For this weeks Guest Post Friday here at Construction Law Musings, we welcome Charles Hendricks, AIA, CSI, LEED AP. Charles (@thegainesgroup on Twitter) is an architect at The Gaines Group, PLC. This architectural and design firm was named the “best green designers” in 2008 by the Virginia Sustainable Building Network and has offices in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg, Virginia. The firm’s focus is on green architecture that is economical to build and aesthetically pleasing. He also has a great blog that is very much worth checking out.
The construction industry is slowly recovering from a dismal couple of years and there appears to be hope on the horizon. U.S. architectural firms have reported the fifth straight month that billings have held their own or increased, with a modest improvement in March over the February numbers. Inquiries for work remain strong and competition among firms is even stronger. It appears that our new economic reality is here: lower fees, shorter deadlines, and higher demands. This reality is not really any different than the last economy with the exception of more firms competing for smaller and smaller projects. So what is the next big thing that can help you stay ahead of the competition? Based on our experience, it continues to be that politically polarizing word ‘green.’
The term ‘green’ is the worst (and best) thing that could have possibly happened to the building industry. We took a concept that has existed since the beginning of our industry and put a label on it, which then provided consumers with a choice. Do you want code minimum (the worst possible construction that is allowed by law) or do you want a higher quality? Even worse, we allowed the option of going ‘green’ to become a political issue. Is your building contributing to global warming, destroying local streams, or causing your employees to get sick? The up side to naming the movement ‘green’ is that we are now engaged in a conversation about building science, health in buildings, and the availability of resources. Our clients are asking us to use local materials and recycled content. Consumers know what FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) is and can make a value judgment as to the importance to them. The tools that have been developed, such as LEED, EarthCraft, and Energy Star, allow us to have a measure of how sensitive our buildings are compared to other buildings that also use those same tools. We are engaged in a dialog about types of energy production, government subsidies that support popular energy options, and the need for development of local energy options. We have political figures debating the merit of funding a solar project, geo-fracking, and wind turbines. There is a whole new world of opportunities and conversations in front of us that probably would not be happening without the term ‘green’ being introduced.
The term ‘green’ has certainly added to our need to stay on the cutting edge to understand the holistic picture when we are designing buildings and developing. So with all the extra issues that we now have to face, does ‘green’ really matter? I believe that it simply means ‘doing your job to the best of your ability with the best information available at a given time.’ It is our responsibility to our clients to have healthy debates on subjects that will impact the quality of the product we deliver to them. For instance, should we advocate for solar photovoltaic (PV) panels in Virginia where traditional energy is really cheap and PV is rather expensive? Or should we simply push for more insulation in the building, which would be less expensive and easier to estimate payback? The other option is to assume that code minimum is enough. Why else would it be the code? Sure there are still going to be clients that are looking for the least amount of up-front cost. However, I believe as construction professionals we have an ethical duty to provide our clients with the option to cut their overhead for the project by reducing utility costs. For a developer that will not inhabit the space, sure that is sometimes a tough sell, but as energy prices keep rising and businesses are asking questions about utility rates, it might make their project a bigger success. If we can keep finding common sense ways to integrate sound construction practices into our designs that save clients’ money, shouldn’t we all ‘go green’ if that is the label we have to work under?
I have heard the debates about having governments mandate building to a green standard. If they have the result of decreasing the demand on the public infrastructure and my future taxes, it seems like a good thing. Since government buildings are run using our hard earned tax dollars, requiring them to be as efficient as possible seems to make sense. They should not invest in experimental green practices, but should incorporate proven options that result in less energy and water used (and most important, money spent in the life of the building). On the other side, for private developers, if building to green standards slows development and pushes factories and businesses to other areas, it is not a good idea. I do believe that a business that has a long range business plan should take into account the utility savings it will experience from a well-designed building, whether it is LEED certified or not. I think we should give incentives to build energy efficient green buildings because, again, it will reduce the need for future infrastructure upgrades. So as the debate goes on about how the government should be involved in the green movement, clients continue to come to me looking for common sense solutions that add value to their projects. I see that market demand is working, and informed developers want the added value that ‘green’ options provide. They are able to market their buildings not only as green, but as requiring less money to operate.
To me the real debate should be focused on how to build healthy buildings. It seems we should be well beyond the basic debate of reducing our energy and water use. We should be asking how we can build buildings that make the occupants healthier, happier, and more productive. As a designer, I want to explore the options that not only add value through good design and construction practices, but also through healthier and happier employees. It has been shown that people learn more, work better, and recuperate faster in buildings that embrace biophilic design. The idea of learning how to make buildings better by looking at nature is the next step in our green movement. Are there elements, colors, and shapes that we can incorporate into a building that will reduce stress and anxiety and help with focus? By giving views to the outside and access to natural light, will employees work harder and be more productive? I believe we should be exploring these concepts while we continue to investigate our understanding of building science. We need to have a holistic approach to building that takes into account more than just initial cost.
So as the economic recovery slowly creeps into our market, I continue to investigate options, techniques, and theories that allow me to offer higher value to my clients. Sure, there are always going to be those that accept and even demand code minimum solutions, but there is also a huge market of clients looking for added value.