plans for real estate. Corporate responsibility for sustainable design is at its highest level, and the direction has momentum.

In our survey, five professional practice firms were most often cited as role models in sustainable and high-performance design:

  1. HOK
  2. BNIM
  3. Perkins+Will
  4. KieranTimberlake
  5. Arup

Two are large architecture firms, two are small to medium-size architecture firms, and one is an extra-large engineering and design practice. But these diverse organizations have earned high brand repute in green and sustainable design. They have served existing markets while creating innovative opportunities. They exemplify a new species of design organization, a species that is alert, anticipatory, and intelligent. They have overcome the logic of serving defined historic markets where progress is measured by market share gains. Instead, they have focused on creating markets even when many in their field were laggards, sliders, or slow responders in environmental leadership. At the foundation level, these five firms have several things in common. They are serious about sustainable design, they have entrepreneurial energy, they give clients what they both want and need, they put processes first (making high-performance possible), and they measure everything as if it were part of management, not just accounting.

Moreover, they equitize action. In other words, they bring new value and solutions to clients through professional service delivery. It’s a blend of entrepreneurial design, scientific research, and passion to make a difference.

There are dozens and even hundreds of other firms in the United States and thousands around the world that are pioneering the environmental revolution.

Expertise in sustainable design is unfolding at new levels. Our survey indicates that 63 percent of architecture professionals and leaders are satisfied with their own firm’s progress in achieving higher levels of sustainable design. New knowledge is being created and shared, but real innovation is much harder to realize. More than half of all projects in architecture, engineering, and design do not meet or exceed LEED Gold or equivalent levels, our data shows. Breaking habit patterns and moving beyond comfort zones can be tough. Yet it is time to do more than pick the low hanging fruit.

When we focus on the relative boom in sustainable design service delivery over the past decade, it is not obvious who will lead it in the future. I suspect there will be continuity, with the leaders and firms cited in this year’s survey providing guidance, but there will be changes as some firms’ brands become more powerful.

There are several key considerations leaders should ponder as they look to the horizon of professional practice:

There is another lesson to be learned from role model individuals and firms: The sustainability ethic does not stop with current contributions. Sustainability is about reinvention, and this means stepping into the leadership zone. This is not merely demanding but liberating, too.


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.

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