Arup Thoughts: Making sustainability meaningful

Designers and sustainability professionals need to translate sustainability into the language that businesses really value, for example reducing operating costs, attracting and retaining staff and reputation.

By Gerard Healey, Arup May 11, 2015

To make sustainability meaningful, I think it needs translating into a currency businesses really value. And that should be the job of designers and sustainability professionals.
Currently the industry tends to talk about initiatives in terms of their impact, rather than the value to the client or to the end users. The major environmental and sustainability rating tools like Green Star reinforce this because they’re based on impacts on resources such as energy, water and materials. They show you how to reduce carbon emissions, for example, but not how this would make your building more attractive to tenants or staff.

This focus on impact instead of value is a problem for several reasons. Studies show that companies generally don’t inherently value protecting the environment – the reported value comes from improved reputations, reduced costs and through stimulating innovation. This means that a client might not see straight away why they should do some of the things that can be done.

Research also shows that focusing on environmental problems rather than opportunities and desirable outcomes can lead people to disengage with an issue. Even the extent to which we focus on the environment is important.

I have seen this first hand in a design workshop. The design team viewed sustainability as good business and were supportive of initiatives, whereas the finance director viewed sustainability as tree hugging and was skeptical of anything related to environmental protection that didn’t have an obvious payback.

So what did I do? I framed sustainability initiatives in business terms – managing compliance risks, reducing operating costs, supporting patient wellbeing, attracting and retaining staff, and reputation. This enabled me to keep the finance director engaged for the duration of the workshop. It’s only a small step, but it’s something that we can all do.
How do you make sustainability meaningful?

– Gerard Healey is a green building design engineer at Arup. This article originally appeared on Arup Thoughts. Arup is a CFE Media content partner.