Why—and How—to Infuse Sustainability Into Your Firm’s Office and Operations

Posted by Deltek Partner Guest Blog on April 23, 2019

AIA Sustanability Suggestions

Photo caption: A testament to its sustainability leadership, Thornton Tomasetti’s own 15,000-square-foot office in San Francisco achieved Platinum certification under the LEED ID+C: Commercial Interiors v4 rating system. Read more here. Photo credit: Benjamin Grimes

By American Institute of Architects Staff

The architecture industry is typically at the forefront of infusing sustainability into the built environment. But are firms practicing what they preach?

Introducing more sustainable practices into the day-to-day life of your firm can reap the very benefits that green design brings to clients—from healthier indoor environments to lower energy bills.

Here are a few reasons to consider:

  • Direct monetary savings: Just as you likely advocate to building owners, upfront investment can lead to long-term ROI, whether it’s smaller, incremental changes such as energy-efficient light bulbs, reduction in paper use, and eliminating disposable dishes, or full-scale renovations with more efficient HVAC systems, motion sensors, and solar arrays.
  • Increased employee retention: Employee turnover is costly, and keeping staff content often goes beyond just salaries and bonuses. One of the factors to happy employees? Daylight. A recent survey by Future Workplace found that access to natural light and views of the outdoors was the office feature employees crave most.

    “The study also found that the absence of natural light and outdoor views hurts the employee experience,” said Jeanne C. Meister, Partner at Future Workplace, in the Harvard Business Review. Meister said the results point to the growing focus on the importance of employee well-being. 
  • Greater productivity: OSHA has been sounding alarm bells on the impact of indoor air quality on productivity for years. More recently, a study by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that workers in greener environments had nearly double the cognitive performance scores as those in conventional environments.
  • More talent: Employees are often attracted to better work environments, and younger generations are increasingly eco-conscious. “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” says Gunnar Hubbard, FAIA, Principal and Sustainability Practice Leader at Thornton Tomasetti, of his firm’s global commitment to sustainability, “but we can’t help but notice that people coming out of college share these values.”
  • A showcase of work and values: A sustainably designed office space, whether new or remodeled, is an opportunity to show clients the very design elements you’re promoting to them.

JW Architects in Seattle leveraged this opportunity when building its net-zero office on a strict budget. “[This was] a chance to make a statement on who we are architecturally, our belief in sustainability, and our belief in the city,” Principal Julian Webber told Architectural Products magazine.

Thornton Tomasetti has a policy that all new office fit-outs and renovations 4,000 square feet or larger seek LEED for Commercial Interiors Gold certification.

Low-Hanging Fruit and Beyond

Infusing sustainability into operations takes many forms, some that can be implemented easily and immediately, others that take more time and effort. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be done all at once.

Consider these options as you look to make your operations healthier and more sustainable:

  • Look at consumables: This is one of the lowest of the low-hanging fruit: Reduce, reuse, recycle. Recycling is a given, but it’s not always that simple. If you live in a municipality without infrastructure, your team will need to commit getting materials to facilities that accept them.

    Better yet, reduce the amount of waste overall.

    Since paper is still prevalent in many firms, consider how your staff can use less. Are there processes that can be done digitally? Are there redundancies that can be removed?

    In the kitchen, switch from disposable paper products to shared dishes and a dishwasher.
  • Upgrade light bulbs: Another no-brainer that can save energy (and time).
  • Focus on indoor air: The practices you’re implementing to make projects healthier should be considered for your own office space. If you’re not undergoing a renovation, at minimum consider EPA’s recommendations for improving air quality in existing buildings, such as ensuring vents are not blocked and proper food storage.

    If your office doesn’t currently have outdoor space, look for ways to create it, such as adding picnic tables to a courtyard for eating lunch, adding walking trails, or refreshing a roof deck for working al fresco.

    “It’s about occupant comfort. Let’s look at how we can let in more natural light. Is there somewhere we can add some outdoor space?” says Camp Boyd, MasterSpec sustainability lead at Deltek. “It’s proven to improve productivity and improve people’s moods to be able to spend some time outdoors.”
  • Add plants: Having greenery around the office also can lessen stress and improve productivity, among other benefits.
  • Advocate for wellness: Along with indoor air quality, consider other forms of employee wellness that can reduce sick time and increase productivity, such as ergonomic furniture and meditation space, along with many other options.
  • Encourage greener commutes: Make it easier for employees to use alternative forms of transportation by providing storage for bikes, adding showering facilities, offering stipends toward transit, and facilitating ride sharing.
  • Allow telecommuting: Similarly, letting employees work from home a couple days a week can reduce their carbon footprint. Many employees say they’re also more productive at home.
  • Travel less: Take a closer look at employee travel. Can you cut back? Are there in-person meetings that could use video conferencing instead? Along with reduction, buy carbon offsets for work travel.
  • Form a committee: Create an in-house working group devoted to improving the firm’s sustainability. With a few meetings a year, the group can help identify areas for improvement, solicit input from peers, and recommend changes to leadership.

    Thornton Tomasetti, for example, has “green champions” at its offices around the world who engage in regular calls to share best practices and ideas from individual offices that contribute to the company’s overall mission. They also organize events to raise awareness and implement conservation measures with the assistance of corporate “green grants.”
  • Renovate in stages: If rehabbing your existing space all at once isn’t feasible, make incremental changes. Lassel Architects in Maine has remodeled its space over time, renovating an existing house by raising up the garage and adding on. Included in those efforts was super-insulating the envelope and adding solar panels and radiant heating. 

Recycled products have always been a focus of the renovations. Principal Mike Lassel, AIA, sought out carpet remnants from his supplier, and dishes and much of the office furniture were upcycled. He also has taken steps to ensure most employees can see the outdoors from their desks and can rely on daylight most of the time. “It’s healthy to be able to look outdoors all the time,” he says. “It’s [about] how you create an environment that is healthy. It reinforces creative thinking.”

These are other steps are crucial in creating a work environment that ensures productivity, responds to employees’ wants and needs, and ensures architects remain on the leading edge.

“It’s part of what you have to be [in order] to be a company that’s going to thrive and be long lasting,” says Hubbard. “You have to change with the times. When we talk about the values of our company, our commitment to corporate sustainability and responsibility is part of our success plan for the future.”

The American Institute of Architects

Founded in 1857, AIA consistently works to create more valuable, healthy, secure, and sustainable buildings, neighborhoods, and communities. Through more than 200 international, state and local chapters, AIA advocates for public policies that promote economic vitality and public wellbeing.

AIA provides members with tools and resources to assist them in their careers and business as well as engaging civic and government leaders and the public to find solutions to pressing issues facing our communities, institutions, nation, and world. Members adhere to a code of ethics and conduct to ensure the highest professional standards. 

To learn more about AIA’s sustainability initiatives and for additional resources, please visit: www.aia.org/sustainability.