- 1. Teach Cross-Disciplinary Skills
- 2. Encourage Ecological Thinking
- 3. Develop Financial Literacy
Three Imperatives to Create the Future of Green Building
The industry will be in a better place a decade from now if we master these skills.
By Erin Weaver
What should the state of green building be ten years from now? Whether your vision is for net-zero-energy buildings, communities that are integrated with their natural environments, or healthy living and working environments for everyone, there are some basic skills the industry has to master for that kind of goal to be realized.
As part of a report prepared for the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), BuildingGreen and others conducted interviews with key players representing a wide range of building-related workforce sectors throughout North America. These conversations revealed a number of common wishes; focusing on the U.S. and Canada, we take an in-depth look at three of them here: cross-disciplinary skills, ecological thinking, and financial literacy.
Many educational institutions in the U.S. and Canada now offer green building courses targeting specific sectors—a big step forward in the last decade—but most of these institutions still don’t give students skills and knowledge they need to participate fully in thethat is so crucial to successful green design, building, and operations.
At a time when green building is still becoming established in the mainstream, there is a risk of “green backlash” when buildings don’t live up to expectations because some aspect of the design has been compromised along the way. If the electrician inadvertently punches holes in the air barrier and, during occupancy, escaping water vapor condenses in the wall cavity and feeds mold, a “green” design can easily become a sub-par building.
Established building professionals and tradespeople may not seek training that fills these gaps in their knowledge until it’s too late. “Part of the challenge,” says Yancy Wright, former director of green building training at Sellen Sustainability, “is that the industry doesn't know what they don’t know!” He finds that people only realize they need training “when they start losing work because they don’t have the qualifications to successfully deliver high-performance green buildings.”
Still, it can be difficult to generate enough interest to fill a classroom, he says. “Maybe they’ve had training that didn’t feel relevant,” he speculates, and “after a while it gives a bad name to training in general.” There is no “one size fits all” for construction training, he continues; in teaching people from different disciplines, there can be “core content that applies to everybody, but with subtle differences—you have to customize the anecdotal stories and case studies. The big picture is fine” but isn’t sufficient “for union tradespeople out in the field.”
Moving to a design/build/operate model would help ensure that performance was not compromised along the way, but such a model would require a great deal more training at all levels in the “soft skills” of communicating across disciplines.
That kind of communication works best when it starts with the owner—who, says Stephen Pope, FRAIC, an architect who works with Natural Resources Canada, “needs to be educated that deeper engagement with the design team brings benefits that can’t be found anywhere else.” In the end, this means the owner understands the design intent fully enough to see it carried out successfully in a building’s long-term performance.
“Integrating the seams”
Gail Brager, Ph.D., associate director of the University of California–Berkeley Center for the Built Environment, thinks that architects especially need training in facilitating collaboration among disciplines. She sees an increasing specialization of professionals, which “makes it hard to collaborate and see the big picture.” Instead, she says, “everyone on the team needs a basic understanding of the building as a whole so the team has a basis for communication.” For example, projects would benefit from architects having a deeper understanding of energy modeling, says Brager—“not to be able to do it, but to get how it works so they can interact with it more effectively.”
Design teams are increasingly “having more meetings, better communication, and fewer change orders,” observes Pope, “but they are still trying to solve the problems on their own. They are not integrating. What’s needed is a different attitude about design.”
Consulting engineer Michael Ivanovich, of the Air Movement and Control Association, agrees that there is a major training gap in “integrating the seams between the architect and the engineer, the engineer and the contractor, the contractor and the owner, and so on.” He adds that these interdisciplinary gaps often have more to do with communication skills than with knowledge about sustainable design.
In addition to technical training for specific sectors, a “common language” is a necessary backdrop for collaborative skills and the ability to communicate design intent. In just one example of an interaction in which communication can break down, Sandy Mendler, AIA, principal at Mithun, told EBN, “Architects get ourselves in trouble when we’re talking about construction costs with clients but they think we’re talking total project costs. It’s very basic, but you see it over and over again, needing to have clarity on what we mean when we talk about costs. How do we speak the right language?”
