Marketing Sustainable Design Services

Sustainable design represents a major new area of practice for professional design services, one that can potentially benefit the business of architects, engineers and contractors. Yet, it is often marketed as an afterthought in conventional statements of qualifications.


Sustainable design represents a major new area of practice for professional design services, one that can potentially benefit the business of architects, engineers and contractors. Yet, it is often marketed as an afterthought in conventional statements of qualifications.

On the other hand, firms such as Glumac International-where this author previously worked-integrate the effort more effectively into firm operations. Glumac began marketing sustainable design services in July of 1997, and the focus helped attract new business and position the firm as an innovator in environmentally responsible mechanical and electrical engineering services and a preferred provider to architects, building owners and developers interested in sustainability.

Defining sustainability

To understand the marketing benefit, it helps to precisely define what "sustainable design" really is. Most practitioners would agree that sustainable building projects include the following elements:

  • Energy conservation of 30 percent to 50 percent above what current codes require.


  • Resource conservation, through the use of recycled materials during construction and recycling of construction waste.


  • Indoor-air quality (IAQ) improvements over current practice and standards.


  • Water conservation, through more efficient fixtures and on-site water reuse.


  • Natural lighting and ventilation.


  • Site considerations and building orientation for passive solar heating and cooling.


  • Recycling and other operational improvements.

Other designers might expand the definition to include:

  • On-site energy production, using fuel cells or photovoltaics.


  • Local building materials, typically within 300 to 500 miles.


  • Use of sustainable materials, such as specially harvested woods in casework and trim, or building concrete using recycled fly ash.

These benchmark criteria can be used to determine whether a building is sustainable. In the United States, an industry standard gaining significant consensus for assessing the level of "green design" in commercial and institutional buildings is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (, the 69-point rating scale considers issues of site selection, energy efficiency, resource efficiency, indoor-environmental quality and water resources.

Many local governments, architects, engineers and building owner-developers have adopted a revised version of the standard released in March of 2000. Currently in development are LEED standards intended for commercial interiors and residential development.

Code green?

Engineers and architects often feel challenged and even affronted by the notion of sustainable design, for some feel that they have been producing "good design" for years. The truth for most design teams, however, is that they are forced to design "code buildings" by building owners and developers faced with budget constraints and the desire to put more money into visible design elements, such as marble in the lobbies.

And what is a "code building" anyway? In the view of many engineers and sustainable design advocates, it is simply the worst possible building one can design without it being illegal!

If engineers want to argue for including improved design elements that reduce long-term operating costs, the idea must be presented in terms of a "payback period"-the common notion of how many years it takes for putative energy savings or other benefits to repay the added initial cost. Most building owners won't accept any initial cost increases that cannot pay for themselves within 18 months, and some won't accept any initial cost increase at all.

Sustainable design asks the design team to take a different approach, designing not just for the building owner and the first set of building occupants, but looking at the larger-scale and longer-term environmental impacts of such a building. For example, engineers are asked to assess the impacts of a building on local water, sewer and storm-drain capacity, to treat more wastes on site and to generate some of a building's energy on site. The engineer may further the need to use natural energy sources-solar, wind, geothermal heating and cooling-and to proactively advocate maximum recycling.

Building the practice

The key for engineers and architects is to become active advocates-not merely "objective" design professionals-a position that demands fluency in issues well beyond their immediate area of professional expertise.

What should a firm do to increase its ability to market such services? Several key elements are important:

  • Become literate. There's no substitute for knowing what you're talking about. Engineers need to invest time and take courses on sustainable design approaches. In many cases, this study results in the exciting rediscovery of renewable energy or energy conservation-ideas that brought many into the engineering field in the first place.


  • Learn the language. Sustainable design has developed a language (vocabulary) and grammar (set of rules) that is entirely its own. Learning the LEED rating system is a good first step for those who want to explore the mindset.


  • Join industry groups. Several organizations help delineate the broad philosophical framework of sustainable design, as well as offer conferences, training and networking opportunities. Noteworthy organizations include the U.S. Green Building Council, the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment (known as COTE) and Natural Step, a nonprofit educational organization promoting sustainability ( .

Green leaders

  • Provide leadership. Engineers can begin by bringing up sustainable design in early-stage client contacts. In management theory, a paradigm known as the "Abilene Paradox" basically states that groups of people often wind up where none of them really want to go, owing to the failure of each individual to state clearly his or her preferences. So, engineers with a preference for sustainable design shouldn't hide it; often, other design team members and the client have been waiting for someone else to bring it up!


