Working together toward a sustainable world

Engineers and companies need to think about and advocate the short- and long-term business benefits of sustainability in all forms as well as the humanitarian benefits it can provide.


Image courtesy: CFE MediaGovernments, businesses and individuals are all seeking to create a more sustainable world to cut costs and promote environments that are healthier and more viable in the long term. From simple changes like banning plastic bags and promoting recycling programs to more complex ones like using hybrid and electric vehicles and tapping into building and design efficiencies, "sustainability" has become a household word. The word "green" is often used to describe a world becoming very conscious of ways to save the environment while championing cost efficiencies.

Every industry is seeking ways to increase energy efficiencies and save money. Countries also want to rely less and less on others for energy sources. Engineers are among the professionals keenly aware of the responsibilities they have to create more sustainable buildings, manufacturing plants and designs. With energy modeling, computational fluid dynamics and other ways to create efficiencies for clients, engineering companies around the world are trying to speed up the progress of creating buildings with sustainable designs to protect the environment, save money, enhance resource use and improve the internal comfort for the people who will use the buildings.

A basic definition of sustainability emerged at the world's first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Those at the summit defined sustainability as the "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

A 2002 study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences states, "Humanity's collective demands first surpassed the earth's regenerative capacity around 1980." Our declining oil-based civilization is facing environmental, social and economic challenges on many fronts that are intensified by declining oil production, rising food prices and an ever-escalating climate change.

In chaos theory, there is a founding principle called the "butterfly effect," a term coined by Edward Lorenz. In an MIT Technology Review article written by Peter Dizikes, he described the phenomenon like this. "...the flap of a butterfly's wings might ultimately cause a tornado." 

It is clear the lack of conscious sustainability and attention to our world's environment has caused some serious global consequences. Sustainability has become a key driver of business growth and innovation, as we can no longer depend on unsustainable and polluting energy sources, ignore threatening climate change, continue to violate the thresholds of the planet's environmental support systems and cause irreversible changes that threaten our existence.

Sharing my story

My passion for sustainability comes from my love of nature and awareness of our connection with everything around us. My interest in living sustainably stems from my appreciation of life and respect for the laws of nature. Sustainability represents a natural state of living in balance holistically with mindfulness and compassion for both others and the environment.

I have been enthusiastic about the topic since the beginning of my career as a mechanical engineer at Dar Al-Handasah, an international project design, management and supervision consultancy in Beirut, Lebanon. In 2008, I had the opportunity to work on Princess Noura University's campus in Saudi Arabia, the largest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified university for women in the world. It consists of academic colleges, health-sciences colleges, a 450-bed hospital, on-campus housing, a K-12 school, office buildings, a library and sports facilities on an 86-million-sq-ft campus.

Although I had no experience in energy modeling or LEED certification then, I created an energy modeling team that grew to 12 team members in three countries: Lebanon, Egypt and India. I shared this success story, My Perspective on Leadership, at Saybrook University while in a doctorate program there. You can read about the sustainable strategies implemented for this project at this link.

After having immigrated to the East Coast of the United States to marry my wife, who lived in New Jersey at the time, I decided to open my job search to California, where I thought I would find more employment opportunities involving sustainable design. Since coming to California, I have been able to successfully weave sustainable practices and designs into a number of projects: 

  • Design of a net-zero energy office building
  • Design of a net-zero combination warehouse and office building for a college
  • Work on a "LEED for Homes" certified residential development.

Before working in the United States, my projects were mainly in the Gulf Region. The clients I had the pleasure of working with there had very large, prestigious projects that required state-of-the-art technologies and design techniques.

Those projects motivated me to learn as much as I could about energy modeling and computational fluid dynamics. I was able to create both energy modeling and computational fluid dynamics teams in three countries to handle the many requests we received to include sustainable work in our projects. In many cases, when we included sustainable design techniques in projects, we were awarded the contract because we had the leading edge over our competitors.

