Overcome a plateau to accelerate sustainability impacts

By Taylor C. Walker AIA posted 10-26-2021 04:03 PM

  

Written by Barbra Batshalom and Tate Walker

 

The urgency to respond to the impacts of climate change is now translating into regulation, policy and client requirements. Storms, heat waves, floods and other outcomes are not new, but the current response is unprecedented.  Can we meet the challenge? Many firms have been working hard at this for more than a decade, but we find ourselves at a transitional moment. Unlike the pursuit of sustainability rating systems for individual projects, this challenge requires every firm to transform at the practice level. The AIA 2030 program is uniquely designed to structure your firm’s journey toward consistently high performing projects.

 

If the path to transformation was obvious or easy, firms would have already done it. While there are many firms of all sizes who have realized successes, too many are still waiting for clients to ask for it (and then scramble to catch up). Other firms, who have already made a commitment to carbon reduction, may hit a plateau or get stuck along the way. As members of the 2030 Working Group, we observe these phenomena in multiple ways. We also see what makes the difference in the firms who have embodied the commitment in their daily practice.

 

The AIA 2030 program has been around for more than a decade but has grown 70% in the last two years! More signatories are reporting and even more projects are using energy models to inform decisions. The program has recently been adopted and modified by RIBA and SE 2050 as a model for tackling big, entrenched issues within the built environment.  This program is nothing short of a paradigm shift and that takes time. The firms in the program are a wonderful community of practitioners that can share best practices and lessons learned (Check out secrets to success from small firms, medium firms, and larger firms that are meeting the targets).

 

If your firm has not yet begun its journey, there has never been a better time to start. If your firm is, like many, hitting a plateau or struggling with some aspect of your evolution, this article will help you understand what might be missing – and what you can do to accelerate your progress. Before we dive in, it’s worth clarifying that no firm is expected to achieve 80% reduction across their portfolio right away! Some firms tell us that they don’t want to join the program because they fear failing. Arguably one of the best things about this program is that you can start wherever you are and it gives you a structure and a community to help you. If you don’t meet a project’s budget or schedule, you know you are in hot water right away. Hitting an energy target is not immediately apparent! The 2030 Commitment provides tools, like the Design Data Exchange (DDx) that help you benchmark, set, track and measure energy consumption across your portfolio. If you had to do that on your own, it wouldn’t happen! You will be a winner if your participation in this program translates into a 40% portfolio-wide improvement – and then you can build on that and raise the bar as you learn and improve. The real failure is not trying.

 

What does it mean to “hit a plateau”? For many firms, this may mean that you’ve put policies or expectations in place, but they have not yet been adopted consistently across project teams or across offices or business units. For others, this may mean that your firm has successfully implemented certain actions but hasn’t yet raised the bar or added the next level of actions. Many firms report being stuck in the 50-60% savings range for their portfolios and feel unable to achieve higher levels of performance by citing two key constraints. The first is a theoretical constraint to performance. All buildings use some energy, and at some point, the cost of additional savings is too great to justify modest gains in efficiency. The consensus is, this is as good as it gets barring a major technological breakthrough in the market such as LED lighting. The second constraint is building type. Some building types such as multifamily are inherently more difficult. Whatever the case may be for your firm, it means that you have made some progress but don’t fully understand what’s keeping you from achieving more. As with any solution, the first step is understanding what’s going on and getting the right diagnosis. 

 

Below, we will share the top 7 tips and lessons learned from firms who have achieved a 70% portfolio-wide reduction. Everything that follows applies equally to small, medium and large firms, although the implementation of each action does differ depending on firm size, scope and culture.

 

Do you have a commitment?

Perhaps the most common theme across successful firms is leadership’s commitment to pursuing their energy or carbon goals, regardless of how many clients are asking for that. It can be scary to feel like you are ‘ahead’ of your clients, but there are enough firms who have done it (paved the way) and prove that it can be done! You can learn how to translate the commitment into the value and risk-mitigation that all clients care about. If your firm’s leadership is not yet committed, don’t give up – there are ways that you can ‘lead from the middle’ and effectively appeal to their interests, whether those interests relate to attracting and retaining talent, being more competitive, or ‘future-proofing’ your client’s projects. In other words, making the business case in a way that resonates. The plateau that happens here is often not taking the next step and helping your teams understand how to translate the commitment into daily actions and project delivery.

 

Have you aligned your project delivery process with your commitment?

As Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. If your end game now includes improved health and radically reduced energy or carbon – you’ll never succeed if you don’t align your design process with your desired outcomes. Every project team should be setting and tracking energy goals, working with engineers to model scenarios to inform decisions. Many firms connect clear actions like that to their QA/QC process to ensure consistency. Making explicit efforts to align your consultants with your goals is also critical to reduce friction. The AIA’s recent document How to Create a Sustainability Plan that Works provides many resources to support the “ReDesign” of your project delivery methodology. This leads to the next question, how can you achieve consistently higher levels of performance across your project teams?

 

What’s the worst building you are willing to design?

Every successful firm in the program also shares an internally-driven approach to design excellence. Instead of waiting for a client to determine what is the baseline for a good project, they own that definition.

Often using AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence., firms decide, for each building type, what criteria should always be pursued, which ones, if they have a cost premium, they want to advocate for and which may be alternatives. And starting slowly is ok – if a comprehensive set of criteria feels overwhelming, choose the ones that are most relevant to you, your clients and your building type, incorporate them and add more over time. Most importantly, committing to your own best practices and building them into your specs and designs, will actually be easier over time to implement than being constantly reactive to your client’s variable, inconsistent and changing targets. Using the DDx as a tool to help you set appropriate baseline EUI (energy use intensity) targets for projects is also a game changer!

 

How do you know?

Making a commitment, setting goals and aligning your process might seem like you’ve covered all your bases, but then many firms find that despite all that clarity, consistency remains elusive. So how do you know that all teams are doing what they need to? Accountability, however that is expressed in your firm’s culture, is the backstop to ensure portfolio-wide success. It also lets you know who is struggling so they can get the support they need. Don’t forget to celebrate your successes, either. There will be some projects that achieve higher levels of savings that can be used as a template for future work.

 

Do you have a Sustainability Director?

If you don’t, that’s ok!! There are many ways to integrate the commitment to sustainability into your practice. For some firms, a central SD is what works. For other firms, embedding the responsibility across different roles of their firm works for them. The guide How to Create a Sustainability Plan that Works! describes various models that could be effective. Often firms have thought that hiring an SD is the answer to all of their challenges, and do so before really defining the role, scope and purpose of that job – and how it needs to evolve over time. This can cause bottlenecks, frustration and worst of all, failure! However, you approach having leadership for sustainability, the key is to be clear on where you are starting, where you want to go and what kinds of skills and knowledge are needed to support that within your firm’s specific size and culture.

 

Do you sell your clients your past mistakes?

That question may sound provocative but take a moment to ask yourself – does your firm learn from its projects? Once occupied, does your built work function and perform the way it was intended to? If you put all the effort into setting energy and carbon goals and using energy modeling to inform design – once it’s up and running, have you succeeded in achieving what you set out to? What feedback loops do you have to ensure continuous improvement of your work? Most firms don’t get paid to do post occupancy evaluations regularly (but that’s a terrific business development opportunity!). That doesn’t stop them from taking steps to do what they can, during construction and after. If you don’t do this, you may not know it, but you are basically selling past mistakes and compromising the value you provide to your clients. And in the context of this article, you can’t improve what you don’t measure! 

 

How well does your firm adapt to new situations?

That may sound like a funny question on the heels of a global pandemic. After all, haven’t we all had to do just that? Whether you are introducing a new financial tracking system or a commitment to low carbon design – change is hard for everyone! Managing change is another ‘design process’ that should begin with intention, a vision and broad engagement of staff to help bring them along so resistance is as minimal as possible. Making a pronouncement and hoping for the best is not a recipe for success. Change management is a discipline and there are scores of books on the topic. As you contemplate your path forward, it may be counter intuitive to think of a process that slows down to engage people rather than simply having a few of your in-house experts set the goals and determine the way forward. As Stephen Covey defined, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,  to “Sharpen the Saw” is his 7th habit. Cutting down trees is not a very sustainable thing but imagine doing it with a dull blade! Sometimes you need to go slow to go fast and firms get stuck when they go too quickly and forget that this path needs to be for everyone in the firm.

 

It’s totally normal to be anxious when facing these challenges and that in itself can be paralyzing.  It’s important to realize that a commitment to reducing embodied carbon can also open the door to new conversations, both internally and with your clients. The more your firm becomes educated, develops new skills and gains a deeper understanding of performance, health and low carbon as elements of design excellence, the better you can differentiate your practice, attract and retain talent and even increase pride in the work you do.

 

You can learn from the success of all the firms who have gotten past the battle scars of change and made it to the other side – and join the rapidly growing community of firms who have become AIA 2030 Signatories so that you can rely on the resources, support and structure that the program provides to make your journey forward as fast and painless as possible. The most important thing to remember is that the biggest challenge to achieving success in the 2030 Commitment is not a technical one, it’s a cultural one.

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