This fall, we’ve been pounding the digital pavement to get a sense if design and construction companies are as sustainable as they say they are. The 300 plus results we’ve received to this point have validated what we’re anecdotally known for years: that there is a sea of disconnect between a company’s marketing and capabilities.
One of the most striking observations is how widely perceptions vary, especially within the same company. I’ll share the interim results and observations from the survey below.
Haven't taken the quiz?Take the quiz to see if your company delivers on their sustainable promises. The best use of the survey is to a significant number of people from your firm to respond. From there we can send you the aggregated results to give you feedback about overall company perception.
In this week’s post, I’ll focus on the first two sections of the survey: Leadership and Project Delivery. A follow-up post will discuss the last two sections: Partnering and Infrastructure.
It’s critical for company leadership to visibly champion sustainable practices in a way that is clear to all staff, at every level within the company. If the priority is unclear, the message is ambiguous or perceived as being insincere, it will not translate into action and opportunities will be missed.
Only 30% of respondents said that leadership consistently makes it clear to staff that sustainable design is an integral part of their job. An almost equal number, 27%, rank this priority as “rare to never”. That’s well over half of respondents that claim that leadership misses a significant opportunity to integrate sustainability into their practice.
Only 28% of respondents said that there were clear roles with authority and accountability to implement sustainability – whether in the form of a Sustainability Director, a Green Team (with authority), or spread throughout different roles within the company. There are different ways to effectively create accountability within a company, but it has to be intentional and clear to all.
Not surprisingly, 86% of respondents said that “Commitment to sustainability is part of public marketing materials,” while only 10% said that sustainability goals for projects were consistently SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound) and understood by all. 47% said that clear goals were established occasionally and 33% said this was rare. If project goals are not clear and SMART, the goals will not be achieved. We will continue to design and build projects (even LEED© projects) that do not attain high performance in critical areas such as energy.
Comments varied from the dominant, “Sustainability is more of a marketing term than a design philosophy” to the rarer, but inspiring, “Our commitment to sustainability has not changed our focus and mission for our business, but only enhanced it.”
The bottom line is that the baseline for professional practice in the majority of companies today is still captured by this comment: “We say our goal is to be sustainable, but mainly it's just lip service. We talk about it, take classes in it, push for LEED AP's, but mainly only do it if it is required by the client.” That says it all.
As mentioned in the Leadership section, only 10% of respondents said that SMART goals are incorporated into all projects, indicating a major barrier to success. One of the biggest differentiators between a traditional project and a sustainable project is accountability and the use of clear, quantifiable performance criteria set at the beginning of the project. However, only 23% of respondents said that sustainability is a clearly articulated expectation within the team from the outset (with 37% saying that it is “usually”), which means there is about a 50/50 split with the rest who say it’s “seldom to never” part of the baseline expectations of a project team. On a related note, this is consistent that only 6% of respondents say that they always achieve clear performance goals on their projects, while the majority, 29%, said they “usually” achieve this. If I were a building owner, I’d be looking for a team that consistently achieves clear performance targets.
There is a comparable split when asked how consistently the integrative design process (IDP) is incorporated into Project Management. 19% say “always”, 42% say “usually” with the remainder saying “seldom to never.” This is slightly better than clear performance goals, but the results are skewed because there is still quite a range of understanding about what integrative design is. Some consider IDP to be a kick-off charette with a LEED checklist, while others have a more complex, ongoing definition that lasts from the beginning to the end of the project.
25% of respondants said that staff have the skills they need to implement sustainable design – although we did not ask what specific skills people are missing. Considering that only 5% said that they always incorporate life cycle costing (LCC) into their decision making, that could represent one example of skills needed to expand (a later comment said that life cycle is only considered when asked for specifically by the client).
One comment captured a common sensibility in architecture, “We are working on developing methods for high performance goals. Measuring them is outside of the ‘architectural box.’ ” We have seen this with project performance as well, especially in architectural practice. Very few firms know anything about the performance of their projects over time and don’t have the opportunity to use that information as a feedback loop to inform future designs. Many commented that “sustainability is seen as an add on” which explains why best practices such as life cycle costing and project performance criteria are not used consistently.
In some cases, the perception is reflected well by this comment, “Project time and budget often prohibit additional ‘feel good’ efforts such as ‘achieving clear performance goals’ ” – I wonder how many clients consider clear performance goals a “feel good” effort. While I say that with a hint of sarcasm, I also know that some clients don’t understand that the time invested up front in identifying clear performance targets, and the paths to achieve them, are the only way to achieve the results they desire. This is a mindset challenge on both sides of the table.
Furthermore, property owners have become more sophisticated. Government, university and healthcare clients have told us that they want to see sustainable design approaches integrated into the design approach for all projects across the board. If that were the world we lived in, the answers to most of these questions (if not all) should have consistently been 100%. The items identified in this survey were aspects of practice that truly green companies answer “yes” to across the board. On one hand, these responses indicate a tremendous shift from just 5 years ago, but they also indicate that we still have room for measurable improvement.
Next week we’ll share the more results from the survey focused on Partnering & Infrastructure and, if your company hasn’t done so,encourage them participate.
Barbra Batshalom is the Founder and Executive Director of the Sustainable Performance Institute. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.