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Building a Green Practice

A LEED Fellow’s list of the top 10 things learned to build and maintain a green firm.

November 5, 2012
KEYWORDS fellow / LEED / lessons
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Today is not just a Monday for me, it’s in fact the 10-year anniversary of the start of my green building consulting firm, Sustainable Design Consulting, LLC (SDC). Reaching this milestone has afforded me the opportunity to take stock of a few of the lessons—great and small—that have found me on the journey. An avid list-maker, I decided to share these in the format that seems to work best for me: a list of the top 10 things I’ve learned in building this green practice.

#1 Don’t worry about having it all figured out.
For as long as I have been able to describe my own nature, I knew that I was a planner. I used my time in measured quantities, projecting ahead for the weeks, the months, the years to come. As such, allowing SDC to grow and evolve somewhat organically, very much in response to the ever-changing commercial green building marketplace, could be seen as going against my nature—well, what a relief!

Looking back upon the building industry—not just in 2002, but still further back in 1992—from a green building vantage point that was as clear as anyone else’s, I know that that there has been a lot of change along the way. Individuals across the country and internationally wrote, spoke and advocated for more sustainable practices. Many did so without substantial organizational support, infrastructure or recognition. As the information age swept in and made communication and information-sharing so much easier, new networks began to form and grow, including the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

Throughout these years, regional organizations and USGBC chapters formed, federal, state and local legislation passed, firms began or expanded their own sustainable practices, innovative green building products and software tools were released, and individuals pursued specialized education and credentialing. The creation of and subsequent demand for LEED green building certification took the building industry by a type of storm that would have been difficult for anyone to predict, then weathered the traumatic storm of the recent economic recession. Meanwhile, design and construction projects went on hold, firms changed shape and size, and additional green building standards and programs emerged.

As members of this industry, I believe that we need to be active participants and pay attention to what can help us anticipate the future, but that we should not set a rigid path based on predictions we cannot possibly make about our national and global context. We should thoughtfully embrace long-term strategic planning, but in a manner which lets us adapt to changing circumstances, needs and opportunities.

#2 Trust your gut.
Innumerable people before me have advised on the importance of listening to one’s own wisdom in making life’s many choices. In business, these may take the form of staffing decisions, financial decisions and responses to opportunities and challenges that present themselves along the way. I personally have found that merely listening to my instincts is not sufficient if I don’t follow through and act on them.

The heightened activity in the commercial green building marketplace has opened many doors for many people to develop many opinions about what’s next, what’s right and what’s best. I have learned that hearing a multitude of perspectives within this green building practice is very important, and yet not more important than assessing what makes good common sense based on where we are today and how quickly we can get to tomorrow.

#3 Surround yourself with really good thinkers.
My fellow LEED Fellows, the extraordinary green building professionals who preceded them, and the firms and organizations that they have built and led have all served as inspirations for me. I have learned a healthy amount from my various heroes—at least by osmosis, but sometimes by asking—and have tried to flatter them now and again with emulation.

As often as I can, I try to interact with professional peers—making time to read what they write, attending their presentations and learning from the exchange of experiences. I have found the green building industry to be one filled with enthusiastic and solution-oriented people, which leads me to want to hear what they all have to say.

Yet most immediately, on a day-to-day level, I work closely with the truly great talent I have been honored to welcome into SDC itself—committed and highly effective professionals who lead projects, teams and initiatives in ways that magnify the effectiveness of any one of us alone.

#4 Build in diverse skills and experiences.
The SDC team members have joined the firm from various professional backgrounds, including architecture, interior design, planning, landscape design, engineering, building science, construction, facilities management, real estate and business. As sustainability is a highly interdisciplinary concept, a case could actually be made for SDC becoming even more diverse than that.

The business that has come our way during these years has also brought us a variety of different building industry market sectors, client types, consulting and training service needs. With each new opportunity, I enjoy matching the best-suited individual or team to the task. Expertise in professional practice, design, specifications, technical research, building simulation and analyses, project management, policy and program development, team facilitation, presentation and training are all core company strengths—yet ones we could never achieve within a homogenous group of professionals.

