Five Stages of a Sustainability Driven Design Firm

Dominique Davison / December 5, 2019

*This article is adapted from a report by Ogilvy, Making Brands Matter for the Generations to Come.  Many of the core concepts have been adapted by PlanIT Impact to apply to the problems architects have in addressing sustainability.

Ogilvy recently published Making Brands Matter for the Generations to Come, a report written to help brands make the world better, faster. In describing the report, the authors, Stephanie Bakkum and Antonis Kocheilas, state the following:

“While the youth of today continue to be catalysts in the drive toward environmental action, brands have been busy getting involved in environmental and other social good issues through ongoing or sporadic corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.”

“… through ongoing or sporadic corporate social responsibility initiatives.”  This particular phrase caught my attention because it resonated with my observations of the architecture industry and its relationship with sustainability.  There are a handful of architecture firms who ingrain sustainability into every project on an ongoing basis. The much greater majority of architecture firms accomplish sustainability on a much more sporadic basis.

It is not that most firms are not trying to be in the “ongoing basis” sustainability category.  Currently, there are 658 firms signed onto the AIA 2030 Commitment, which is a voluntary declaration that firm’s make with a goal to design buildings to be NetZero by 2030.

However, there is a gap in the firms who make the commitment compared to the follow-through.  In 2018, only 245 signatories fulfilled the minimum requirement of reporting the energy performance of their project portfolios.  Of those who reported, 16 firms achieved a 70% or greater pEUI savings across their entire portfolio.

Furthermore, from a 2017 Architectural Record survey, Lance Hosey reports, “Nearly 85 percent say that combating climate change is either ‘essential’ (55 percent) or ‘very urgent’ (30 percent) for architects, yet only 10 percent say we are doing enough, and 28 percent feel their own organizations are.”

The reality is that architecture has a sustainability problem. The good news is that architects are up for the challenge of solving it!  It will not be solved overnight, but with an understanding of what it will take to get there and commitment from architects, it WILL happen.

Circling back to Ogilvy’s report, there are five stages to achieving corporate responsibility presented, which I’ve drawn direct parallels to architecture and sustainability. Keep reading to understand how architects can make buildings better, faster.

Stage 1
One-off LEED, BREEAM, WELL, or Net-Zero projects

As it sounds by the title, a firm in this stage may have a handful of projects under its belt that are deemed “sustainable” either by being certified to a particular standard or deemed sustainable by hitting a challenging energy performance target.  However, these projects are sporadic and few.

When visiting a Stage 1 firm’s website, there is likely a separate Sustainability bucket in their Services or Projects pages that is set off from standard services or projects.

Shows a Services Drop Down Menu with a Sustainability/Green Section

While admirable, this indicates that sustainability is an add-on.  It is not connected to the core practice.

Stage 2
Sustainability becomes part of organizational practices.

A firm appoints a sustainability leader and/or assigns a sustainability focused team within an organization.

This exemplifies a next level of dedication to sustainability by saying “OK, we are going to assign so-and-so to figure out sustainability for the firm.”   However, typically, not all projects are blessed by the sustainability gurus, and it is business as usual for many projects.  Sometimes, a firm’s sustainability team may even create a bottleneck resulting in delays or projects not being siphoned through the group at all.

Marketing language may talk about considering sustainability on every project. There may even be an annual sustainability report measuring performance and highlighting one-off case studies. Even so, considering does not mean doing sustainability, and, while helpful for establishing a benchmark, reporting only achieves so much without follow up action based on the results.

In this stage, sustainability is putting down its roots, but is not embedded into the firm.

A tree sapling.
A sustainability sapling.
Stage 3
Sustainability drives professional development, innovation, and business development

At this stage, a firm takes action to drive adoption of sustainability into all aspects of its practice.

A firm commits to research and development of standardized tools and workflows to integrate into every project. Deeper integration of building performance design technology may occur.

When integrating new technology, concepts, or workflows into a firm, designers need to feel confident in their knowledge and skill set in order to be successful. This drives investments in firm-wide training and education of employees.

Sustainability is included in project proposals, even if it is not specifically being asked for by potential clients.

Transformative progress is being made into becoming a sustainability driven design firm.

Stage 4
A design culture of sustainability emerges

A firm begins to be recognized both internally and externally as a leader in sustainability.

Within a firm, designers understand that sustainability is integral to every project. Everyone is speaking the same language of sustainability, and sustainability drives decision making.  It is no longer an add-on.

Externally, a firm attracts both clients and talent that share the same values and commitment to sustainability.

There may still be room for improvement or areas of a practice that are lagging behind, but making it to this stage is a major achievement.

Stage 5
The firm becomes a sustainability driven ecosystem

Goal achieved!  Sustainability is deeply rooted into the core of a practice and the way that business is run.  However, the work is not done.

Now, a firm looks outward to share its knowledge and lessons learned with other firms who are earlier on in their sustainability journeys.  Instead of undermining the progress of competitors, sustainability driven firms offer encouragement and help.

At this final stage, a firm is a major influencer in realizing the industry wide vision of a sustainable built environment.

To read the full Ogilvy report (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED), visit this link:

Let us know your ideas and thoughts in the comments.

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