Shifting attitudes toward sustainability build toward change

There’s more than one consideration when it comes to the ways the things we build affect the world around us. And have an effect, they do: The built environment generates more than 40% of annual carbon emissions.

According to McKinsey & Co., that puts the industries responsible, developers and builders of residential and commercial buildings as well as infrastructure, among the highest producers of carbon emissions — more than shipping, aviation and producing electricity.

But shifting attitudes around the topic of sustainability are providing opportunity for change. As one of the world’s largest, global design and architecture firm Gensler is helping lead that charge. And so far, it seems to be working.

Becky Button, co-managing director and principal in Gensler’s Morristown office
Button

“I don’t feel alone,” Becky Button, co-managing director and principal in Gensler’s Morristown office told NJBIZ. “I think that the architecture industry realizes how important it is. And I think, where we kind of leap ahead a little is, we’re the biggest firm in the world, in general. And so we have a lot of pull, we have a lot of influence and we’re going to use that for the benefit of everybody.”

The firm’s size also feeds its commitment, which includes an ambitious goal – The Gensler Cities Climate Challenge – for its work to be carbon neutral by 2030.

“While we’re very local as well, we do over 1.6 billion square feet of design space annually,” Button explained. “So we 100% have the biggest obligation, we feel, to do something to move the needle because we have to right? We have to lead by example.”

To help direct the industry, Gensler recently introduced its GPS.

Available on the company’s website, the Product Sustainability Standards TM v1.0 guide offers insights into the top 12 most commonly used product categories for architecture and interior projects. Beginning this month, Gensler said it will activate the criteria and begin evaluating products for sustainability, just as it would any other performance category.

Those product categories are: acoustic ceiling panels, tiles and suspension grids; batt insulation; board insulation; carpet tile; decorative glass; glass demountable partitions; gypsum board; interior latex paint; non-structural metal framing; resilient flooring and base; systems furniture workstations; and task chairs.

“What we realized is, we can’t do it alone. And so the GPS was really our way of saying, look, if we just navel gaze and just talk about what we’re going to do internally, we’re not going to move the needle enough,” Button explained. “We have to do something that is external, that is available for everyone in the design world to benefit from. It’s not just for Gensler.”

The GPS aims to create a basis for understanding the impact different products have and establishing a baseline to compare them effectively and uniformly.

So far, the resource has had a positive reception.

“We have found that many of our clients are really thankful for this because, we have a lot of clients who have stated ESG [environmental, social, governance] goals. As part of their organization, we’re working with people in real estate who might not really know, ‘how are we going to do this?’” Button explained. “We just have open conversations with them. … Let us look at what you have in your standards and we’ll help you make them more green. And usually, clients are very happy for that kind of help, because they’re trying to figure it out as well.”

McKinsey highlighted three actions to potentially accelerate the transition to green building, all of which Gensler is looking to tackle with its GPS: transparency and awareness, partnerships along the value chain, and consistent and reliable metrics.

Time for a change

New Brunswick-based DIGroupArchitecture operates under the banner of “Architecture for Change.”

Vince Myers, president of New Brunswick-based DIGroupArchitecture
Myers

When the firm was getting started in 2006, President Vince Myers told NJBIZ, the “green” movement was just emerging in some places, like California.

Now, “it’s really been more formalized in terms of how people are integrating green measures into their buildings, sustainable design into their buildings. And there’s good reason,” he said. These days, people are more in tune with green mindsets, there’s a greater understanding about the finality of resources and potential negative health impacts are more prescient.

For DIGroup, its work has always been fundamentally sustainable, according to Myers. That’s because the firm is considering how energy consumption is evaluated – so the long-term implications of a design – as well as the environment itself and the materials it’s choosing to use.

“From our standpoint, we always wanted to put materials within buildings that made sense for people that were sustainable because they’re going to last,” Myers said.

Along with how a building functions, that attention to what goes into construction has a sizeable impact.

Not all emissions are created equal. In an average building, 72% of overall energy consumption is operational – what it takes to run the building and its systems. Meanwhile, embodied energy – associated with the materials it takes to actually build the structure – make up the remaining 28%.

Like Gensler, DIGroup is working to educate the industry to make more informed choices.

“And we’re helping our clients who may not necessarily know the level of information that we have at our disposal about certain materials, about efficiencies with equipment, about why we’re doing certain things in terms of arranging spaces to make them not only beautiful but sustainable,” Myers said.

For example

To find evidence of Gensler’s green touch, you need not look very far.

Valley National Bank’s new headquarters at 70 Speedwell Ave. in Morristown, designed by the firm, was recently certified LEED v4 Commercial Interiors Gold.

“A big part of that is, Valley was very aware and had very high aspirations for sustainability and they engaged us early on,” Button said. “So everything about the project … we were a part of that to help make sure that they were choosing something that could be sustainable.”

Valley National Bank’s new headquarters at 70 Speedwell Ave. in Morristown, designed by Gensler, was recently certified LEED v4 Commercial Interiors Gold.
Valley National Bank’s new headquarters at 70 Speedwell Ave. in Morristown, designed by Gensler, was recently certified LEED v4 Commercial Interiors Gold. – PROVIDED BY GENSLER

According to Valley Bank, the flagship building achieved LEED certification by addressing areas including carbon, energy, water, waste, transportation, materials, health and indoor environmental quality. Specifically, the financial institution highlighted the desire to create a healthy, high-performing building environment for the well-being of its people; run a modern, high efficiency building for the benefit of operations; and invest in the company’s values as well as to promote sustainable investments to its clients.

