Sustainability: A values-based approach

by Matthew Gifford

There is no prescriptive approach to designing a high-performance, highly sustainable building. It’s not something you can just buy and hang on the side of a project, and there is no magic recipe, silver bullet, or one-size-fits-all solution. Sustainability is a broad concept that can be—and is—interpreted in many ways. In addition, the systems and processes that can lead to high-performance buildings are complex and often get very technical, very quickly.

To truly achieve sustainability, it has to be baked into the project from go. You have to have a strategy from the outset, meticulously design your way through the details, ensure that the construction of the project supports the vision, and then use and operate the building in the manner that will optimize its sustainable attributes. That said, there are some ways to better the chances of ending up with a project that achieves its sustainability goals.

Lead with your values

There are too many variable constraints, unique to each project, to map out a universal sustainability system. Budgetary controls, site restrictions, climate, values, institutional knowledge, design team expertise, risk aversion—the list goes on—will all impact project goals and decisions. So, how do you choose which areas to focus on? Lead with your values.

Often institutions haven’t thought about approaching sustainability in this fashion. However, if you spend the time and energy helping clients first identify their institutional values in relation to a specific project, we find the outcome is a foundation for the sustainability effort required.

We often create a Sustainability Charter for each client, which becomes the document that summarizes the high-performance aspirations of the project to outline the path forward and, ultimately, acts as a litmus test for its success. The Charter outlines the vision, goals, and measurable metrics to achieve those goals—the specifics of which are then tracked throughout the design and construction process. Goals are both generally stated and backed up with specific, measurable targets for each element.

Take an integrative approach to design

Creating a Sustainability Charter is a great first step, but finding a way to implement the goals identified in the Charter is where projects can get tricky. To fully explore, challenge, expand upon, and confirm goals are being met takes input from multiple experts—often in an iterative fashion. Instituting an integrative design process increases the potential to meet or exceed these goals.

An integrative approach brings together various members of the broader design team, the owner, and the builder early in the design process—optimally, this group has been a part of formulating the Sustainability Charter. Through open, multi-disciplinary dialogue with a team of diverse experts, the design is more likely to meet both the vision and goals of the project, with a shared understanding of each team members’ approach leading to more coordinated solutions. Furthermore, when the design is handed over to the builder, an integrated approach sets the build team up for success in accomplishing the outcomes defined by the design documents.

Even with a well thought out Charter, a truly integrated process that yields the most aspirational design, and a partner in the construction team, a large part of a project’s success relies on the operations and maintenance of the finished building. Hence, the importance of including the owner’s team early in the process. During the design phase, some thought should be given to the makeup of the owner’s facilities team, their capacity to understand the systems being designed, and the existence of the expertise that will be needed to operate the building—this may require significant training that will coincide with the turnover of the building.

Utilize certifications to augment your goals

Discussions about sustainability in design and construction often center around a particular certification. However, most certification systems are not structured to provide guidance on the possibilities and goals of a specific program or site. Certifications strictly specify a point-based system for measuring the sustainable qualities of a completed project, creating a common language for discussion of the subject.

While certifications serve a purpose and have been broadly adopted, we believe it is important to center sustainability conversations on the individual client, program, and building occupants—with any certification being a byproduct of good design, further confirming the project’s achievements.

To get there, stick to the plan: Lead with your values, take an integrated approach, design your way through the details, and use and operate the building to its sustainable potential.

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