I promised myself I would not get nervous. I would be speaking for eight hours to an audience of 75 colleagues — ranging from senior project managers to presidents — representing a dozen architectural firms, five developers, three contractors, and senior executives from the banking industry. The topics: sustainable design and what is required to pass the U.S. Green Building Council-sponsored (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional (LEED AP) exam.
Fortunately, as the workshop unfolded, the participants were not only listening, but were also engaged in constructive dialogue and questions. More importantly, they began looking to me and my firm to give them assistance and guidance on what it takes to become a LEED AP in the AEC markets. This was our firm’s fourth event within a six-month period and we were still receiving requests to host future events. Surprisingly, our civil engineering firm had become a recognized Atlanta-area leader in thinking about sustainability, the LEED certification process, and what is required to become a LEED AP.
For perspective, consider that only a few years ago, while it was reasonable to expect a civil engineer to know about the USGBC and LEED, it was unusual for civil engineers to be involved directly with the green movement and projects associated with LEED certification. The LEED program was a common topic among architects, but when it came to LEED or sustainable design projects, discussions with civil engineers were limited to permitting and the required submittals with regulatory entities (with the mindset of necessity), rather than a genuine interest in the civil engineering ideas that could contribute toward sustainable goals for the project (and LEED credits).
How green are you?
About 18 months ago, something changed for our firm. Several key managers were invited to a lunch meeting with a nationally known client architect. The client asked us an interesting question at the beginning of lunch: “How green are you?” After an uncomfortable silence, we explained that we were planning to brush up on the USGBC-LEED certification process in more depth, and were thinking about becoming LEED APs. We had, in fact, contributed to several LEED-certified projects in the past, but always had a secondary role in the process. Following up on their own question, the client stated that the firm was committing to being on the cutting edge of sustainability and was evaluating all of its strategic partnerships. They would likely work only with firms that shared the same commitment. It was at that time that we knew we had to become serious about sustainability, LEED, and the role of civil engineering in the process.
Today, project opportunities are seriously limited, extremely competitive, and come in smaller and smaller waves of opportunities. We are now attending public informational meetings for projects where 40 to 50 consultants show up to compete for the contract. One glimmer of light in the tunnel of recession is sustainability; it is the topic to discuss at the table — how stimulus money will filter down into project opportunities, or on what project can credits be obtained from the site design on the ever-growing LEED certification program. What we did not realize at the beginning of this change was that in developing our firm’s sustainable design platform we would receive a different seat at the table with every existing client, as well as foster new business opportunities.
In a year’s time, starting with a firm-wide commitment to sustainability in our projects, we decided to become more effective in assisting our clients in strategizing for LEED certification and that we would all become LEED APs. Volunteering to take the first step, I started with a local workshop on LEED certification for new construction and what was required to prepare for the LEED AP exam. After a month of studying, I took the exam and passed on the first attempt; but the real goal was for all of the firm’s professionals to pass. Should we send our staff to an outside workshop, buy them all books, and register each for the exam?
For those that have gone through this process, it can be a significant cost. Since the material was fresh in my mind and I did, in fact, pass the exam, I suggested to the firm’s senior managers that they consider letting me train and prepare our own staff. Based on my experience with the local workshop, I thought we could do a better job targeting in-house training toward not just learning the material but also preparing for the exam and developing a strategy to pass it on the first attempt. Senior management agreed.
Our in-house LEED AP Exam Prep Course, developed during a five-week period, includes a PowerPoint presentation, innovative studying and memorization techniques for standards used in LEED, and even our own version of practice quizzes and exams. The course was delivered in a notebook to each student and presented in a single eight-hour block of instruction, followed up with two, one-hour lunch-and-learn review sessions and a two-hour practice exam.
At the first workshop, every registered professional in the firm signed up and we invited some of our closest client friends (the mindset was, even if we failed in this endeavor, they would be forgiving). The 19 graduates of the first workshop had an overall 95-percent first-time pass rate on the exam, including our friendly clients.
