Sustainability is fundamental to our future as design professionals, but it takes authenticity and smart planning to expand the discipline in an effective manner. Here are a few principles to keep in mind.
Provide safety, function, and value, in that order. To create truly sustainable projects, the priority must be the personal safety of the human beings who ultimately interact with the design. All sorts of factors can threaten safety, including disorganization, time constraints, and external factors such as natural disaster. The recent rash of catastrophes across the globe reminds us that good design must withstand nature’s blows as effectively as possible. How often have we seen poorly executed structures lead to inexcusable loss?
Next, designs must be functional. Features have to complement, not work against, the surrounding envelope. They must also match clients’ capacity to manage them over a short-, medium-, and long-term cycle. While projects are always defined within prescribed boundaries, it is essential to examine peripheral features and factors that could impact a design’s success.
Finally, sustainable designs must bring real value to the client and the larger community. The project must meet the expectations of the community, enhance the client’s brand, and act as an economic development trigger.
Conduct an orchestra. To achieve sustainability, clients need planners who act not only as design experts but who can also mold diverse perspectives into a single objective. Just as an orchestra conductor coordinates individual instruments, the planner should bring an overarching sense of order, structure, and intentionality to a project. As a conductor, a planner can turn everyone with a role in the project, including municipal officials, project engineers, private investors, business owners, young entrepreneurs, and others, into sustainability champions. This principle entails more than simply gathering participants in a room. It requires that sustainability goals remain intact throughout the project’s execution.
Acting as a conductor also means learning to orchestrate public-private partnerships. This is an essential competency among design firms today as more projects require involvement from both public entities and private investors. Design firms must be able to unite assets from each, including private-sector capital and public-sector tax breaks and services.
Market green space. As we know, the past few decades have been dominated by unsustainable building practices. Ring after ring of available land has been built out in the name of progress, even as this strategy has worked against the greater social and environmental good. Today’s cash-strapped communities have paid a high price for this dilution of resources. Roadways are gridlocked and drainage and sewage systems are overburdened. It’s our job to show that real value lies in knowing where to develop and where to leave the earth alone.
We’re seeing this unfold for a current municipal client who has accepted the concept of integrating permanent green space into a design strategy even if it limits availability for badly needed retail and housing. Historically, this would not have been an easy sell. This community has seen an uptick in population because of its rural charm, excellent public school system, and proximity to two growing urban centers. Its housing stock is at capacity, and development must occur for the city to gain more revenues and thrive. In the past, a client in this situation might have favored a quick fix and converted low-lying, undeveloped flood-prone acreage into single-family neighborhoods. Thankfully, our client accepted keeping development out of the floodplain and pushed through a zoning code specifically for passive green space. Now, thousands of acres of protected green space will act as a stormwater management tool while reinforcing the community’s bucolic brand.
Moreover, by eliminating future development in the floodplain, building has been confined to areas that the community can better manage. Our client can invite development within a very specific framework, and we can deploy leading-edge recommendations on green building technology, design-build trends, and life cycle management for innovative spaces in the civic core. This is true resiliency planning.
Develop creative reuse strategies. The current focus on the stewardship of existing assets means that planning and design firms will be called upon to find creative solutions for defunct sites and blighted properties. Communities want to see available space within the existing infrastructure restored to commerce, and a design professional must be ready to offer innovative strategies for the unanticipated challenges that can accompany these types of sites.
We recently developed a re-use/redevelopment strategy for one of the largest contaminated site clean-up projects in the United States, which included the takedown of a former manufacturing plant. Our initial role was to devise a reuse for tens of thousands of tons of slag material and broken concrete that would otherwise have been removed and dumped.
Our sustainable solution for this hindrance was to organize the materials by color shade, load them into gabion baskets, and use them along a highway retention wall as erosion control in the same community. The baskets will be placed in alternating patterns according color, creating a visually appealing and highly functional solution. The success of the project led to subsequent phases of work with this global client.
Identify internal strengths. The new normal for design firms means doing more with fewer staff. Be sure your team is exhausting all of its possible talents and that, as a leader, you’re doing what you can to foster further learning. The firm’s collective brain power has to be excited about staying on the leading edge and mastering the latest techniques in building technologies, life cycle management, and more. A keen awareness of the firm’s collective strengths will help it secure projects that dovetail with its competencies.
Consider how M&A can work for you. In some cases, a merger or acquisition may make sense. Is it time to join forces with a team that brings different strengths to the table? How would this increase exposure to new markets? If you lose staff in the process, will you have the team you need to fulfill your brand promise?
Be sincere. The Latin word for sustain is sustinere, which means “to hold up what one cares about.” It’s crucial, therefore, to find out what our clients care about and create a plan that supports those aspirations. In a broad sense, we know that clients want to invest in projects and adapt practices today that will continue to add value well into the future. It’s our job to develop specific strategies and systems to help them get there.
Most important, firms that offer resilient design will be successful only if they practice what they preach. Just as our clients are at different places along the continuum of sustainability awareness, so are design firms. Examine your commitment to sustainability and develop strategies to improve your systems continually.
Patrick C. Moore is a partner with ERM’s Southern Division, where he leads sustainability planning.
- Fellowship Alert: Designing Cities Fellowship @ National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) (transportgooru.com)
- Sustainable home building ‘is becoming easier’ (ratedpeople.com)
- Emotion Is Currency: A Five-Point Plan for Effective Sustainability Communications (sustainablebrands.com)
- Urban Greening May Reduce Crime Rates in Cities (ecodistributioninc.wordpress.com)
- The Pricing of Social Innovation (worldofinnovations.net)
- Events management turns green: An interview with Roger Simons (eco-business.com)
- Greenwash: have the benefits of green space been exaggerated? (cresh.org.uk)