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Embracing the Economic Case for Sustainable Design

3p Contributor | Friday May 20th, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Ronald C. Weston, AIA, LEED AP

The sustainable design and green building movement have made tremendous advances over the past decade to the point that virtually every building project today employs some level of green design.  And yet despite the bar being raised significantly there remains resistance in the public and private sectors to embracing “no brainer” investments in sustainable building and infrastructure that would further benefit all stakeholders.

It is my belief that in order to convince business and government leaders to take the next step, and invest more heavily in sustainable design solutions, design professionals need to become more conversant in the economics and profit potential inherent in smart, sustainable design…we need to talk the talk.

Proponents of green building and sustainable design have included a “triple bottom line” (TBL) argument in their pitch as the movement has grown.  The three P’s of TBL are most commonly listed in the following order: 

1.      People (social)

2.      Planet (environmental)

3.      Profit (economics)

For background, Wikipedia states that sustainability was first defined by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987. Over a decade later the TBL phrase was coined by John Elkington in his 1998 book “Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business.”

The most prominent US organization in the green design space, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), has stated that they “pursue robust triple bottom line solutions that clarify and strengthen a healthy and dynamic balance between environmental, social and economic prosperity. “ Although the USGBC speaks about a commitment to TBL solutions, the origins and current focus of their successful Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) system are primarily rooted in environmental concerns. When factoring in the life cycle returns achieved from investments made in pursuit of LEED® credits there is a clear economic benefit, yet architects, engineers and designers often are less passionate and only marginally successful at making a strong business case for sustainable designs.

Of course most design professionals are not trained as business people, and our motivation for embracing sustainability seems naturally biased towards the first two P’s of the TBL triumviri, namely “people” and “planet.” By contrast, the original protagonists for sustainability and TBL thinking started with economic “profit” driven decision-making and sought to add social and environmental performance considerations to the formula.

To achieve the more ambitious goals of the green building movement, architects, engineers and designers need to further embrace and communicate the profit and economic potential of sustainable design measures. We need to focus on honing our skills in communicating the economic and profit potential of smart design, with the same rigor that we have applied to advancing technical building solutions.

As an example, many business clients will balk at spending money on energy saving enhancements that they are told have a payback period of 7 to 10 years. However, if these same business executives were told that they could obtain a 10% to 14% return on investment (ROI) by investing capital in the current financial climate they would be more likely to sign on. By understanding and reframing the conversation in an economic and finance perspective project leaders can be more persuasive in obtaining managements support for green capital spending.

In the public sector as well more passionate communication about the economic ROI to taxpayers from sustainable building and infrastructure investment is needed to sway politicians to take action. Too often rational decision making is derailed, and policy stalls, when liberals focus only on saving the planet and their conservative foes challenge the science behind global climate change, rejecting any consideration of spending on sustainability. Despite the divisive social or environmental beliefs across the population, it is safe to say that there is more political unity around the economics of capital spending that saves taxpayers money.

Do you agree that the third “P” in the TBL formula – profit and economics – needs to be more prominently embraced by the design and building industry as we seek to promote a more sustainable built environment? Do you have successful ideas or examples to share on the topic?

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Ronald Weston, AIA, LEED AP is an architect and consultant who assists small business and social entrepreneurs with the sustainable design and planning of their built environments.

 

 


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