#5 Learn to love the tools.
One thing we generally lack at SDC is time to kill—each team member multi-tasks as an everyday condition. As such, we have developed a substantial collective sensitivity to the ways in which our tools, by which I almost entirely mean computerized ones, can serve us or hinder us. Most of the tools we use, and often seek to improve upon, fall into four main categories:

  • Tools that help us organize information;
  • Tools that help us manage activities;
  • Tools that help us understand building properties;
  • Tools that help us make things pretty.

In our quest for identifying new tools to assist us with our most frequently used activity—managing the LEED project process—we have spent more than two years assessing what we do and how software could help us do it more efficiently and allow our time to be better spent tapping into more of our green building expertise. As of this date, we are still in progress with solving that problem!

#6 Serve the customer as best you can.
I believe that it is very important to start by getting to know them, in all their many and varied forms. The needs of the local government project manager are vastly different than those of the corporate department head or the commercial developer. It’s not only important to understand their basic needs of budget and schedule, but it’s also important to assess their level of understanding and interest in aligning their project or program with a more sustainable vision.

At SDC we have developed not only a range of professional services, but different approaches to engaging clients at a feasibility assessment and even educational level. Often a preliminary overview and goal-setting discussion, whether one-on-one or in a more structured group, brainstorming can help frame the scope of consulting engagement moving forward, including identifying possible professional training needs for key project or program personnel. The more customer-focused the professional services and processes, the better the end product.

#7 Know when to say, ‘No, thanks.’
A lesson learned most intensely during periods of company-wide overload has been how to decline opportunities, paid and unpaid ones alike. When stretched too thin, I worry both about SDC’s ability to sustain quality and our satisfaction with the work. Growing a high-level professional team cannot be done overnight. Thus, when the demands of the marketplace have exceeded the supply of ourselves, we have respectfully declined new opportunities to allow us to catch up and be better positioned to serve clients the next time around. Over the years, some clients have acknowledged us for taking responsibility in this way and further demonstrated the good will further by returning to us in future years.

I do believe that as green building continues to expand its influence in the marketplace, it remains important to uphold high standards, both for general credibility and for practical results. To work under perpetual overload, and to allow quality and customer service to diminish, thus would do the green building movement itself a disservice.

#8 Share what’s working and what’s not.

At SDC, we enjoy talking about what we do for a living—so much so that we have collectively delivered public presentations and private trainings to thousands of professionals. We have found that doing so engages others, whether potential clients or even friendly competitors, in mutually beneficial dialogue that moves our knowledge-base forward.

We have found that, drawing from our firsthand experience, constructive criticism can also be necessary to advance the green building industry. For example, as some of LEED’s most prolific users, we don’t shy away from being its critics. We take opportunities to provide feedback to USGBC and GBCI very seriously, and we devote senior staff time to organizing our thoughts internally in order to provide the most concise feedback to those who may receive it from hundreds of other sources as well.

#9 Foster a learning environment.
As a specialized consulting and training firm, we are keenly aware of the need for our key personnel to maintain a higher level of knowledge about green building than that of our clients. Simply put, if they are more up to speed about it than we are, why would they need us? To augment our extensive field expertise with greater depth and currency, we thus turn to professional education.

Though continuing education has been a company priority since the beginning, SDC’s formalized Professional Development Program has only been in effect for the past four years. Through this program, individual staff activities, and their budgeting and career-path implications, are organized via an application process that asks, among other things, two key questions for each proposed activity:

  • How would this benefit SDC?
  • How would this benefit you?

A proposed activity that lacks an adequate response to both questions is one not likely to be approved.

#10 Don’t talk about what you don’t know—learn about it!
Perhaps this is my own personal pet peeve, but it rings true enough among others within SDC. With as much opportunity in this broadened green building marketplace for misinformation, exaggerated claims and greenwashing, SDC leans in the other direction. At every level, staff are given the clear message that it is better to answer, “I don’t know, but I’ll check on that and get back to you,” than to risk compromising our reputation for technical rigor, not to mention wasting others’ time by providing assumed answers or fabricated expertise.

 Needless to say, I try to walk this talk of intellectual honesty at every opportunity, as I have grown quite comfortable during these past years with how much I have left to learn, and I look forward to getting on with the next 10 years so that I can start learning it! 

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