> A/E firms need to do more than get their employees LEED-accredited to capitalize on the sustainable design trend.
Clients and design firms tend to take a different view of sustainability as a chargeable service. Clients are beginning to see sustainability as an integral part of design. They believe that if they’re going to build something, it may as well be sustainable. "Sustainability is losing its power as a differentiator between firms as clients begin to demand it more," says Giles Jacknain, principal, consulting, at ZweigWhite. In the coming years, he adds, it will get harder for firms to charge higher fees for the sustainable design services they provide.
The challenge for firms, Jacknain said, is twofold. On the internal/operations side of things, it involves answering the question: "How do you deliver sustainable services?" On the external/marketing side, firms must answer the question: "How do you convince clients of the value of the sustainable service you’re providing in order to charge higher fees?"
Jacknain says that firms still see sustainability as something to be added to a design. "They say, ‘Let’s put in a high-efficiency HVAC system or use recycled material.’" Sustainability is much more than this. It includes consideration of "green" design principles along with many others. "Sustainability means environmentally focused, but it isn’t just being ‘green,’" Jacknain said, "but how the building positively impacts its environment, and how the duration of that positive impact can be lengthened."
Achieving this can involve things such as the orientation of the building in relation to the sun and placement of windows to minimize cooling and/or heating costs or considering the effects of a chemical attack when designing a high-efficiency HVAC system. "What good is a high-efficiency HVAC system that is sealed off from the outside, if a chemical agent is inside it?" Jacknain asked.
Sustainability, he added, involves the evolution of buildings and the issues affecting them, such as the increased awareness of terrorist attacks in the wake of Sept. 11. It considers buildings’ impacts on their immediate environments. Jacknain points out translucent skyscrapers and their minimized shadows as examples of buildings with a positive impact on their immediate environments. "Too often, sustainability is seen as an MEP issue or an architecture issue." Sustainability involves taking a "whole-building" approach to the design.
Charging higher fees
Firms need to show clients that a sustainable design delivers a certain amount of value and they need to quantify that, Jacknain says. "Firms need to be able to say that ‘You’ll save this much money,’ or ‘you’ll have fewer employee sick days,’ or ‘you’ll be able to charge this much more rent’ as a result of the design."
Firms that are engaging in sustainable design tend to see it as more expensive because they haven’t fully integrated the technology, nor do they completely understand the concept. "It’s about more than just getting your employees LEED-accredited," Jacknain said. "Sustainable design is about integrating the principles into every aspect of the design process, so that it is a consideration at every step of the design." Designers need to be able to say, "We’re going to deliver this much value and therefore you need to pay a higher fee," he said.
Jacknain acknowledges that there will be client resistance to higher fees for sustainable design services. "Resistance will stem from the client belief that every firm is providing sustainable services, so why should the client pay more for your firm’s services," he said. Firms will be able to charge more if they can quantify the value they provide according to the client’s needs.
A/E firms, Jacknain says, are not learning how to deliver sustainable services quickly enough. "Firms need to look at the services they provide now and the clients they are serving and see how they can incorporate sustainability into their work." And, he adds, sustainable design is not limited to buildings.-Robert Gardner (email@example.com)
This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (Issue #673, published Aug. 7, 2006).