WRNS Studio is a mid-sized architecture and planning firm led by 16 partners in four cities. Since our founding in 2005, the studio has sought to drive-- and nudge-- innovative and proven sustainable strategies into every project, no matter the type, size, or budget.
The best thing about a benchmark system is not the medal but the microscope through which you start to understand many things about your profession and the numerous disciplines, subtrades, and organizations processes that influence the success of a building.
As we are now in the middle of our 15-year firm anniversary, it is clear to me that we needed those benchmarks to help keep the magnifying glass on our process, or our learned skills, great intentions, and client pressures would have allowed the desire for better be overrun by the desire to get the project done. Wanting to change wasn’t clear enough.
We have used the Living Building Challenge as a tool since 2006 on projects, thinking that we generally understood the process and intent on how to select and vet. Not until our full engagement of Sonoma Academy’s 19,6000 sf Guild and Commons into LBC and the Microsoft Silicon Valley Campus engagement in WELL, did we realize how much more we had to learn about material and equipment selection, and procurement and sub trade business.
We knew that the Construction Documents finish legends and specifications provided detail to the build side, but how do you deal with substitutions and on-site decisions about sealers, paints, and connectors when you are supposed to vet everything? This coupled with the reality that the design and documentation team is sometimes not the Construction Administration representative posed additional challenges. If selecting once is not the end of the process, we needed a way to educate all team members – at any time in the process – how to vet and suggest options. While constant educational sessions and folders full of information existed, what we needed were more engaging tools. And we needed experts that could see our problem another way.
In came Building Green and Long Green Specs. Through eight months of focused team charrettes and conversations with the talent of the two organizations and the toughest, discerning architects and interior architects, we arrived at two tools that now help us make those decisions at every stage. One is a one-page poster on ten products, that boils down the issues into Pros and Cons, while listing questions and resources. The other is a live Google matrix that shows not all the choices in CSI format but those that we believe are the best in class right now. They are filtered to show our current understanding against benchmark filters, and they are also noted as “Good, Better, Best.” While there are many more developed systems and product lists out there, we found that for these projects it was important to have lists that we created through conversations in-house along with the experts we engaged. This process was part of our path to better overall decision-making.
The process caused healthy arguments and rippling conversations and a wave of internal education that were more impactful than any Earth Week session we had put on. We also learned more about the build process and how their trades handle site material issues. Almost a quarter of what is used on the site doesn’t come from the specifications or drawings alone. The idea of incorporating flexibility and means and methods is sound – except when it bumps into material vetting under rigorous benchmark requirements like the Material Petal or WELL’s Toxicity filter. What we learned is that we need to engage our build partners more in this discussion, understand their business practice too, if we are to make more holistic change.
Pauline Souza, FAIA, LEED Fellow, WELL AP, is a partner and Director of Sustainability at WRNS Studio and she works from the firm’s office in San Francisco.