When Brager teaches classes involving both engineers and architects, she is “amazed at the language differences,” she says, and facilitating communication around common goals is a challenge. Vivian Loftness, FAIA, professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, notes that the LEED accreditation system has been “very helpful because people from so many different disciplines have gone through it; it gives everyone a common language. That’s critical to collaboration.”
Like many in the design professions, specialty consultants are, by definition, focused on a particular aspect of a project; here, too, more cross-disciplinary education is needed.
Alberta engineering consultant Gordon Shymko, P.Eng., describes the common, segmented style of green building as the “shopping-list approach” of “ticking the box,” as opposed to an integrated approach in which everyone has some understanding of how the items on that list affect each other. Again, there is the risk of compromising the design through lack of communication: envelope consultants, for example, have to know of any additions that might affect the envelope, such as interior blinds that can trap heat against the glass.and are increasing in popularity but are still brought in too late in the process, says Pope. “to identify potential tradeoffs, not just as technical support,” he says.
Builders, who are “used to coming to [a project] after it’s designed,” also need to be brought in earlier, says Jonathan Westeinde of Ontario-based Windmill Development Group. General contractors and subcontractors, he says, need to become comfortable with an integrated approach in which they adopt a “designer mindset” and can work comfortably with the various design professions.
General contractors are already responsible for a great deal of cross-disciplinary work, as they must communicate up and down the line from designers to subcontractors. Successful green building requires them to understand the interactions of complex systems—and in order to make accurate bids, they must be able to estimate the labor involved in unfamiliar, cutting-edge techniques. This is another key area for “translators,” as involvement at the design stage can ensure that contractors understand the design rationale, making them better prepared to support it throughout construction—for instance, ensuring that tradespeople without their own green training do not compromise the design.
The trades are, in general, lacking in green training, and particularly in the cross-disciplinary training that would help avoid the problems of compromised design that risk green backlash. Derek Satnik, P.Eng., managing partner of Ontario design consulting firm Mindscape Innovations, speaks of a cross-disciplinary need that he refers to as “multi-skilling”: it is essential for tradespeople to understand “other facets of building and how the other building trades relate to them [and] how things interconnect,” he says, so that nothing is seen as simply “someone else’s problem.”
This is improving among design professionals, says Joe Lstiburek, Ph.D., P.Eng. of Building Science Corporation, but among the trades, “we don’t teach people to do the job. People in the field don’t know how to do the work—install tight ducts, flash windows properly, etc.—and simple concepts don’t get executed properly,” causing problems down the line. Loftness feels that the building trades ought to be able to carry out performance testing, such as, and “pre-testing, making sure their systems work before the commissioning agent arrives to check.”
A building’s long-term performance and use determine whether it lives up to its green design goals.
is catching on, and it requires educating occupants on how their actions affect a building’s performance. Building managers have to understand the interactions of complex systems, which they must in turn be able to explain to occupants.
“Buildings work,” says Jenny Carney of YR&G, “when the people running them get the signal that this matters and get some investment in their training. It doesn’t have to be fancy training, but it has to be there.” One existing resource for this training is New York City’s 1,000 Green Supers program, established by SEIU Local 32BJ to train building superintendents. The program emphasizes “techniques to communicate effectively with building owners, tenants, and staff” and encourages supers to “take credit for efforts…that saved energy or improved the building environment” and to show owners how proposed changes will reduce bills and improve the property’s value.
2. Encourage Ecological Thinking
Illuminating the “why” of green approaches can motivate people to pursue those approaches in a way they wouldn’t have previously.
Developing a strong ecological awareness among highly specialized professionals is, in a way, an extension of cross-disciplinary skills: it requires seeing the ways in which a building interacts with a range of interconnected natural systems they might never have considered in relation to their profession. Instilling this way of thinking in existing programs can provide transformational learning experiences.
Training for the trades in particular, says Wright, has to “elevate their concern so they want to be learning more. [If it starts] by helping people understand why they should care, then it’s easier to convince them to continue going to training. This can be as simple as how new green systems are improving the environment for their kids.”