These companies I worked with were easily able to afford the additional costs of using sustainable designs in their projects. Despite some normal pushback from clients to keep costs down and efficiencies high, they easily realized there would be a considerable return on their investment in sustainable technologies.

Meeting client objections to sustainability

We have to be positive and proactive in meeting any objections to including sustainability in our projects. Some clients are averse to change and like to stick with what they know rather than be open to new possibilities that can offer them more long-term and progressive benefits.

The other main objection that surfaces again and again is clients' reluctance to increase their budgets to allow for sustainable designs to be integrated into their projects. Too often, they are focused primarily on the bottom-line costs of a project and tend to ignore or dismiss the long-term benefits of sustainability.

I recall two instances of projects in the United States where clients declined to pursue sustainable strategies due to tight budgets. The first project was a public international airport in Florida where I was able to demonstrate the feasibility of collecting condensate from the concourse and terminal air-handling units to provide make-up water for the cooling towers in the central plant. It would have been great for water conservation and would have been a win-win situation for the client who could save both water and money in the long term. Although the client initially liked, appreciated and bought into the idea of repurposing the condensate, he later dropped it when the cost estimate at detailed design exceeded the project's budget.

Another instance of a client's ultimate rejection to incorporate sustainability into a project happened when I worked to optimize the energy performance of a sizable central plant. Although I showed the energy consumption of the plant nearly dropped by about 50% using sustainable design techniques, the client ultimately declined to approve the necessary upgrades because of the high initial cost investment for the equipment.

It is part of our human nature to be shortsighted and resist new ways of doing things. As champions of sustainability, we should emphasize its long-term benefits and cost effectiveness when life-cycle costing is considered. It is much easier for clients to adopt sustainability practices when they see a good return on their investment. Sustainable design does not cost more when it is done the right way.

What can we do to make a difference?

When promoting our work to clients, we often focus on parts of the project and neglect giving an overview of the project and its impact on the company itself, the company's clients and the environment. We need to encourage our clients to change their position from a "nice-to-have" option to a "must-have" design.

We can encourage them to shift from a short-term vision by presenting cost savings and a more comprehensive vision that includes the many benefits of sustainability and the potential for long-term success. In today's competitive market, a truly optimal project will include sustainable design elements. And in the not-too-distant future, sustainable design will take its place among the most important factors clients consider when choosing a design firm. Those factors include the cost of a project, its overall quality, the timeliness of delivery and level of client satisfaction upon its completion.

To take the lead on sustainability initiatives, we need to adopt new tools and strategies and keep pace with new technologies. Those who are leading a trend are always looking forward and embracing new possibilities. Along with our clients, we need to shake up old ways of thinking and cultivate more positive and progressive ways of thinking about sustainable design.

When we can get excited about these new possibilities and benefits for our clients, we can promote the design and building of sustainable projects with more confidence and energy. We should let clients know of the many benefits that will flow from sustainable projects that keep up with current social and environmental demands and meet both current and future codes.

To create this desired sustainability within our future projects, we should all keep this idea of sustainability front and center in our presentations. Those innovative and visionary leaders who challenge the status quo and who can remain open to new ideas and new ways of approaching projects can also help improve their companies' profits while improving employee morale and client satisfaction.

We should encourage clients to make sustainable design choices in every project. Whenever you get a client to buy into using sustainable design on a project, I would encourage asking for a testimonial on both the work done on the project and on its sustainable design piece when the work is completed. We can also use our smart phones to either record audio or video interviews with clients about the projects and their reactions to the completed projects with sustainable design. Some potential interview questions are listed below: 

  • How did you feel about sustainable design at first?
  • Were you reluctant, or were you on board?
  • Did you get any pushback from your supervisors?
  • What made you decide to go ahead with the decision to use sustainable practices in your design?
  • What were the greatest benefits of incorporating sustainability into your project?
  • Do you intend to promote this positive feature in any of your company's marketing materials?
  • What did you learn about the long-term projected savings on doing the project this way?
  • What would you say to architects or project managers who have to make the decision whether to use sustainable design elements for their projects?

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