The Top Ten ways to exceed client expectations

By Taylor C. Walker AIA posted 05-15-2019 17:03

During the last decade, I’ve used the COTE® Top Ten Measures of Design to frame and push projects further along the sustainability continuum. Last year, I put together a team of subject matter experts to convert the COTE Top Ten Measures into the Top Ten Toolkit. A big part of that effort was understanding how it can address the client’s needs.

  1. Lead with a vision instead of a checklist. Use the COTE® measure descriptions to form open, non-technical questions in early project visioning workshop as a framework for defining design excellence. Invite the project team to explore the possibilities as they relate to the project. Open ended questions lead to nuanced, contextual solutions that prescriptive solutions can’t achieve. These examples are accessible to a lay audience, in a language they understand and can contribute to. These questions not only illuminate opportunities to integrate sustainability, but to further a deeper understanding of our clients, and to influence design outcomes. These questions serve multiple interests. That's why they work.
  2. If you’re short on time, focus on measures that mean the most to your client. With ten measures of sustainability, 54 focus topics, and over 400 best practices, measure fatigue can set in if you’re not careful. One option is to choose measures that are of the greatest interest to the client. Build a robust plan to deliver on that foundational measure, and with that win under your belt, broaden the conversation to less quantifiable measures. Another option is to reduce the number of lenses is to choose a broad measure that encompasses several concepts under one theme.
  3. Do your homework. With 23 years of COTE Award recipients, there are 230 examples of project types, climate zones, and scales to draw from. These precedents provide design inspiration and technical detail like no other set of case studies out there. Use them to demonstrate practical feasibility and innovation to your clients.
  4. Know your client. Is sustainability a major focus for the project that needs to be front and center, or are you trying to incorporate as much as you can without adding to the cost, scope or timeline? The toolkit highlights best practices that fit both scenarios, so you’ll need to choose what’s appropriate for your scenario.
  5. Design for Integration is the most unique and important feature of the top ten guidelines. What is your big idea? If you know it already, get it out on the table first, so that everything supports it. It can be a helpful filter to keep discussions on track. If you’re working toward it, put it last on the list and look for common themes that bind concepts together.
  6. If you can only do one thing on a project, what might that be? What is going to give you the most impact for the least amount of effort. The toolkit highlights these high impact strategies for clients with short attention spans.
  7. Solve multiple problems at once. Steer clients away from making decisions on single impact issues. For example, planting native species instead of turf grass can reduce maintenance, potable water and chemical use, improve the quality of stormwater runoff, retain more stormwater on site, and support local fauna. In some cases, for no additional cost!
  8. Capital is a finite resource: Good design makes the most of it. Design for Economy is a measure that touches every project. The Superspreadsheet quantifies everything and provides context to your design decisions.
  9. Create co-champions. Prepare your colleagues with an overview of the measures, the resources, their roles and desired outcomes. This is usually a quick meeting early in the process that pays huge dividends when it comes time to schedule valuable client face time.
  10. Take the toolkit it beyond the workshop. A big reason why sustainability fails to make it into the completed building is the failure of the design team to check in to make sure things remain on track. Rating systems solve this issue by requiring third party review at stages throughout the process. If all of our projects required this level of effort, we’d have a lot more green buildings out there. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case in the real world. In my firm only about the top 10% of projects are certified under a third party rating system. Developing a system that works with your unique workflow is critical to consistently delivering on these fundamental measures of good design.

The COTE Toolkit is innovative and relevant. It has racked up over 8,000 unique page views on the AIA’s website in its first two months after its launch in January 2019. It’s been published in Architecture, Arch Daily, Treehugger,  and Building Green. It has been or will be presented to several chapters, knowledge communities and state and national conventions this year. However, the most rewarding experience I’ve had is working with my clients on it. The City of Madison has used it on three projects, the most recent of which was just certified LEED Platinum under NC v2009 in May. The Department of Administration in Wisconsin is using it as its interim guideline for sustainability, and the University of Wisconsin Facilities Department is exploring it as well. It’s risky to try something new with your clients, but if your experience is anything like my own, it’s worth it.