Blog Post

Why We Let Ourselves Do Mediocre Work

Architects and designers want to do exceptional, challenging sustainability work. Why are we waiting for the unicorn client?

These are not the LBC clients you are looking for (image of unicorns)
Image: BuildingGreen
I regularly speak with architects who would really love to do a Living Building Challenge project, or net-zero, or another progressive project. All they are waiting for is a client to ask for it. So here we remain, stuck in a self-fulfilling pattern that looks a bit like this.

During interview: “Let’s not scare them away… we’ll make advanced sustainable strategies optional.”

During Schematic Design: “It’s too busy right now to talk sustainability.”

Project goes on hold: “We need to focus on other work.”

Suddenly client asks about it in Construction Documents: “It’s way too late to have this conversation."

We want to do exceptional, challenging work. Why, so often, do we settle for less than that when it comes to sustainability? Why doesn’t every one of us embrace it as part of our professional expertise to demonstrate to our clients how to achieve higher performance and levels of sustainability?


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I see two excuses that come up a lot.

Reason #1: It’s easier to blame the client.

“Clients don’t understand the value of (and won’t pay for) the kind of early collaboration that results in sustainable outcomes.”

“The client didn’t want to do it.”

“The client VE’d it.”

Do you hear this as much as I do? Proponents of integrative process have shown that integration can save time over the course of a project, but typically entails a higher investment in collaboration early on, which can be perceived as a hard sell.

Can we blame this on the client? The answer is yes, partly, but not as much as you would think.

I recently worked with an architecture firm that wanted to improve collaboration, and improve sustainable outcomes, in their work and design process. In a brainstorming session they identified 117 possible ways to improve collaboration. The suggestions included the client, but also accounted for interactions with associates and senior project managers, the mechanical engineers, design staff, and the general contractor.

Of those ideas, just 27—less than a quarter of them—depended on the client doing something different, while 47 of them were internal measures within the firm. (The remaining 43 involved coaching the MEP and the contractor.) This could easily be dismissed as just one firm, just one brainstorm, but that was a huge ah-ha moment for all of us. It clearly revealed the need to shift from pointing a finger at the client to owning what they could do with their team.

Is a highly motivated, highly collaborative client a great thing for sustainable projects? Of course. Do you have to sit on your hands until that unicorn comes along? No.

It’s the task of designers to provide the best design to their clients. We have reached a point in terms of the standard of care that to not include the tenets of sustainability—health, welfare and longevity—is to provide a poorly designed product. 

Reason #2: Architects don’t know how to bake sustainability into their own process.

Discovery Elementary in Virginia

At Discovery Elementary in Virginia, the school presented the design team with a budget based on achieving LEED Silver and the team figured out a way to achieve net-zero with those resources. They included more glazing than engineers advised because they believed it was crucial for the learning environment.

Photo: Lincoln Barbour
Clients aren’t going to ask for granulated slag in their concrete but we’re going to do it anyway because it uses a waste material, saves money and strengthens the concrete. 

Clients aren’t going to ask for calibration of the glazing performance to orientation but we’re going to deliver it anyway because it downsizes bulky mechanical equipment and provides a more comfortable interior. 

Clients aren’t going to ask for a series of an inclusive, full-team, early-design workshops, but we’re going to do them anyway because it generate shared authorship among your consultants and opens up new design avenues.

Okay, the third item is probably not happening... but why not? You need to pitch it to the client for it to be included in the fee, and that’s hard to do. There aren’t a lot of architects that do this well.

In general, architects haven’t learned to “sell” sustainable features as well as they know how to sell a floor plan and photo-realistic rendering.

In order to survive value engineering, sustainable strategies must be truly integrated into the design and seamless to the point of invisible (and occasionally delightful). As indeed, the best design process strategies often are. Can you imagine designing a project without ever analyzing the program?  Yet,  team workshops are often pitched, perceived and carried as a premium alternate throughout the design process, when they could simply be integrated into the established regular design schedule. 

We also want to maintain our credibility when we advocate for sustainable features so we oversell their downsides—making it sound sometimes as if we wanted them to fail!

As one designer described the conversation for me recently, “We could use natural ventilation if you're OK with having high levels of discomfort, the potential of doors slamming and the risk of a window being left open during a snowmaggedon.”

How many clients will be receptive to that pitch?

What to do?

When clients ask me how to create more opportunities to do more consequential work that aligns with their values, my advice is: know what your values are, and align your process with them.

If your values compel you to incorporate sustainability and wellness into your designs, then don’t use the client as an excuse to keep you from pursuing the ideals of wellness goals. Take responsibility for your own process, identify the small moves you can make to shift your own perceptions, and watch those changes as they expand to generate project results.

Am I being too one-sided here? Comment below tell me what I’m getting wrong and where you have succeeded in this arena.

As always, BuildingGreen is here to help. Here are three recent feature articles that help our members think through these issues and incite new ideas for your practice.  Read one today, and let me know what your takeaway is:

Published August 7, 2017

Roberts, T. (2017, August 7). Why We Let Ourselves Do Mediocre Work. Retrieved from

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November 10, 2017 - 2:53 pm

I have long believed that, as consultants, our primary responsibility is to tell the client when they are trying to do something that is dumb (i.e. working against their own long-term best interests, or those of the project).  This is not a popular point of view, because it is not easy to do and can put one in conflict with "the boss".  And yet it has to be done.

Owners do not hire architects because the Owner knows how to design a building.  They hire architects because they do NOT know how to design a building, and in many cases do not even know what they want out of a building.

Similarly, architects do not (or should not) hire engineers  to agree with them.  They hire engineers to tell them what they need to know, to make the project a success.  This means that sometimes they need to hear something that they would rather not.

As consultants, we need to be more willing to step up, push back against bad decisions, and push towards good options.  It's not easy, and sometimes it's risky, but it is necessary.  And I believe that many (though perhaps not all) clients will learn to appreciate honest critical feedback once they realize that it comes from a desire to make the project as good as it can possibly be.

October 23, 2017 - 8:09 pm

Hi Tristan, great parts.  Owning it is good.... and better yet, it is core to our values.  YET..., yes, yet...  if we can't take responsibility for the process of others, we are constantly only identifying the small moves we can make to shift the team's perceptions.  And that, STILL, keeps the project goals far from the values "sent down" from above.  As consultants, we ARE bold, but we don't last long within the process.

October 3, 2017 - 1:06 pm

Love the article. Completely agree with owning it. Here is what I tell folks. We never ask the  client if they want a beautiful project. We just do it. We assume it. So why are we asking them if they want a sustainable project as if environmental and healthy is an option? Why do we need more money to be more creative ? I get the ask for certifications and other work but do we need to be paid more to be better architects ? I say - sustainability is beauty so get with the program architects ! Be bold !