The success of this first endeavor with LEED and sustainability pushed us farther down the path toward transformation. We found ourselves talking LEED, selling sustainability in our design work, and having a professional excitement around our clients. Those first invited client guests, all of whom passed their LEED exams, also did something for us — they made referrals (and in this market, referrals are golden!). Not just referrals for work, but also touting our in-house course among peers and colleagues. It was not long before we were receiving calls from colleagues, and clients of clients, wanting to know if we were planning to conduct another LEED AP exam prep workshop. They had heard that our event was good and helped participants to pass their exams. After numerous requests, we knew we had to do another session.
For workshop two, we invited a wider range of people from clients with which we do routine projects. We had no trouble filling up the room and had similar results — about a 95-percent first-time pass rate. This second venture continued to make our firm known as sustainable civil engineers and LEED-savvy in the Atlanta marketplace. Clients that attended our program previously were starting to call us seeking advice on civil sustainability, or to ask us to participate in strategy sessions for design-build and feasibility projects. We were definitely getting a different seat at the table now.
A third workshop, planned at the special request of a notable development firm, was exclusive for the firm’s senior staff (a few travelled from other states to attend). Teaching and working with this group contributed to new insight in forming our discussions with principal clients about project opportunities and teaming: If you are knowledgeable in the certification requirements for LEED, you will discover that the program and process is not exclusive to the architect and MEP consultant. A successful project requires constructive ideas from civil engineers, landscape architects, architects, MEPs, commissioning agents, owners, contractors, and others.
Workshop three, conducted exclusively with developers, was quite enlightening. We found that many of these individuals had already worked on LEED projects, had experiences and challenges related to materials and construction methods, and also had good ideas on how to mitigate similar future scenarios for the next LEED project. We were learning from our students.
Thus, we concluded that the LEED program is not just about understanding the certification process and what is required to become a LEED AP, it is also all about forming teams of qualified specialists, each being a valuable contributing member to these often complex projects; it is about design integration and team synergy and taking valuable project experience to the next project. Now, when we sit down with our clients, we talk about project development and team formation at this level. Why wouldn’t an owner and a project benefit from having a core group of multi-disciplined professionals service their sustainable project from vision to realty? This kind of team includes a specialized civil engineer and is not limited to the Atlanta regional market. Why wouldn’t good teams work across markets, regions, and states? The fact is, barring professional registration requirements and some logistics, the concept merits serious consideration. The fact that your clients offer you a different seat at the table lends itself to having this discussion with them.
Our experience has been that with knowledge and credibility established in sustainable design, nearly all of our clients find the topic to have merit and be worthy of further discussion. Some have indicated that they further agree with our perspective and see this as the new trend in forming AEC work relationships for projects. Although our firm had a respectable history of LEED projects, now more than half of our projects are planned for certification, and this percentage is increasing. We have also become design partners at the LEED project table.
We see this as transformational for civil engineering because new teaming strategies will cross state boundaries to wherever the project opportunity exists. In fact, the architectural firm that asked us a couple years ago, “How green are you?” selected our firm as civil engineer and surveyor for a large notable project for the Department of Homeland Security, slated for construction in Kansas.
We recently launched a sustainable business division for our firm, known as GreenPoint US. We are focused on introductory training on sustainability, continued exam preparation for the new LEED 2009, and continuing education required to maintain accreditation. Our intent is to offer these services across the country.
Additionally, the firm continues to look at its own business processes in resource use and recycling and in obtaining LEED for Existing Buildings certification for our own office building. We expect to use the techniques applied as instruction for students and clients. It’s an exciting idea.
Our transformation as a firm has been an amazing and rewarding process. Today, all of our design professionals (EITs, P.E.s, environmental scientists, and landscape architects) are LEED APs. We find ourselves at the top of the lists for potential LEED projects; we are often the first choice on client proposal opportunities, and our client outreach has expanded with new partners and projects.
Based on what we have experienced during the last year, we have a thoughtful optimism for the near future. We have come to believe that change in the market can be a good thing if we are willing to look for the new opportunities and commit to changing ourselves to meet them.
Changes in LEED 2009 (v3)
Scott A. Ward, P.E., MBA, LEED AP, is vice president and principal for Norcross, Ga.-based GreenPoint US and Travis Pruitt & Associates (TPA), engineers, surveyors, environmental scientists, and landscape architects. For more information, visit www.greenpointus.com or www.travispruitt.com