  • Know the numbers. One definition of a good engineer or designer is "an economist with technical training." Designers and engineers are constantly being challenged to maintain project budgets, and most assume that sustainable design is an add-on that naturally increases project costs.

However, sustainable design doesn't have to cost more, if it is integrated in the design process at an early stage and if all costs are properly considered .

For example, underfloor air-distribution systems can eliminate overhead ductwork and handle wire and cable management. Such systems cost $2 to $3 per square foot more than conventional heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, net of all savings on conventional mechanical, electrical and cabling systems. Dead on arrival? Not if one considers that electrified furniture is no longer required, because electric outlets and air vents can be located wherever one wants at almost no additional cost and at any time in the building's life cycle. The savings by installing nonelectrified furniture can be $6 to $10 per square foot, enough to pay for the underfloor air system and add even more sustainable design features.

  • Promote integrated design. For engineers, this means being part of the conceptual design of a project and getting involved much earlier in the design process. For architects, this may mean actually listening to the engineers' advice on building design, rather than just designing a "box" and telling the engineers to heat, cool, ventilate and light it. Integrated design puts a premium on collaboration skills and cross-disciplinary communication.

Engineer, market thyself

It is essential for the marketer to make sure that the firm's principals and key technical staff are literate in sustainable design, that they learn the language from leading advocates of this approach. To do so, the following tools are helpful:

  • Seminars. Firms need to share what they know as quickly as possible, rather than hoard it. Even brown-bag lunches with peers and seminars sponsored by engineering and architecture firms help enhance their professional reputations in this specialty area.


  • Projects. Ultimately, marketing is useless if the firm doesn't build a portfolio of projects. By undertaking successful sustainable projects, a firm's principals and engineers become more persuasive advocates for specific approaches to sustainable design.


  • People. If a firm's principals have a personal interest in sustainability, it is much easier for associates and younger engineers to spend the time needed to learn new techniques. Also, when technical people participate actively in sustainable design, the firm gets kudos from clients and builds an active referral base.


  • New clients. Engineering firms can market sustainable design services to client prospects that do not regularly use their services. Often, significant new clients will retain a new firm's services, especially if their current engineers are resistant to sustainable building approaches.


  • Promotion. A design firm should take every opportunity to promote its sustainable design projects and highlight its credentials in every statement of qualifications. Sustainable design services, such as daylighting design, can be offered as an "enhanced service" in proposals.


  • The economic case. It's critical to present the benefits of sustainability in terms that owners, developers, facility managers and even CFOs can understand: first-cost savings, return on investment, ease of leasing and enhanced productivity.

Challenges ahead

Clearly, sustainable design presents challenges to its practitioners, not the least of which is economics. "Tunneling through the cost barrier," to borrow a phrase Amory Lovins coined in his 1999 book, "Natural Capitalism," means designing sustainable buildings that are cheaper than conventional buildings, rather than making excuses for higher initial costs. For example, why shouldn't buildings with operable windows-promoting better indoor air quality and "free" convective ventilation-be cheaper to design and build than mechanically cooled buildings?

Another challenge is for designers to become effective advocates. Few architects and engineers have built up their firms by aggressively promoting new technologies and approaches. It's time, however, for us to learn the language of business and present sustainable approaches in financially articulate ways. For example, most service businesses spend at least 70 percent of their total operating costs on people, so designers should speak of return on investment not only in terms of energy and water savings, but also of higher productivity and reduced absenteeism. Design teams-and building owners-should pay more attention to a 5-percent to 10-percent increase in productivity than a savings of 20 percent to 30 percent on a utility bill.

The fact is, mechanical engineers are not merely in the HVAC and plumbing business; more accurately, they are health, safety and comfort specialists who should advocate for better IAQ, natural ventilation and natural lighting, for the health and well-being of the building's users.

With their focus on effective and persuasive communication, marketers have a significant role to play in advancing the practice and business of sustainable design. By becoming literate in sustainable design, mastering the language and providing leadership within a firm, marketers can help provide a "sustainable future" for their firms.

What's your opinion? To submit a Professional Practices article for consideration, write to Scott Siddens in care of this magazine or Sector

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