Know Thy Client: 9 Un-Green Strategies for Delivering Better Buildings
Making all your projects high-performance means getting in touch with what your client really wants and checking “green building” at the door.
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There are the clients that we dream about—with signature push-the-envelope green projects and a flexible budget to suit—and then there are the clients that architects like Z Smith, AIA, principal at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (EDR), see in real life.
Smith says that when it comes to sustainability, his projects can be put into one of three slots:
- Converted, but on a budget
- Interested, but want return on investment
- Persuadable, just don’t call it “green”
In the latter category, Smith says that limitations create opportunities. The Children’s Hospital Ambulatory Care facility in New Orleans was faced with a retrofit-or-build-new decision on a 60,000 ft2 facility spread over three dated 1960s buildings. The operations officials at the Children’s Hospital were driven by the desire to funnel every dime they have into patient care. “Green” wasn’t on their radar.
Zoning forced the hospital to work with its existing buildings, but even with that limitation, or maybe because of it, the EDR design could easily be mistaken for a green building. Tight floor-to-floor heights forced an efficient HVAC distribution design using dedicated outdoor air systems (DOAS) for ventilation air, in combination with fan-coil units and mini-splits using variable refrigerant flow (VRF) to handle sensible loads. Simulations showed that upgrading both walls and glazing would save $120,000 in equipment costs, largely through reduced air leakage, while saving close to $20,000 per year operationally.
Smith says that the project should meet the 2030 Challenge goal of 50% energy savings over a benchmark project, and the renovation was budgeted at half the price of new construction, without the environmental impact of a full tear-down. (The project is currently on hold while the hospital absorbs other facilities into its inventory.)
Conversations with Smith and other designers reveal a few key lessons for professionals who want to add value to projects on an everyday basis but face everything from clients with tight budgets to those who simply aren’t focused on having a high-performing building to those who break out in hives at the very mention of LEED.
Know Thy Client
We know that, despite perceptions, green building doesn’t have to cost extra (see How to Build Green At No Added Cost), and a lot of case studies that we heard about in researching this article were punctuated by remarks like, “Oh, and we had instant payback with thus-and-such strategy.”
But savvy designers EBN spoke with don’t begin the conversation with cost. They start out trying to deeply understand what the client values—and then go about meeting those values within the limitations of the project.
1. Solve this client’s problems—not someone else’s
“Learning how to meet people where they’re at and then focus on their interests” has become the lens through which Clark Brockman, AIA, of SERA Architects approaches clients, and he says it’s been transformative for his firm and for making projects more sustainable.
Brockman has worked with several projects where the client is a merchant developer who isn’t in it for the long term: they’re developing a project such as a residential tower under a complicated financial structure that might have them flipping the project before it’s even built. Typical green selling points like payback, occupant satisfaction, and even higher rents might not register with them. “Many, if not most financial incentives come to projects after occupancy, which is too late to impact the bottom line for merchant developers,” says Brockman.
That money matters isn’t news to anyone, but Brockman says that his firm worked to “understand the way [merchant developers] build their financial model knowing that it’s a time-based issue.” From this, SERA found that if they could demonstrate water savings through modeling, one regional development incentive could be delivered during the permitting process, which fit well with the developer’s bottom line. “We’ve created our own calculators in-house to demonstrate when we can bring different incentives or benefits to the project,” says Brockman. He emphasizes the iterative development process for these calculators—showing them to clients, asking where they fit or don’t fit their reality, and making adjustments. “The more clients we showed it to, the better it got,” he says, to the point where clients stopped poking holes in it and simply said, ‘Wow, this is really helpful.’” Brockman notes that SERA put a chunk of non-billable time into that, but the firm has developed it into a market differentiator.
Brockman attributes his orientation on understanding clients to his work with Steven Isaacs, P.E., Assoc. AIA, a division manager with FMI Corporation and author of the book Negotiate With Confidence: Field-tested Ways to Get the Value You Deserve. Isaacs, who teaches workshops in negotiation, begins his classes with the following question. “The goal of a negotiation is to satisfy…”
A) my interests
B) your interests
While many professionals answer C—both, Isaacs argues, “The goal is to satisfy my interests. The means is to focus on their interest.”