As noted above, green training in the trades lags behind that for the design professions; until there is greater demand for tradespeople with green skills, the incentives to seek out training will continue to be government mandates, employers’ requirements, or a personal concern for the environment. Wright emphasizes that training cannot consist of “just preaching to a bunch of tradespeople;” he prefers to begin by having a group collectively define “sustainability” and come up with a list of barriers to achieving it, so that they “collectively own the definition” upon which the course is premised.
Steve Lehtonen, senior director of environmental education with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), believes from his experience with the Green Plumbers program that “society as a whole is becoming more aware; younger plumbers in five years will be different from the person who’s done it for 20 years.” Green Plumbers courses are offered in an online video format, which Lehtonen says aims to be both convenient and engaging, because “if they get excited, then they’ll learn. We had guys that were 50, 60 years old say, ‘I’m changed completely! I go to a ball game, walk around, and think they’re wasting a lot of water.’”
Such knowledge needs to extend beyond concern for the utility bills: just as those who manage or occupy a building need to be aware of how their decisions affect a building’s performance, they should also understand how the building affects its environment. Where does its water come from, and where does it go? What are the effects of its source of electricity? Beyond the benefits of saving money, an ecological perspective can be a motivating factor in decision-making for the people responsible for a building’s day-to-day use.
The selection of building products for mainstream projects is often concerned only with meeting the basic requirements of local building codes, and code officials, planners, and inspectors are primarily focused on immediate, direct threats like fire rather than long-term hazards like toxic flame retardants.
This may be changing: safety certifier UL made the leap into broad sustainability services in the last few years, starting its UL Environment unit to provide green labels and other environmental verification systems. “UL's mission is to work for a safer world, and we believe that sustainability is a global safety issue,” the company says.
Convincing building code officials to adopt a similar mindset could take a little longer. David Dufresne, education director at the International Code Council, observes that some code officials view the newwith a “fundamental wariness of an unknown new thing, disconnected from other responsibilities. People are taking a wait-and-see attitude.” This presents a large educational opportunity, as a broader ecological mindset could illuminate the long-term health and safety benefits of green building, instead of a piecemeal approach in which materials are only phased out once they have been proven harmful.
Interconnectedness and evolution
Jaimie Cloud, founder of the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education, goes beyond the idea of understanding our ecological impacts, saying, “There is a way of thinking that lends itself to sustainable designs. What does it look like to operate in ways that contribute to the long-term health of whatever system you’re trying to maintain?”
The concept of “regenerative design” is based on ecological thinking, with the ideal that “the building supports the co-evolution of human and natural systems over time,” according to Ray Cole, Ph.D., professor of architecture at the University of British Columbia. The idea, says Cole, that “the things that [designers] create are not merely doing less harm but actually can bring a positive contribution” is much more inspirational and “alters the questions you ask and the solutions you seek. Without that, we’re not going to get the big leap, the big attitude change.”
While an ecological mindset is a necessary transformation for all workforce sectors—for all human inhabitants of the planet, really—it also should not be expected to be a marketable skill on its own, without accompanying technical skills. Lance Fletcher, AIA, director of the Sustainable Design Institute at Boston Architectural College, speaks of sustainable design as a way of thinking that requires designers, clients, and others to know “the underlying questions to ask. If you know all the 2011 widgets, you’re out of date. If you know the questions to ask as you do whatever you do with the built environment, you can stay up to date. It’s about building a culture that gives this priority.”
Before a building project is undertaken, says Thomas Mueller, president of the Canada Green Building Council, “a business decision has to be made. The first question is always, ‘What’s the business case?’” As a result, green building advocates routinely need to make the case for new approaches and technologies to those who control the purse strings, and it helps to speak their language.
For example, Mendler notes that “payback is a very limited concept” because it only considers the financial picture up to the point when the initial investment has been recouped. Net present value, on the other hand, is much better for taking into account continued revenue streams and allowing comparison to other potential investments for those funds. Architects, she concludes, should be able to understand financial analysis in order to understand what other team members are looking at.
