Sustainable Design Leaders: Innovative, Integrated, & Impactful

This is a guest post by architect Patricia Culley from Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Over the last ten years, architectural design firms have increasingly started to invest in dedicated personnel to guide their firm’s sustainability efforts at the leadership level. As these efforts increase, the role of the Sustainable Design Leader has emerged, but has been confronted with challenges regarding workflow and process, and integrating their responsibilities within the larger firm vision.

Last February, the Architecture and Design Sustainable Design Leader (SDL) network convened for a two-day summit in California to discuss the current state of sustainability within the design industry. Now in its ninth year, the SDL network is a select group of sustainability directors and advocates at some of the most prominent architecture firms across the country. The network provides an avenue for these critical thinkers to communicate and develop tools to make their role more effective within their respective firms, and for the industry. The following outlines their insights on the ideal role of the Sustainable Design Leader and how to best integrate sustainability measures for projects teams.

The Role of the Sustainable Design Leader  

For design firms integrating sustainability into their ethos, hiring the right Sustainable Design Leader and properly structuring their responsibilities is crucial to creating systemic impact.  In the best-case scenario, the SDL is already a design leader within the firm as well as an expert on sustainability. This is ideal because sustainability measures are supported within the firm’s overall structure, from the top down. However, in many cases, the firm leadership hires a sustainability professional from outside the organization. Oftentimes this newly hired SDL is then tasked to enact a wide array of changes across a disparate set of projects, people, and knowledge levels. Problems most often arise when sustainability work is not directly billable to projects, which can undermine the SDL’s value with project teams. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for firms to hire non-architects as SDLs, which may conflict with architectural design ideology.

The ideal situation is to have the flexibility to rely on a two-part, centralized and decentralized sustainability approach. The centralized team, either an individual or small group of experts with technical knowledge and a direct connection to firm leadership, would be responsible for driving the firm’s sustainability vision and future aspirations, as well as guiding project teams on advanced or innovative strategies. The decentralized team: sustainability enthusiasts within the firm, would be tasked with implementing basic sustainability tactics on projects, as well as instilling cultural changes within the office, such as recycling programs, biking-to-work, and happy-hour discussions, which help to elevate the sustainability dialogue at a grassroots level.

Increasing Integration

Another key challenge faced by design firms is how to best increase integration of sustainability for projects faced with divergent objectives. While the value of sustainability is often acknowledged by firm leadership and touted in firm marketing, oftentimes the challenges of implementation rest solely on the middle-level staff (project managers) who are responsible for delivering projects on budget, within the design vision of the firm, and within the program and schedule requirements of the client. Even when provided resources for integration, project managers are often conflicted between a desire for innovation versus their day to day project responsibilities.

There are several tactics that firms have developed to better increase integration on projects. Creating reference documents to allow project managers to easily and quickly convey sustainability concepts to clients was highlighted as vital. Such documents may include simplified diagrams of sustainability systems, return-on-investment for systems, or statistics of health benefits for pursuing various measures. Creating these documents takes time to research and develop, but the result for the PMs is invaluable because it does not put the onus on them to be an expert. Another tool for increasing integration is requiring project teams to fill in sustainability surveys at each phase of design (SD, DD, CD) that measure the effect of integration. These surveys keep teams accountable throughout the project and help the Sustainable Design Leader to strategize when to best step in and assist. Benchmarking client peers was also pinpointed as an effective tool to convince clients to prioritize sustainability. Finally, broadcasting “lessons learned” internally was indicated as an important practice to adopt for firm wide communication, helping to reinforce the firm’s vision and providing a venue for project teams to showcase, share, and develop knowledge and stories.

Architecture practices nationwide face common challenges in implementing sustainable design strategies. As such a widespread issue, it is important to develop avenues for sustainable design leaders to identify tools and best practices to address these challenges, but it is also important to convey these discussions to a larger audience (internally within the firm, externally within the industry, and on a grander scale, amongst clients and the public) to ensure change and increased awareness can occur at all levels.

For more information about the Architecture and Design Sustainable Design Leader network, please contact BuildingGreen.

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