Tips for sustainability on site beyond targets and trackers

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This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

It’s the last sprint on site before the finish line. Everyone is working around the clock to finish a project. The last thing the team wants to hear is that there are sustainability targets not met that no one was paying attention to until someone highlighted them as part of the contract close-out requirements. Unfortunately, it’s a situation we’ve seen often.

It’s not enough to set targets at the beginning of a project, forget them once planning is approved, then expect them to magically be achieved by the end of the project. What does it really mean to say “achieve an air permeability of 3m3/h.m2” or “ensure materials are responsibly and ethically sourced”?

Ensuring sustainability relies on early and meaningful engagement with everyone involved. That means translating sustainability in way that helps everyone be successful:

Regulators & planners: set clear requirements and understand constraints, conflicts and implications for design

Client: set clear briefs that incorporate sustainability and work with the team to reconcile conflicting priorities

Architects & engineers: ensure designs, details and specifications meet desired outcomes by understanding implications of design decisions

Procurement: ensure tender packages include details of sustainability, that the supply chain understands what they need to deliver and prices it accordingly, not losing things during value engineering

Contractor/subcontractor: include best practices within method statements, but also engage with workforce on site and provide tools, infrastructure and training to help them succeed

Honest engagement from all sides can help not only improve outcomes on site, but advance industry knowledge by identifying what does and doesn’t work. Addressing problems head on collaboratively leads to more actual sustainable outcomes, rather than closing one’s eyes and hoping for the best or ignoring contradictions and negative data to report publicly only the positive bits.

We’ve seen many projects do things well, but many also lose money and time by doing things poorly. Here are a few tips:

  • Enable everyone to take responsibility for sustainability. Spreading the knowledge helps if staff move onto different projects, prevents long-term items from being easily forgotten and increases accountability. Plus, not all projects have the budget to have a dedicated sustainability person, so it must become part of everyone’s job.
  • Don’t hide behind procedures and documentation. It’s very easy to issue a requirements tracker or bury lines in contracts, but we all know no one reads them. The result is either death by procedure or playing the blame game after the fact. Of course, documentation is needed for clarity and liability, but more can be done to help ensure the message is communicated and that proper investment in people and resources is made
  • Educate on best practice and make knowledge sharing a two-way process (not only training operatives to improve practices on site, but also sustainability specialists learning from site operatives to understand what does and doesn’t work)
  • Understand there’s more to sustainability than compliance. The lack of resources within regulatory agencies and local authorities can mean less oversight, but it also means less assistance in the case of doing something new or difficult. Plus, there is still a duty to do what is required, and the team can be held accountable if something goes wrong later.

It’s incredibly rewarding when we see teams ‘get it’. When architects, engineers and contractors understand issues they weren’t even aware of a few months before, when they ask the right questions and challenge their own designs, the outcome is not only a better project, but better designers. They look at their other projects in a different light and increase the capacity of their own organisations, which can be a differentiator when bidding for new work.

If project teams are thinking about compliance-led sustainability requirements, the sustainability specialist can do more. Rather than chasing a BREEAM credit, the sustainability specialist can spend more time pushing the boundaries and seeking innovative solutions for complex projects.

That’s the area where KLH like to be, seeking new ideas with our industry contacts while capacity is built within the organisation of project team to meet regulatory requirements. We are seeing more and more clients requesting this type of support which is great news for the construction industry, as well as those of us that thrive on implementing new ideas!

Thank you from afar

MarshallYoungAlumSignI was honored by my high school last month to receive the Marshall School Distinguished Young Alumni Award. Alas, I wasn’t able to make it to the ceremony, but my amazing filmmaker sister, Allison, was kind enough to create a thank you video for me to send to the ceremony instead!

You can watch the video here:

Thanks again to the Marshall School alumni office (and whomever nominated me) for the honor!

 

Go big or go home: new and challenging projects to keep busy

EWS modelHappy holidays and happy new year! I’ve really not spent as much time on this blog as I’d like to (believe me, I have so many posts waiting in the wings until I have a few minutes to catch my breath!), but largely it’s because I’ve jumped head first into several new projects.

You may have seen in KLH Sustainability’s Christmas message, but the main project I’m working on is the redevelopment of the London Olympic Park! The stars aligned and I was at the right place at the right time saying the right things about the right skills and talking to the right person to get to work on this exciting project. The project is to create out of what was part of the former park lands and prior to that, derelict industrial lands, into a massive (though…from an American urban perspective, arguably not large enough) residential/mixed-use development. The two new neighbourhoods, one in the area surrounding the former media center/new Here East building and the other south of the Copper Box Arena and west of the Olympic Stadium, will have 1500 new homes and lots of commercial/non-residential development.

There’s a ton happening with the development to make it more inclusive and sustainable:

  • housing will be mixed-tenure (social rent, affordable rent, shared ownership, private rent & for sale);
  • commercial space is hoping to attract small, independent businesses;
  • all the housing is being built to Lifetime Homes standard and a significant percentage are having additional accessibility modifications made to them;
  • multi-ethnic considerations are being taken into account, including allowing for provision of BAME-oriented bathroom fittings and kitchen layouts (more on that acronym in another post…);
  • significant thought put into public realm, placemaking, context-sensitive design and more;
  • “smart city” innovation considerations and integration with the park and beyond (more on the whole smart cities concept in another post…);
  • and of course, what I’m spending a huge chunk of my life on, more ambitious sustainability aspirations than you can shake a stick at, including but not at all limited to zero carbon homes, Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4+, BREEAM Excellent and so so so so so so much more. I’d love to go into more detail, but the perils of working in the private sector (as I am painfully learning) is that you really can’t be as open as you want to be…at least, not without approval, so more details will have to wait.