Brockman, who has practiced this for years, agrees: “It’s about what do they care about the most, and if I’m focusing on that, I can trust my instincts to keep my interests in play. We’re naturally wired to attend to our own interests.”
Isaacs says that focusing on the client’s interests plays to the strength of designers: by understanding what the client really needs, designers can feel empowered to come up with creative solutions to problems, “which is exactly what we do in design.”
That perspective is echoed by Jean Carroon, FAIA, of Goody Clancy, who says, “Design is all about dialogue and testing and going back and forth and drawing out more information” from clients. Carroon was recently meeting with the Brooks School in Weston, Massachusetts, showing them drawings for a dance studio. “In the course of conversation, you draw things that they forget or didn’t think were important.” The design team had thought of the dance studios as being open and transparent—with plenty of views and daylighting, per Green Building 101. But in meeting with the client, “We started talking about the shyness of high school students when they are starting to work through dance.” The drawings began shifting dramatically to offering daylighting with views out but not in.
2. Ask questions first; draw later
When Lance Hosey, FAIA, became chief sustainability officer for RTKL after having worked at William McDonough + Partners, he realized, “I had been in a unique and rarefied position of never having to persuade anybody about sustainability because they came to us for it.” He says, “I realize now it’s a real niche market,” and “a firm like RTKL,” which is publicly traded, “works with everyone, every kind of client.”
Hosey says that early on at RTKL, he surveyed the entire firm about perceptions of sustainable design. “The answers were what you’d expect—not enough time, not enough money, reluctant clients.” In other words, says Hosey, the strong perception was that “in order to pursue sustainable design, you need more time, more money, and enlightened clients who are ready to race toward the horizon.”
Hosey’s answer to that was to develop a focus at RTKL on what he terms “performance-driven design”—which he defines as a strategy to “improve the value of the built environment.” His first recommendation? Not that different than others, Hosey says teams should “identify the goals and values of the clients and communities we’re serving in the project.”
Critical of the ‘draw first, ask questions later’ approach that is common in design, Hosey says, “How can you design things when you don’t know what you’re designing towards?” Hosey wants to understand what matters to clients so that green designers don’t make the mistake of going in talking about energy and water, only to learn that a client views those strategies as nonstarters.
That doesn’t imply that sustainable solutions shouldn’t be pursued; to the contrary, it requires teams to dig deeper to understand the connections between different design strategies and find ways to add value—just what designers are paid to do.
Projects focused on saving money end up getting rid of things through value-engineering exercises, says Hosey, but as designers often complain, “presumably the things you got rid of were there for a reason.” A smarter approach is to eliminate expensive resources like mechanical systems while relying on free resources like daylighting and outdoor air. “So the client wanted to save money; passive design will help you do that both in first cost and operating cost, with the additional benefit of conserving resources. Those same strategies can help well-being,” and in starting from one value while looking for connections to others, you’ve made good on the client’s needs while adding value through good design.
Putting this into practice with a large corporate client with more than 100,000 employees globally, RTKL was tasked with reducing the company’s real estate footprint by 10% to reduce operating costs. “We took their typical space and just by being a little smarter on how to arrange it, we got to 15% or 20%,” says Hosey. “We could have stopped there,” he says, but the team kept going, exploring hoteling strategies, benches, low partitions, and shared countertops, and reached a best-case scenario of 35% space savings.
By using smart design, “you’ve suddenly made it easier to move light and air around, created unimpeded views to the outdoors, and created a much more productive space”—all without uttering the word “green.” And a design solution that started as a way to chip away at the roughly 10% of operating expenses directly related to facilities gradually became a way to improve employee productivity in a company where 90% of costs are related to human resources.
“The word ‘sustainability’ never came up,” claims Hosey, “but we could get to a much better environmental footprint even with the [existing] real estate they are using.”
3. Find low-cost ways to fulfill green wishes
Of course, not everyone is a reluctant partner on sustainability.