Once designers start to think like clients or developers, they can help the whole project team solve problems more holistically. “I’ve found that large, complex projects are always built in phases,” Mendler told EBN. Designers “can add value by looking at the way the project will be implemented over time.” Investing in renewable energy generation, Mendler notes, is like pre-paying for energy, and “we’re not a culture used to pre-paying.” When that becomes an obstacle, Mendler seeks to take the risk and up-front financing out of the equation by engaging a third-party entity that will provide the energy generation infrastructure and just charge the client for the energy they use.
Of course, green building advocates are a diverse group, and no one approach is universally agreed upon. Rex Miller, management consultant with Virginia-based TAG Consulting, counters that while the design community should be “conversant” in financial metrics, architects will “lose credibility” if they “try to do the business spreadsheet stuff [because] that’s not our game.” Instead, they should try to change owners’ “reductive way of thinking.” Designers need to learn to move the conversation, he says, from “How much will it cost me to get that?” to a narrative vision of “how the building becomes more than just the building” and “how you’ll be a different company in the process.”
Barry Giles, founder of consulting firm BuildingWise, contends that in order to reach the owners of large commercial portfolios, the financial argument for green building should be made in business publications like Barrons and The Wall Street Journal. He acknowledges that “a lot of education is needed at all levels, but resources won’t be available” for retrofits, future projects, or training of building managers “until value is assigned from the top.”
In Pope’s experience, the best-performing buildings have a “client story” behind them of people “willing to change corporate culture,” which can be nurtured by the “narrative” Miller proposes. Communication between designers and owners is essential, says Pope, and requires a facilitator who is not one of the lead designers or project managers but “someone who will be responsible for the process—a design facilitator…who can ask the client an embarrassing question: ‘Why are you being such a cheapskate at this moment?’”
Scott Muldavin, a senior advisor at the Rocky Mountain Institute, promotes what he calls the “value beyond energy-cost savings” model, or VBECS, which takes into account a wide range of performance outcomes and assigns value to them.
This includes benefits to employee health, recruiting, and “all these things that people know that green buildings do” but which are ignored in current methods of valuing buildings. Although in the last few years there has been “an unbelievable turn in the commercial market” in which green building is generally accepted as a good idea, Muldavin notes, there still isn’t an underlying understanding of value. He calls the current system a “false analytic structure” that doesn’t deal accurately with overall costs.
“Value incorporates risk,” he says, which is “the single most important issue people need to understand better.” In a retrofit project, for example, “decisions about what to do and how much to spend are based on a forecast of performance results and costs. The risks are tremendous,” but smart designers and engineers incorporate a number of strategies to mitigate those risks, such as right-sizing, energy modeling, and commissioning. “A lot of risk mitigation is going on but is not articulated,” says Muldavin; they are “doing it implicitly but not presenting it in a way that identifies the risks and talks about mitigating them. That’s what people need to know to understand the nature of risk.”
The VBECS approach provides separate models for occupants and investors, based on outcomes that matter to each: for example, property revenue for investors, and reductions in health costs for occupants. “The trick to making it all real,” Muldavin adds, “is that for any particular property, you have to be as specific as possible, using actual salaries, actual health costs. You might need to get HR involved, bring additional people into charrettes.”
The problem with being peerless
Those on the “green” side would like to see more education in green building for those who make financial decisions. Dakota Gale, owner of Green Mortgage Northwest in Portland, Oregon, says that most financers haven’t yet seen enough demand for green financing to make them seek out that education.
In the coming years, says Ray Cole, “financial stakeholders’ engagement in and contributions to sustainable development will increase not for altruistic reasons but in order to meet their own interests.” Investors have already begun to see the possibility ofin high-performance buildings.
Dan Winters, Senior Fellow for Business Strategy and Finance at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), claims that incorporating LEED and other third-party certifications into the underwriting process is “the obvious next step” for capital markets.to move toward that type of model, ranking green properties’ investment attributes based on third-party-verified metrics like LEED and Energy Star ratings.
