Part 1: Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall, Who’s the Greenest Firm of All?

My last posting spoke about the difference between a company’s green marketing and their true capability to deliver consistent, high quality sustainability at an organizational level. Since then, we published a survey, asking green professionals to honestly reflect on their perception of their company’s true capability. The results have been very interesting.One of the most jarring observations is how widely perceptions vary, especially within the same firm.

Why is this important? Well, for example, if the leadership of a firm assumes that everyone has the tools and resources they need to deliver a green project, but the design staff ‘in the trenches’ feel otherwise…that could indicate a critical gap. When looking in the mirror, it’s important to have different people look at the same reflection and make sure everyone is on the same page.I’d like to share some of the results and observations from this survey. There were different categories in the survey – this week, I’ll focus on Leadership and Project Delivery and next week 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. 27% – an almost equal amount, rank this priority as “rare to never”. That’s more than 50% of self-labeled green leaders (in A/E/C companies) whose own employees are unsure of their priorities.

Only 27.5% of respondents said that clear roles existed with authority and accountability – whether in the form of a Sustainability Director, a Green Team (with authority), or spread throughout different roles within the company. One thing we’ve seen over time is that there are different ways to effectively create accountability within a firm, but it has to exist somewhere.

Not surprisingly, 86% of respondents said that “Commitment to sustainability is part of public marketing materials” but only 10% said that “sustainability goals for projects” were consistently SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound) and understood by all on the team. 

47% said that clear project performance goals were established occasionally and 33% said it was rare.  If project goals are not clear, or SMART, they will not be achieved and we will continue to have projects (even LEED projects) that do not score highly in energy efficiency.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, only enhanced it”

The bottom line is that the baseline for professional practice in the majority of A/E/C firms 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.” This compromises our ability to deliver a consistently high quality sustainability service.

Project Delivery

As mentioned in the Leadership section, only 10% of respondents said that SMART goals are incorporated into all projects – which indicates a huge barrier to success. One of the biggest differentiators between a traditional project and a green project is accountability and the use of clear, quantifiable performance criteria, which must be 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, it is consistent that only 5.5% of respondents say that they always achieve clear performance goals on their projects. The dominant response was “usually” at 28.8%. 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 integrative design process is incorporated into Project Management. 19% say “always”, 42% say “usually” with the rest saying “seldom to never”. 

This may seem slightly better, however, the devil is in the details. There is still quite a range of difference in people’s understanding of integrative design. Some consider ID to be defined solely by a kick-off charrette with a LEED checklist, while others have a more complex, ongoing definition of collaboration that lasts throughout the project.

24.7% say that staff have the skills they need to implement sustainable design – although we did not ask (yet) what specific skills people are missing. Considering that only 5% say that they always incorporate life cycle costing 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 commonly held sensibility in the architecture profession, “We are working on developing methods for high performance goals. However, measuring them is outside of the Architectural ‘box.’ ”. We see this with project performance as well. Very few firms or teams 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 decisions.

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’ (in water, energy, health, etc)” – 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 may be a mindset challenge on both sides of the table.

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 been 100% “Consistently”….the items identified in this survey were aspects of practice that truly green companies DO answer Yes to across the board. On one hand, these responses indicate a tremendous shift from just 5 years ago! However, they also indicate that we still have room for improvement!