Three Easy Guidelines for Deepening Your Firm’s Sustainability Practice

Dominique Davison / March 11, 2019

I’m an architect, but I’m also the owner of a small firm.

In my 20+ year career I have worked on projects of a wide variety of scales and typologies throughout the country. Trained at UC Berkeley and Yale School of Architecture, two of the top architecture schools, I’ve had the privilege of working with internationally renowned professionals as colleagues.

Fourteen years ago, I decided to plant roots in the Midwest. I formed my practice, DRAW Architecture + Urban Design, around the idea of Positive Impact Design – where activism and empathy focus how our team approaches the communities in which we work and how we compassionately advocate for our clients.

A sustainable practice—not status quo and not easy

Sustainability has been a cornerstone of DRAW’s practice from the beginning. We struggled for a long time to achieve our lofty goals of designing environmentally responsible—if not net-zero—buildings. We have achieved this latter goal with a few very dedicated clients. Our own office building generates over 80 percent of the electricity we use. However, we still struggle—because it is not the status quo and it’s not easy and it’s not always top of mind. But we know that 90 percent of architects and engineers find sustainability important, and everyone cares about our planet.

If you’re a small or medium sized firm, it’s now possible for your firm to achieve the same level of sustainable design as larger firms.

We’ve compiled three easy guidelines for embedding sustainability into every project:

1. Use an integrated design model

More heads are better than one, and more project experience of what has proved successful in terms of building performance can be very valuable. Bring the MEP, civil and contractor into the conversation as early as possible to analyze what opportunities for energy and water efficiency are feasible. When the consultant and contractor team go to the owner on the same page, it builds confidence and helps the project move more smoothly.

With a collaboration platform like PlanIT Impact, you can invite team members to be a part of your project for free.

Each team member can input the data that is their specialization—building geometry for the architect, systems for the MEP engineer, and costs for the contractor.

2. Lean into the conversation on cost and efficiency

Show that there is a dollar value to the decisions on building efficiency. This helps clients to understand the long game and not focus solely on the first costs associated with a project. Once the awareness is raised, we have found that rarely will a client completely shirk the impacts a project will have on their operating costs. But they have to see the numbers.

Showing facts and figures builds an understanding of the scope of the problem and motivates clients to commit to the more sustainable solution.

3. Research the client and their project type carefully

Not every client will have the same needs and interests. Firefighters might not want low flow shower heads but perhaps can think about water reclamation for the water used to clean their trucks. Water reclamation can have four times the impact compared to low flow fixtures.

Understanding the client’s core drivers and definition of sustainability success will allow the conversation to be tailored to help motivate the team to reach for higher levels of performance.

I hope these ideas have been helpful. Please leave a comment or sign up for our email list to learn more ways to improve the building performance of all of your projects.

Dominique Davison, AIA LEED BD+C, is the founder and CEO of PlanIT Impact, and principal of DRAW Architecture + Urban Design, an award-winning practice based in Kansas City, Mo. Winner of the AIAKC Architect of the Year, she is an author and frequent national speaker in the sustainable and smart city space. Visit our website to learn how together we can design better buildings.

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