The Continuing Sustainability Conversation

In today’s design and construction environment it would be hard to imagine any conversation that did not include the discussion of green building and sustainability.  Sustainability has many meanings and the pursuit of this elusive principle has become a daily endeavor for designers, design firms, product manufacturers, contractors and subsequently, clients.  Clients appear to be mostly interested in the long term cost saving benefits and design firms promote sustainability as an instrumental tool for design, marketing and internal philosophies.  Product manufacturers are scrambling and spending to provide sustainability information and in turn market this information for their products to be specified in the designer’s green building programming.  Contractors utilize BIM modeling and sustainable product manufacturing information for construction verification processing and market these as essential tools to bridge green building design with project construction.  The sustainability pursuit in green building has a tendency to blur most established responsibilities and everyone seems to have a “toe in the water” in regards to pursuing billable hours in the sustainability design arena.

As the Director of Sustainability for greenscreen® with career experience in both design and construction, it has been very interesting to watch the changing landscape unfold and develop.  Current readings and blog posts hint of an undertone that sustainability and green building are going through somewhat of an awkward growing phase and have recently come under some scrutiny.  In July, DesignIntelligence published the 2011 Green and Sustainable Design Survey which stated “sustainable design practices are not yet in the mainstream of architecture and design.”  Academia and attorneys have also scrutinized architecture for its excessive environmental claims (Baird, 2011).  At the same time, product manufacturers are determining whether to spend both human and capital resources to undertake sustainability and verification processes to ensure that their products have a seat at the table in the sustainability conversations.  Product manufacturers can easily spend upwards of $30, 000 to $50,000 on a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and $50,000 to $100,000 for an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) per product offering.  Is this money well spent if sustainable design practices are not yet in the mainstream of design?  It is if the product manufacturer is interested in being incorporated into such programming as the 2030 Challenge for Products as promoted by the Architecture 2030 initiative.  The 2030 Challenge for Products RFI requires an Embodied Carbon-Equivalent Footprint, which is typically included in a Life Cycle Assessment.  It is also money well spent when looking over the horizon at proposed LEED Pilot Credits which reward additional points for products that have undertaken LCA’s and EPD’s.  Forward thinking product manufacturers should quickly realize that verified single claim attributes will soon be a thing of the past and in order to be considered sustainably progressive, an LCA will become the minimum standard.  This could be sobering news for product manufacturers without established sustainability initiatives and it also is quite contrary when reviewing the latest round of green building criticism since this information does not appear to be incorporated into the mainstream of design.  As a professional with a unique perspective, it raises some questions and hopefully will initiate a continuous dialogue between designers, product manufacturers and contractors as to where we all go from here.


A continuum of dialogue should revolve around the benefits of sustainability claims, costs, verifications and whether or not it really makes a difference getting a product incorporated into all types of projects.  With the greatest respect, here are just a few questions to initiate dialogue between designers, contractors and product manufacturers:
Does sustainability really make a difference in product selection and specification?
How much sustainability or how little?
Is certification necessary or are green claims assumed accurate?
What office research goes into verifying product claims?
What is the standard or minimum for product claims? Recycled content, VOC offgassing, etc?
Are manufacturers ahead of design professionals in sustainability?
If so, who is responsible for catching the other up?
What research is an important aspect of a product’s sustainability?

The intent here, as a Director of Sustainability, is to establish a sustainability dialogue; an ongoing conversation that is interdisciplinary and develops some consensus and contributes to the direction and common goals. Progressive product manufacturers take sustainability very seriously and are willing to spend significant resources on their awareness and knowledge of the sustainability landscape. Ultimately, this helps define products from others and maintains a transparent manufacturing and lifecycle perspective. At the simplest level, this appears to be a huge philosophical shift over the last decade and should be applauded for the awareness that programs such as LEED, Energy Star, Water Wise and the Living Building Challenge have created. It will be interesting to see if this momentum and awareness continues while mainstream architecture finds its own way?

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