What Does Sustainability Mean to You?

This article is part of Wood Harbinger’s newsletter series.

“Sustainable Design” is a hot topic in the A/E/C industry, serving up unique challenges, considerations, and acclaim for a variety of projects and the industry professionals who work on them throughout the world. To get a feel for the local pulse, Wood Harbinger’s Sustainability Committee assembled an eight-question survey that we sent to Pacific Northwest architects via Survey Monkey to find out what they think about sustainability in the built environment.

We received 34 responses with some candid insight about how sustainable design ideas and methods affect our local industry. Here’s what folks had to say.

What’s Most Important?

The first two questions we asked addressed the importance of several considerations that would likely come up in the early stages of a project, when the vision is being shaped and an architect is beginning early concept discussions with an owner. We asked respondents to rank these considerations in order of importance to them, as architects, and then again, from the perspective of their clients.

You’ve just landed your dream project, and your client has no specific requirements to which you must adhere. Rank the following in order of importance according to your own preferences as an architect.

  1. Environmental impact
  2. Aesthetics
  3. Energy savings
  4. Cost savings over time
  5. Initial cost
Survey Monkey Data - Question 1

Survey Monkey Data – Question 1

Back to reality. Rank the following in order of importance according to what you generally experience as being most important to your clients.

  1. Initial cost
  2. Cost savings over time
  3. Energy savings
  4. Aesthetics
  5. Environmental impact
Survey Monkey Data - Question 2

Survey Monkey Data – Question 2

Interestingly, these rankings are exactly opposite each other, with the driving difference being the monetary aspects of the considerations. Environmental impact squeaks in as being most important to architects, with 32.3% of respondents ranking it number one, followed closely by aesthetics and energy savings. Conversely, environmental impact is overwhelmingly (85%) rated least important to their clients, from their perspective, with initial cost and cost savings over time given the top slots here. The common denominator is energy savings, ranking 3rd for both questions. Additionally, there is more variation among architects’ own opinions about these considerations, while there is greater general consensus on what’s important to clients.

These results seem very reasonable; he who is responsible for costs will be more concerned with them, yet an attentive project team will be aware of their clients’ priorities and concerns and will work with them, even if it clashes with their own proclivities. This give and take is the heart of a collaborative and successful project undertaking. It also stands to reason that we see energy savings as the crossroads consideration, as it involves both monetary and environmental concerns.

In our own experience, we have seen clients and Owners focus more on sustainable design elements as theirs costs have dropped. As this trend continues, we suspect will see even greater focus given to environmental impact, energy savings, and aesthetics across the board, as cost will become less and less a determiner of whether certain measures can be implemented.


The next question we posed: Are you interested in designing a Net Zero building?

Survey Monkey Data - Question 3

Survey Monkey Data – Question 3

The answer to this one was in largely positive, with 82% responding yes, they would be interested. Though we did not ask whether architects thought their clients would be interested in pursuing Net Zero, we suspect, on the basis of initial cost being considered most important to clients, the initial response may be negative. However, with grants and subsidies available to offset costs when targeting Net Zero, we may see a move in that direction, as design teams and Owners both become more educated about the process, costs, and benefits involved in attaining a Net Zero building. Check out the New Building’s Institute’s Resource Library for a sampling of the research and incentives about Net-Zero building.

Sustainability: Here to Stay?

Question 4: Do you consider sustainability just a current trend, or a paradigm shift in the industry?

Survey Monkey Data - Question 4

Survey Monkey Data – Question 4

As anticipated, respondents overwhelming view sustainable design as an industry game-changer, fundamentally altering design and construction approaches, decisions, and outcomes. We find this position rooted in the fact that building codes are being revised to incorporate sustainable design standards into their minimum requirements. The International Code Council’s recently introduced International Green Construction Code (IgCC) is the first of its kind to establish minimum green requirements for the entire project, not only energy consuming systems but also materials and construction practices, and into occupancy and operation. The energy code as well has become more stringent in its compliance requirements, incorporating elements from LEED and pushing the baseline towards greater mandated sustainability.

Energy Savings for Cost Savings

Our fifth question involved a look into sustainability measures that have been adopted in other parts of the world, where energy expenses are high. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have relatively inexpensive energy, though that will change. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the retail cost of electricity in the Pacific Northwest is expected to rise by about two to three percent a year, a higher rate than the anticipated U.S. average increase.

U.S. Energy Information Administration Electricity Cost projections

U.S. Energy Information Administration Electricity Cost projections

We gave respondents a list of sustainable features that have been incorporated into building design and function in other countries, largely due to their higher energy costs. Items included tidal energy, higher efficiency building envelopes, deep water cooling systems, nuclear power generation, and government mandated temperature setpoints. We asked them which they would want to see utilized (or utilized more often) in regional projects.

Survey Monkey Data - Question 5

Survey Monkey Data – Question 5

Most respondents (82%) noted higher efficiency building envelopes as a feature they’d like to see, and this is likely the most easily implemented of the noted features. The Washington State Energy code even includes new requirements for the quality of the building envelope, which lead to greater energy efficiency. In last month’s newsletter, Wood Harbinger’s Jeff Yirak, Commissioning Engineer, wrote an article on this topic. “Envelope Commissioning: How to Maximize Results Given New Energy Code Requirements.”