Appraisers relying on comparable transactions benefit from the adoption of rating systems and building energy labeling, as they can provide apples-to-apples comparison, but otherwise often have little to go on. Debra Little, an appraiser in California, says that while the nationwide Appraisal Institute covers some aspects of green building in its courses, only about 15% of appraisers are Institute members. She would like to see appraisers know more about the basic scientific principles involved and “what questions to ask the contractor,” as well as knowing how to analyze the performance of a building. Jonathan Westeinde feels that “the appraisal problem is not going to be fixed any time soon. Look at how much the building sector has evolved,” he says, while at the same time “financial structures haven’t changed a bit. Everything in real estate is asset value, but the green building conversation is about [operating and cash flow].” Appraisers, he says, “need training around the idea of paybacks on life cycle.”
Real estate agents, says Little, face the same obstacles in comparing properties, with the added difficulty that unique features or a log of performance data are often seen as “added complexity that could slow the sales process.” As the professionals “on the front line with homeowners,” agents need to know the value of indoor environmental quality and other aspects of a home that may not translate directly into dollars and cents.
Our Clients, Ourselves
The three capabilities wish-listed across the industry—cross-disciplinary skills, ecological thinking, and financial literacy—require action on the part of individual building professionals to educate clients and one another. Project decisions begin with the client, and success ultimately depends on the client—as owner, manager, or occupant—as well. Many of the skills and capabilities discussed here come down to working more effectively with clients to help them make and implement the best decisions.
Clients are the ultimate decision-makers in matters of design and in whether there is a market for green building to begin with—and everyone is a potential client. Educating the public on matters of sustainability—bringing about that transformed ecological mindset—is necessary to generate demand for a sustainable built environment.
Project teams benefit from having a client who knows what to ask for and is willing, in the case of new or unfamiliar systems, to learn how to use it. For example, says Shymko, owners “need to understand what commissioning actually is” in order to ask, “Are we getting the full value from this opportunity?”
Pope feels that the implementation of C-2000, Natural Resources Canada’s program for high-performance office buildings, launched in 1993, has suffered because “owners didn't know what to ask for. Training the consultants wasn’t enough; over time, the owners were less and less clued in.”
Educating the educators
Along with “clued-in” clients, furthering the goals outlined here will also require stronger peer networks among educators and innovative ways to educate ourselves and one another.
Even programs that provide excellent, in-depth training in specific skills suffer from a lack of integrated, cross-disciplinary thinking. One purpose of a peer network would be to reduce this compartmentalization. Such a network could be instrumental in working more interpersonal skills into engineering courses, for example, or more building-science education into appraisers’ training. Collaboration among educators could also reveal joint training opportunities—for example, bringing engineering students into the studios of architecture departments to model the collaboration necessary in a design/build/operate model, or coordinating appraisal courses with the field exercises of green superintendent training.
Collaboration between those providing sector-specific training could also help develop the “common language” that’s needed for effective collaboration. Instead of teaching a broad overview course that doesn’t deeply engage specific professions, individual educators could work the language of interdisciplinary communication into their courses. Brager, discussing the current difficulties of teaching a mixed group of engineers and architects who “don't speak the same language,” notes that there could be “a whole field for people who are professional facilitators.”
Meredith Elbaum, AIA, who co-founded the Architecture & Design Sustainable Design Leaders (SDL) network, observed that a group should be tightly focused on an issue; for a network of educators, this could mean “people whose passion is cross-disciplinary education,” but “if their passion is plumbing design, maybe there’s a network just for that.” (Disclosure: The SDL network is convened and facilitated by BuildingGreen.) Analogous to the overview course that doesn’t teach specific skills, Elbaum warns against a group being too broad and shallow to provide connections among individuals.
One basic benefit of such a peer network, says Elbaum, is that it helps people realize that “they’re not alone.” The SDL group is constantly sharing ideas and best practices for engaging clients, working with consultants, and improving practice in their firms. “When you don’t feel alone, you feel more empowered,” and the group can then be a “collective voice in the industry.”
And in order to realize the full potential of cross-disciplinary skills, ecological thinking, and financial literacy in the next decade, a collective voice may be just what we need.