A’21: Selling sustainability to your clients

House with solar panels

“Sustainability begins with a conversation.”

That client comment may sound deceptively simple. But when it comes to getting buy-in from clients, it all hinges on how “conversation” is framed. It’s not a presentation. It doesn’t revolve around renderings or any of the other typical tools in the architect’s toolbox.

It’s about listening.

In the A’21 keynote panel “Selling Sustainability to your Clients,” architects shared their experiences using collaborative engagement in convincing clients to support sustainable design.

BNIM Principal Laura Lesniewski, FAIA, outlined three layers to building collaborative client dialogue – each of which builds the foundation for the next.

Culture

Noting that architects’ code of conduct confers an obligation to protect health, safety, and welfare, Lesniewski emphasizes that protecting the environment must be considered a fundamental part of the mission – a central element of a firm’s core purpose and common vision.  “Real change happens when the culture of a firm elevates this conversation,” she stresses. While most architects know that buildings contribute 40% of greenhouse gases, Lesniewski asks her peers to consider that “at some point in history, that number was zero.” Getting back to zero should be a priority for each architect and each practice – as it is for AIA. “Having a 90,000-member organization behind me helps” spur climate conversations – as does avoiding the term “sustainability.” Clients may not identify sustainability as a priority outright. But do they care about workplace productivity? A healthy office environment? Student test scores? Or simply the bottom line when it comes to operational costs and green tax incentives? Then they may be open to sustainable solutions – if architects listen and cultivate a firm culture that asks the right questions.

Knowledge

Turning conversation into meaningful solutions requires knowledge. “Read, read, read,” says Lesniewski. “Your clients want you to be conversant on sustainability, resilience, and climate change.” From articles to research papers to podcasts, there are plenty of options for the architect looking to immerse herself in practical climate knowledge. For books, Lesniewski recommends Red Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge, by Daniel Wildcat. It’s not necessary to know everything. But developing a solid grounding in sustainability knowledge is essential to facilitating the conversations. Then architects can tap their network to bring in expertise as needed.

Tools and processes

“If you skip culture and knowledge, tools don’t help,” Lesniewski cautions. But in the right hands, tools can be gamechangers. Whether it’s data-gathering systems, financing tools (like grants and other funding resources), or standards and frameworks like the Living Building Challenge, EcoDistricts, or WELL Building standards, “anything that helps you design responsibly and tell the story” helps your client. Lesniewski also noted several AIA tools – including the Framework for Design Excellence, ROI of High Performance Design, and Blueprint for Better – that provide “a breadth of understanding of about sustainable design” and help firms develop a sustainability culture.

Panelists Kim Yao, AIA (Principal - Architecture Research Office), and Antoine Bryant, Assoc. AIA (Business Development Associate - Moody Nolan), shared how their firms have put these conversational principles into action.

Engagement fosters collaboration

For Yao, being a good listener and establishing a dialogue early on is the basis for collaboration later. “That grounding of the project in the conversation allows for the broader project team to have shared goals and aspirations. We can embed in those goals any number of criteria or performance objectives.” This collaborative foundation lays the groundwork for the design team to draw on its knowledge to promote environmental performance objectives – “knowledge [that] becomes shared knowledge” with the clients on the project team.

Bryant concurs that “engagement is a part of our core.” At Moody Nolan, he says, “We listen intently, analyze effectively, then design.” Sustainability is integral to their engagement approach – “not something that’s applied at the end or something that comes in midstream.” Sustainable solutions are also not limited to specific projects but are applied “community wide” – with a focus on addressing social determinants of health and other challenges at the neighborhood level. Community engagement is so core to Bryant’s firm culture that it’s not uncommon for him to be recognized at the supermarket with a “that’s my architect” from a community member.

Building trust

Speaking to the knowledge component of the equation, Bryant emphasized that clients “really look to us to be a knowledge base [both] from a purely design and construction standpoint as well as sustainability” while clients are “the knowledge base of that community.” That combination can produce outcomes even better than either side expected – as in the case of a Houston public school project. By insisting that teachers, parents, and students be a part of the process, the project team delivered assets – like a state-of-the-art athletic facility – that the school district leadership thought impossible, as well as benefits – like LEED certification – the clients did not expect. That knowledge-based engagement also breeds trust, Bryant says, so that clients know the architect isn’t recommending a certain type of glazing “because we have a relationship with the manufacturer” but because it will benefit the client.

Yao agrees that this kind of give-and-take leads to optimal design solutions. “It’s really great to find overlaps with your client and to hear from them ideas that you already want to bring to the table,” she recounts. “To have it come from the community is so much more effective. Allowing those great ideas to bubble up makes it much easier to implement.” And each sustainability success sets the stage for future projects. “With every project, whether huge or small, try to add aspects that may be new,” she recommends. “Go further with what your design is doing and constantly build on that knowledge base.” That’s what Yao’s firm did when it pursued a Passive House certification on a project 10 years ago. Fast forward to today, and the firm is starting work on the first passive design school in the New York City Public School system.

Post-pandemic opportunities

The panelists all agree that clients are becoming more savvy about life cycle operational costs and more receptive to arguments that investing in sustainable solutions now will generate future savings they can apply toward other priorities. These architects also noted that the pandemic has sparked greater awareness of health disparities and their connection to the built environment – a new understanding that could spell major opportunity for progress.

That’s if architects can seize the moment. For this panel, doing so means listening and engaging – or, as Bryant puts it “the art of shutting up.”

“Your clients have a really good idea what they’re looking for,” he says. “If you prompt them the right way, you’ll get a wealth of information.”

Image credits

House with solar panels

Getty Images

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