The Importance of Having a Project Sustainability Vision

Imagine you have a design or construction project under way, things are going well, and suddenly you are thrown a curveball when you are directed to “make it green.” The project team is already together and starting work, and you realize you don’t know how to guide them toward meeting this new directive. In fact, you’re not even sure what your project sustainability goals should be. This stressful, but common, situation can be remedied by taking a moment to step back and thoughtfully consider your approach. By doing so, you can set your team up for success from the start.

How a vision helps meet owner needs

Often a building owner will include requirements for meeting a certain green building certification goal like LEED Silver or Gold as part of the design and construction contracts, assuming this will meet their needs. Using a standard such as LEED as the sole basis to set sustainability goals doesn’t always help the owner, however, as it’s intended as a measurement of achievement rather than a design standard. Teams that follow this path without an overall vision often find themselves in the later stages of a project searching for points anywhere they can get them. This sometimes includes implementing last minute change orders that may, or may not, add value to the project in hope of achieving a certain certification threshold.

Teams that become narrowly focused on LEED goals might be missing the bigger picture. A vegetative rooftop, for example, could be perceived as an expensive add-on if its sole benefit is to reduce storm water runoff, but that same roof becomes an invaluable amenity when accessible by cancer patients who can enjoy it during their infusion sessions at a hospital. Working as a collaborative team right from the beginning of a project helps ensure that sustainable elements contribute to a building’s overall usability and add features that benefit end users.

How to establish a sustainability vision

One of the most effective ways to establish the sustainability vision and goals for your project is to organize and facilitate a charrette, a type of workshop used in the construction industry to solve a problem. Ideally this workshop should be held as early as possible in the design phase and include representatives of the various disciplines within the design and construction team, including the building owner, people who will occupy the completed facility, and possibly even members of the community. Sustainability charrettes for most medium-to-large-scale projects can usually be completed in a day if they are planned and facilitated appropriately, but the work can also be broken into multiple sessions if that is preferable.

During the workshop the team should establish a big-picture vision and prioritize the goals of the sustainability strategy and areas of focus. To accomplish this, the facilitator will typically engage the group in a series of exercises and organized discussions to focus their attention. One tool commonly used? Cover Story Vision: in this exercise the facilitator asks the group to imagine that they are at the end of the successful project and that a major news magazine has approached the building owner for a cover story report on the sustainability aspects of the building. The group then share ideas for the potential cover story:

  • ​imagery of the project for the cover
  • headlines
  • titles of individual stories to appear throughout the issue

The exercise identifies key sustainability elements that can be used to develop specific goals.  

Benefits of having a vision

Setting a sustainability vision early in a project allows you to avoid many common challenges teams face when making a project green. A shared vision will guide all sustainability-related decisions during design and construction, making it easier for the team to focus their efforts on innovative solutions that can add significant value. The sustainability vision should complement the overall project vision while identifying key areas of focus. This is where sustainability can transform from an obligation to a tool that guides teams towards cost-effective, win-win solutions.



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