Plenty of projects want green features, but “I don’t think anybody has the committed client who doesn't have a budget,” says Z Smith of EDR. Smith relates the story (from when he was with Busby Perkins + Will) of the Center for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) at the University of British Columbia. Known for its heavy-timber structure in pursuit of targeted net-positive embodied carbon (see Whole-Building Life-Cycle Assessment: Taking the Measure of a Green Building), Smith says that a rigid project budget helped drive that defining design choice.
Although the building was targeting Living Building Challenge compliance, Smith says that the agency tasked with building it was “practically a for-profit company. They get a budget, and they push on you to deliver it.” With design under way in 2008, Smith says, “The only building material whose price had gone down in the last three years was wood.” Not only that, but there was a glut of people who could work with wood, which was a boon for the project, whose floors aren’t the factory-made cross-laminated timber that some timber projects are using but are simply “a whole bunch of 2x4s on end.” Paired with the goal of reduced carbon construction, Smith says, “We could say, look, ‘It’s not only right for carbon; it’s right from the cost perspective.’”
Cost was also at the forefront for the project in looking at its goal of net-zero energy. “We had a couple of program elements with very high energy use—a café and a lecture theater, and they wanted to do green-roof research, so slathering the whole building in solar panels was going to be difficult.”
“We realized the building next door was a really wasteful building,” says Smith. “Even though they had just upgraded their mechanical systems, they had not installed energy recovery on fume hoods.” The cheapest way to get to zero, the team concluded, was to “break into their smokestacks, harvest the heat and sell it back to them. The design intent was that the day the building opened, the campus greenhouse gas emissions would go down, not up.”
This approach didn’t pass muster for the project’s Living Building Challenge bid because the International Living Future Institute didn’t approve of the carbon-based source of the heat, but the strategy helped meet the project goals and budget.
4. Do your homework on ROI
The New Orleans BioInnovation Center (NOBIC) had a unique circumstance allowing them wiggle room in a budget—but return on investment was at the forefront.
According to Smith, the client was interested in green, but the main hold-up on the project was financing. Although the financing was delayed, when it came in, there was a silver lining: a short-lived post-Katrina spike in construction costs had ended, and there was a little extra money to invest up front. Even though the project was already in 100% construction documents, the client came back to EDR and, according to Smith, said, “I know I had told you I was worried about meeting our budget,” but now, “make the case for all the things I can do to lower long-term operating costs.”
The team investigated a host of changes, including going from a standard roof to a reflective roof, from air-cooled to water-cooled chillers, and from a standard to a high-performance thermally broken curtainwall system. The project already had a water feature as an aesthetic piece; that became a stormwater handling system, which integrated with a gravel base under the parking lot to percolate water. (The latter strategy didn’t have a financial payback, but it’s the only parking lot in the neighborhood that doesn’t flood in rain—offering another tangible kind of payback.)
According to Smith, upgrades that were expensive with good payback got the green light, while other improvements that were cheap but with poor payback became free riders. “In the end, the package of improvements cost $600,000, and payback was $150,000 to $200,000 per year, says Smith, “at which point the owner said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us this before?’”
5. Keep it practical
“We research our clients pretty thoroughly,” says Mara Baum, AIA, healthcare sustainable design leader at HOK. “We really want to know what makes them tick.” During the design of a 150,000 ft2 mental health facility in Salem, Oregon, Baum says HOK learned that the main focus of the facilities team was running a good hospital, which is difficult enough: they “have a lot on their mind,” she notes. HOK translated that client value into a low-maintenance, energy-efficient design that has measured operational energy use intensity (EUI) of 72 btu/ft2—69% below the national average for hospitals and 58% below code.
Building on this success, a similar project for the same client in Junction City, Oregon, has a design for even simpler, more efficient mechanical systems with a ground-source heat pump as the centerpiece, a low-maintenance system that allowed them to do away with much of the central utility plant. “The facility manager was initially skeptical” because he hadn’t experienced this kind of system, according to Baum, but a visit to a similar facility nearby won him over. So did the fact that the hospital, which would normally have to have a primary and a backup fuel source, could get rid of both conventional systems, since the geo-exchange system it put in place was simply extracting heat from the Earth. According to Baum, the system has a “net first cost of zero—and is simpler to operate.” Based on what they’ve seen at the Salem facility, Baum says this system could use as little as 55 Btu/ft2.
