Returning Joy to Sustainable Building


The late great Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” I believe where we are today in green building is not where we thought we were going when the pioneers of sustainability began this revolution.

Each new certification standard and rating system contributes to a stalling culture of reductive logic in real estate. We raise building performance objectives, and then we require the owners and developers to figure out if they can pay for them. It’s no longer a question of value, but a question of, “Can I afford it?” This circular exercise pulls the joy out of the design, architecture, and construction. It kills the business case for sustainability, and simultaneously obscures its value.

Here’s the most important thing for you to take away from this post: if your people tell you that sustainability is too expensive, then they are failing you. Achieving sustainability doesn’t have to affect your budget – “net zero sustainability costs” are possible.

A nickel ain’t worth a dime

yogi2When we measure value in sustainability, we need to start by asking the right questions.

Most often we start with, “If we make sustainability cheap enough to implement now, will it someday become more valuable?”

This is the problem. To address real value, we should be asking:

  • What is the value of human wellness?
  • What is the value of workplace productivity?
  • What is the value of natural resources?

If you use cost as a barrier to pursuing sustainability, you are missing the point. There is a sustainability solution for every budget, every project, and every business. When we break sustainability down to its cost, we take the joy out of the process of meeting a purpose. It’s a road without a happy ending.

You’ve come to a fork in the road

yogi3I think we have traveled as far down the road of “the old way” as we should.

Let’s make our projects wholly, inherently sustainable without any added costs. Stop fitting sustainable elements into a project based on an ‘add’ to the budget. Just STOP IT!

Sustainability, at its most joyful and creative, is a mental exercise where the only limitations are human behaviors: the intellectual capability and collaboration of your teams. Bring joy back into design through intelligent and creative teams that are responsible for innovation, invention and collaboration, rather than including sustainability as an add-on.

You can make the argument for this approach because sustainability can be achieved with whatever budget you have for any certification target. Always. You just have to define a project brief that says that.

What might we learn, in each metro area or climate zone, if the competition was to reach ever greater levels of sustainability with every team playing inside conventional budgets for development? Might denying spending your way to success reveal the design and technological paths to a similar level of performance? I know thousands of LEED Accredited Professionals that are ready for that challenge. Tens of thousands. Let them do the work that they signed up for.

If sustainability and all its intrinsic values matter to your business, then we need to look at sustainability budgeting  in a new light. We must accept the project budget and then determine what aspects of sustainability are important to the client and stakeholders. Then every high performance aspect is built within the given budget. You can spend more to push sustainability even further, but you don’t have to.

The future ain’t what it used to be

yogi-berra-quotes-10The way we should approach high performance projects going forward is to take financial implications out of the equation. Design teams must use head and heart– they must be capable of envisioning and building more reliant, resilient and joyful spaces for people to live work and play without the confines of cost.

We can either continue to build objects or we can create communities and spaces that endure and have a life of their own. Eliminate the farce roadblock of budget and cost, so we can finally get to the heart of the matter.

It’s a process, but just as Yogi said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

A nationally recognized leader in sustainability, Tom Paladino is the founder and CEO of Paladino and Company.

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