On Gensler’s side, Button said having partners who are on the same page is also a boon, referencing the firm’s work elsewhere in the Morris County seat with SJP Properties at M Station. “They understood they’ve got to be sustainable to attract this tenant into this building and to build this building,” she said.

Deloitte occupies M Station East while Sanofi is set to take up residence at the developing M Station West.

“We can’t do it alone. It’s got to be, our clients need to want to do it. The developer and landlords need to understand how important it is,” Button added.

Deloitte occupies M Station East while Sanofi is set to take up residence at the developing M Station West in Morristown.
Deloitte occupies M Station East while Sanofi is set to take up residence at the developing M Station West in Morristown. – PROVIDED BY GENSLER

Custom(er) concerns

Digging into how projects are becoming more sustainable, Button said having outdoor space “is huge.”

Myers also spoke about the importance of natural daylight and air: Building spaces that provide natural light reduce energy costs, but also create enjoyable environments for their inhabitants.

In 2023, New Brunswick-based DIGroupArchitecture was recognized with an NJ Future SmartGrowth Award for its Clinton Hill Early Learning Center.
DIGroupArchitecture was recognized with an NJ Future SmartGrowth Award for its Clinton Hill Early Learning Center, which includes sustainable elements such as strategic daylighting by drawing in natural light. – PROVIDED BY DIGROUPARCHITECTURE

In 2023, DIGroup was recognized with an NJ Future SmartGrowth Award for its Clinton Hill Early Learning Center. The site benefits from an underground storm-water detention system that can store up to 10,000 cubic feet of water — a permanent solution that prevents overburdening city infrastructure.

Other sustainable elements at Clinton Hill include: strategic daylighting by drawing in natural light and exterior spaces, including the courtyard and playground areas; a building envelope with a white roof system designed to keep the facility cooler, making it more energy efficient and helping to reduce heat-island buildup in the city; and an efficient HVAC system with variable refrigerant flow and fan-speed heat pumps that works only as hard as it needs to and negates the need for boilers, hot water piping and added natural gas consumption, according to the firm.

Beyond educational facilities, DIGroup also does a lot of work on health care and assisted living facilities. When it comes to breathable air, Myers tied the emergence of that concern to the pandemic.

“That was the real kind of critical thing,” he said. “And so that particular aspect of filtering air … people start to focus on those things that they think of not only as a reaction to something that’s bad, but certainly because they want to improve. They really want to create spaces where it’s healthier to live and work,” Myers said.

Green isn’t just a mindset, either. Plant life is literally a component to consider when thinking about sustainability. At M Station, for example, there’s a green wall on the parking garage.

McKinsey pointed to the benefits of green roofs, which can provide energy savings through their ability to lower indoor temperatures, absorb rainwater and delay runoff to reduce flood risk during intense rains, reduce the temperature in densely built areas, provide habitats for urban wildlife, and generally create a more aesthetically pleasing landscape.

Water reduction through low-flow fixtures, efficient lighting, furniture and looking local for materials – to cut down on carbon emissions from transport – are also big-ticket items, according to Button.

“The energy savings and how it’s operated is one of the biggest areas that we focus on,” she said.

Gensler is also encouraging thinking ahead when it comes to materials. Beyond the GPS, it offers lifecycle analysis to anticipate and determine if selected products break down or can be reused or recycled.

“We want to help our clients understand that sometimes choosing the cheapest, easiest, quickest thing has a bigger, worse impact down the road,” Button said. “And it’s sometimes hard, because clients have budgets, they’re under cost constraints. We’re trying to be very mindful of that and really help them understand it’s worth it to spend a little more on this thing because over the lifespan of this product, you’re not going to have to replace it or it’s not going to end up in a landfill.”

Similarly, among the services offered by DIGroup are energy audits. “It’s always been part of what we’ve done, because it helps us stay really kind of focused on the most important thing in many respects, and that is making sure that we’re covering all bases with respect to our clients and what their needs are.”

Taking stock of energy output is an important component of decarbonizing the built environment. Plus, it also offers new opportunities in the space.

McKinsey projected that as much as $800 billion to $1.9 trillion in new green value pools could be created across sectors as more players look to tamp down their carbon outputs. The report specifically highlighted resilient materials and systems (more than $320 billion) and retrofitting existing assets (more than $240 billion).

You are not alone

McKinsey called the need to collaborate urgent. “Achieving the necessary scale of decarbonization and value creation to accelerate the green transition requires fundamental shifts in how industry players design, build, operate, and decommission assets,” according to the report.

The adoption of ESG goals across the business world has helped, as clients work toward their own environmental goals.

“We’re not telling anybody what to do. We’re trying to get people to understand why they should want to do it,” Button said. “And so, if we can help educate our clients, or we’ve had a lot of internal efforts, just making sure that every single person that works at Gensler understands how important this is.

“We need everybody rowing in the same direction,” she said.

Myers echoed that sentiment. Sustainable considerations, he said, “are all tied into, ‘What is our future going to look like and who is responsible?’ And the answer is, we’re all responsible at different levels.

“And we as DIGroup have a responsibility to continue to do the work that we do in this regard. And always be prepared, always know what are the important things that motivate us as designers, but also motivate people to have these kinds of discussions,” he said.

According to Gensler’s latest Global Climate Action Survey, those conversations look like they’ll be easier to have. The research found that climate change is the second greatest issue of concern for the public — ranking above even jobs and the economy.

“I think we see it as a partnership with everybody and people have to contribute in the ways that they can. But I don’t feel that we’re alone in it,” Button said.

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Author: Jessica Perry