6. Design for the client’s true priorities
According to Brockman, listening to clients doesn’t have to limit the options you pursue under the banner of sustainability; it can clarify which ones are more important and help you focus your efforts as a designer.
Brockman referred to SERA’s work with a corporate client that is very concerned with the health impacts of materials and creating a healthy workplace. “It’s removed the ambiguity around the tension between indoor air quality and energy efficiency, which is built into LEED and other energy efficiency standards,” says Brockman. Do you increase ventilation rates and filtration at the expense of energy? He says his firm can listen to the client’s priorities and translate them to design priorities. In this case—and as a broader example of what is happening in the industry—“the health of occupants and employees should transcend marginal energy savings,” says Brockman.
In general, Brockman is finding health to be an issue that acts as the equivalent of a foot in the door for sustainable design: “raising awareness around human health is something that we’re finding has a lot of traction even with people who would otherwise be skeptical. The range of people who are interested is bigger than the range of people who are interested in just energy, water, and LEED.”
That doesn’t mean that “health” is a banner to carry into any project. Again, Brockman says to look at it from the client’s interests. “The office client is interested in cognitive function; the preschool is going to be interested in things that could have long-term health and development impacts for kids,” he argues. “We need to bring these ideas to them in ways that matter to them.”
Another bottom-line-driven business is retail, and here again, Hosey says that a focus on client values feeding into performance-driven design pays off on multiple fronts. Sales are king in retail, and RTKL discovered that for every 1% rise in “dwell time”—the amount of time customers spend in stores—there is a greater than 1% increase in sales. “How do you get people to linger? Well, people hang out because it’s a nice place to be. Now you can connect it to design for comfort,” including everything from indoor air quality to daylighting to connection to the outdoors. The sky’s the limit.
Multifamily housing is another sector notorious for being bottom-line driven, with developers passing costs on to tenants. But in one instance, RTKL focused on the cost to the developer when tenants move—renovation costs, advertising, vetting potential tenants. RTKL was able to focus on lease renewals as a key financial driver on the project, and “our research shows that if you know one other person in the building where you live, you are 70% more likely to renew your lease; if you know two or three people, you’re 90% more likely.” Hosey asks, “What is it that’s going to help people get to know each other?” One answer they found was that more abundant landscaping contributed to a better sense of community. “The client just wanted to make more money,” says Hosey, but suddenly they’re planting more trees, filtering rainwater, mitigating the urban heat island, and bringing on other cascading benefits.
…Oh, and Know Thyself
Listening to clients doesn’t mean not standing for anything.
7. Establish a pattern of quality across the firm
According to Barbra Batshalom, executive director of the Sustainable Performance Institute, which helps both design firms and the clients they serve move toward sustainability at the organizational level, “The best in the business have already established internally with great clarity their own commitment and what does it mean to achieve health and high performance—independent of the client. They’ve established a methodology around project delivery so that when they engage with clients, they’re not just reactive: they’re bringing something to the table.”
Central to that, says Batshalom, is defining the quality of work that the firm is delivering. She says, “Firms don’t usually have a good sense of what those elements are that define quality on the projects they are delivering.” Batshalom engages firms in a mapping process that includes major project milestones, along with issues that impede performance and collaboration. Firms “overlay what do we need to change to be able to achieve what we want to achieve.”
For one firm she’s worked with, that has meant establishing a 100-point checklist defining what needs to go into an energy simulation. For another, that meant getting more serious about collecting energy data from operational projects and linking the data to projects that had performed early-design-phase energy modeling.
When firms that have engaged consciously with a project delivery process like this, Batshalom says that “client surveys are off the charts. They say, ‘There are no B teams; we’re getting quality across the firm.’” She added that clients share that they aren’t pushing projects along; they sense true leadership from firms.