Tidal energy and deep water cooling systems were also popular schemes, each garnering nods from 50% of respondents. As a coastal region, the Pacific Northwest—and Puget Sound area in particular—hold potential for both of these technologies. According to Renewable Northwest Project, there are currently four tidal projects operational or in development off the Oregon and Washington coasts, with advocacy for further implementation of this technology. Tidal power recently reached a milestone achievement in Wales, with the August 7th unveiling of the “Spirit of the Sea” turbine, launching a 12-month trial.

Measuring Sustainability

Question 6: The USGBC’s LEED program is a well-known certification assessing the sustainability of building design and construction, but there are many others. What sustainability metric do you think serves as the best measure of sustainable design?

We gave participants the option to choose between LEED, Green Globes, Energy Star, Build it Green, and International Green Construction Code (IgCC), “I think the newest International Energy Code (IEC) and International Mechanical Code (IMC) serve just as well or better than these separate certification programs,” or “These rating systems can’t really be compared.”

Survey Monkey Data - Question 6

Survey Monkey Data – Question 6

60% responded that these rating systems couldn’t really be compared. On the whole, this is our take as well; they are really more complementary than comparable. While LEED and Green Globes are both nationally accepted rating and certification tools for new construction/remodel projects, LEED takes a more exacting approach, with prerequisites and stricter criteria, while Green Globes takes a more flexible focus. The IgCC, like LEED and Green Globes, provides a metric by which to gauge sustainability, compliance to its minimum requirements becomes mandatory if adopted by the jurisdiction governing the project. Energy Star, unlike LEED, Green Globes, or the IgCC, does not rate projects but rates the energy efficiency of individual products against Environmental Protection Agency standards.  A LEED project may utilize Energy Star-rated equipment as a method to achieve optimum points towards certification.

We see that each system measures different aspects of sustainability and, taken together, these metrics create greater awareness of the methods and measures by which greater sustainability can be achieved.

Check out this month’s other newsletter article, “LEED 4.0 vs Green Globes: A MEP View Point,” for a more in-depth glimpse at our thoughts on the complementary aspects between LEED and Green Globes.

Tell Us How You Really Feel

Question 7 was an open-ended question asking architects whether they harbor any negative thoughts about sustainable design. A few general themes emerged in the 26 responses we received: greenwashing, costs, and optional sustainability. We’ve included some examples responses below.

Three responses noted issues with greenwashing—by designers, manufacturers, and/or LEED—either making too much of certain systems’ sustainable benefits, or not prioritizing energy use in proportion with other issues.

  •  “Greenwashing and token efforts bother me.”

Eight responses expressed disdain over the costs and tedium of certifications and the certification process, particularly LEED.  

  •  “LEED is becoming onerous, and the up-front cost to perform LEED is unfortunate.”
  •  “I think it is sad how much documentation costs there are, that could have been spent on bettering the building.”

Six responses expressed frustration with the “option” for sustainable design, noting that sustainable design should just be standard practice, not a choice or a mandated effort.

  •  “I think that there is too much oversight and jurisdictional mandated hoops to jump through. I believe that as an industry, we should be forging forward with our own intent to design better, lower carbon footprint buildings and LEAD the clients and community….Let it be up to us as good stewards of the environment…”
  •  “The best sustainable design is a project done by a knowledgeable professional with an awareness of climate and context, together with a motivated client, and not mandated by a program or certificate—but, in the absence of these, prescriptive programs can help.”
  •  “I think clients are less and less intimidated by the perceived costs of being sustainable and are staring to appreciate many choices can just be good design solutions.”

Measuring Energy Savings

Our final question asked about which metric is used to calculate and evaluate energy savings. Response options given were annual cost savings, energy use index (EUI), electricity consumption reduction, natural gas consumption reduction, and return on investment (ROI).

Survey Monkey Data - Question 8

Survey Monkey Data – Question 8

A majority of respondents (55%) noted that EUI was their metric of choice for calculating and evaluating energy savings, with annual cost savings ranking next with just over a quarter (27%) of votes, and return on investment taking the remaining 18%.

All three of these parameters serve an important role in gauging energy savings, together painting a more accurate picture over time. The EUI generates the initial quantitative target of achievement in the broader, regional context for a facility of particular type. From this established range, the actual energy savings of an individual building can then be refined by measuring and evaluating annual cost savings and ROI, which will be unique to a specific facility, dependent on the subjective nature of building use, and whether systems are operated and maintained as intended.

Onward and Upward

The built environment, through the efforts of the A/E/C industry in concert with facility owners and operators, is evolving towards more comprehensive sustainability. The shift is guided through metric and code mandates, realized cost reductions, but also through a basic and logical awareness that sustainability is truly and widely beneficial—economically, environmentally, and for the well-being of people. As strident advocates for sustainability and collaborative design, we are encouraged by the responses we received from our industry allies and peers, and look forward to continuing our work together in driving sustainability towards being the new status quo.

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