8. Show your ideas—not just your pictures
At RTKL, Hosey says that designers have to do more than show clients two sets of drawings and asking which one they like better: show them what’s elegant about your design solutions. In other words, give them the expertise they are paying for.
“We’re working on a big project in Dubai that has a lot of residential in it, right on the beach,” he says, and RTKL had to work on two design schemes, one of which U-shaped courtyards and was based on a master plan developed before they were involved..
“Instead, we created a design that was optimized for breezes and more spaces that were facing the view. When we showed [the client] the two schemes, they initially preferred the original. The minute we showed that 40% more units” could be offered with a lease premium due to views, “they immediately switched their allegiances to the second scheme.”
Hosey sees multiple victories here: RTKL was able to focus on the smarter scheme, and by focusing on only one design much earlier than usual, “We can get more profitable on a project and deliver the design earlier in the process because we’re not spinning our wheels.”
9. Help them write their sustainability story
“I really try to understand where people’s passions lie in order to understand how to work with them,” says Kirk Teske, AIA, both chief operations officer and chief sustainability officer for HKS. That said, Teske does bring up sustainability early on in a way that addresses the budget concerns of his clients. First, he talks with clients about payback of sustainability features, though not necessarily in those terms. “If I talk about a 12.5% return” versus an eight-year payback, “I am much more successful”—even though they are mathematically the same.
Teske also goes after energy: “They are going to designate a cost budget, and we would like them to be an equal supporter of an energy budget.” By putting it in those terms—Teske also refers to “having the discipline to design to an energy budget,” he pitches it as the common-sense, responsible thing to do. He notes that HKS can supply an EUI target using Target Finder and through examples from internal project data. “And that can lead to other sustainability features,” he adds.
Those features, including LEED certification, can contribute to marketing, Teske notes, and though dyed-in-the-wool green builders understand that sustainability goes beyond marketing, storytelling has resonance for a variety of building owners.
The Business Case for Listening
“I’ve been struggling with the tension between a desire to mitigate climate change and basically further the whole suite of [sustainability] agenda items that exist,” says Brockman, while “at the same time remaining a successful and profitable business.”
“We need to focus on those things that further that agenda and that also further the client’s interests,” he says. “It isn’t good business to try to bring that whole suite of issues to bear with each client. What you want to do is find the ones that are most in alignment with their interests. With some clients, you can have a larger suite of issues you can bring forward.”
Teske agrees: “We try to push sustainability but try to be pragmatic so clients can respect us and know we are looking out for their best interests.” He says that HKS has learned when and where strategies make sense and when they don’t—so they won’t push green roofs in arid climates where they won’t be seen, for example.
Executing successfully on a limited range of issues can provide a green light for broader issues, says Brockman. “If the client actually sees the predicted outcomes become actual outcomes, your credibility goes up, and the odds of them being a repeat client go up. And the next time around, we’ve had repeat clients feel more comfortable letting us explore a broader range of options.”
Published October 6, 2014
Receive continuing education credit for reading this article. The Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) has approved this course for 1 CE hour towards the LEED Credential Maintenance Program. The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) has approved this course for 1 LFA hour.
Upon completing this course, participants will be able to:
- Focus on a client’s values to drive sustainability solutions.
- Define the quality of the work being delivered to underscore shared values.
- Communicate the potential to dovetail energy- and cost-efficiency measures.
- Employ performance-driven design as a strategy to improve the value of the built environment.
To earn continuing education credit, make sure you are logged into your personal BuildingGreen account, then read this article and pass this quiz.
Use the following questions to inform class discussions or homework assignments.
- How does understanding a client’s needs empower a designer?
- What is the definition of “performance-driven design” and how does it relate to sustainable design? (What would your DART tool include?)
- What un-green issues might get your “foot in the door for sustainable design”?
- What types of incentives or benefits fit well with a merchant developer’s bottom line?
- Kirk Teske pitches “having the discipline to design to an energy budget” as “the common-sense, responsible thing to do.” What other sustainability issues would you pitch as common sense and how?