The project is still in planning and going through consultation. I’m really excited to be working on this project and wanted to share a bit of what’s been keeping me away from being as active outside of work as I’d like to be.

Read more about the project on the KLH website.

In addition to this project, I’m also working on the final stage of the Olympic Stadium Transformation (is anyone interested in massive numbers of seats from the stadium???), some smaller sustainability projects, just became a qualified Code for Sustainable Homes assessor (and the future Home Quality Mark), recently presented at the International Water Association (IWA) World Water Congress, kicking off a project with my IWA Specialist Group on digital engagement and water and been trying to get increasingly more active with Urbanistas London, several UK water groups, some local community groups in my home neighbourhood and more!

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, but I do hope this year to be able to spend more time on here exploring new ideas and projects. Thanks for following!

Finding the balance between experimentation and certainty

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Having moved from a role that consisted mainly of policy and high level concepts for government to an implementation role working mainly with the private sector on actual construction sites, it’s been an interesting opportunity to see both sides of how policy works or doesn’t work and what fosters progress and innovation. It’s been an interesting change to work on the ground on development after having worked in policy for so long. Mostly, it’s been great to get real world, practical experience; the side of me who likes to cut through the fluff and get things done is quite happy. But on the other side, it has been disappointing to see the stagnation and conservative, profit-oriented (or, orientated, for the Brits) thinking that prevents innovation and trying interesting new things.

I had an opportunity to opine a bit on the challenge of balancing experimentation and certainty inherent to private-sector driven investment and projects in the latest KLH Sustainability newsletter. The post can be read here and is reprinted below.

Development is a complicated business. Almost all projects arrive on the desks at KLH with a complex web of performance indicators, planning requirements and profit margins. It is an interesting challenge to make sure the many moving pieces stay on track to meet targets, while ensuring there is space for creativity, knowledge advancement, capacity building and innovation. Though these things are never mutually exclusive, in the name of certainty and simplicity, it can be easier to reduce sustainability to tick boxes and nice-to-haves, missing the big picture and the real opportunity for improvement.

In recent weeks, the media has been abuzz with news of the downfall of Volkswagen after they admitted to creating technology in their diesel cars to dupe emissions tests in the U.S. No one knows for sure their reasons for cheating as opposed to investing in research that could actually make their cars less harmful to the environment and society as a whole. They ran the numbers and somehow decided that covering up their failure was better for business than actually improving their cars. We can learn from Volkswagen; business myopia which leads to poor decision-making and rewards immediate profit over long-term value, will always back-fire…often sooner than expected.

Like corporations, new developments have many competing priorities to balance: regulatory compliance, engineering, saleability, creative design, placemaking, buildability, liability, sustainability, safety, public perception, technology, profitability, the list goes on. Each of those issues is complex on its own, but what often happens in the name of manageability, ease of implementation and certainty is that they are translated as budget line items.

Sustainability gets reduced to products, technology and accreditation schemes. In this way, they can be compared and assessed as apples to apples, which in turn can make it easier to make decisions and track progress, but also to miss nuances and lead to unintended consequences or failures of implementation.

What might this reliance on simplified definitions look like?

It might be sustainable homes that only ‘eco-warriors’ want to live in. Or the installation of grey water reuse technologies that reduce potable water use, but increase life-cycle energy consumption  and financial cost. It can be found in the post occupancy performance gap, or in the application of technology without considering the role of people, politics and society in gaining value from the technology.

In the case of Victoria, Australia, they rolled out smart meters claiming people would get energy savings, but didn’t communicate and work with residents to actually achieve those monetary or environmental benefits. When it comes to setting and reporting against performance requirements, it is easier to say “x number of smart meters were installed,” quietly ignoring whether the outcomes were as intended. This can lead to mistrust in both the technology and the implementer and can set back progress on innovation.

That is not to say breaking complex things into simple deliverables is the wrong thing to do.

Architects, engineers and developers need to progress with clarity, balancing priorities while making places that people will want to live and work. And they must do so in the face of all the uncertainty of the regulatory environment, future technology changes, price volatility and the ambiguity of working with and marketing to fickle and often unpredictable human beings.

But too much certainty may mean stifling innovation or processes that have not been tested or are too difficult to count or monetise, such as capacity and relationship-building. Like the smart meters in Victoria, many of the gains to be made in sustainability have as much to do with management and mentality as with technology. But it is harder to pin a number down on paper and put it out to bid on that alone, so we put a lot of effort and emphasis in technology, engineering solutions and countable things that can be easily pitched to investors, depicted in infographics, held up as benchmarks and subcontracted down into tiny parts.

Of course, we cannot throw out all the technologies and metrics and leave everyone to run experiments. It is not a matter of either/or. We can keep our risk management systems, but build in more contingencies and buffers to allow for flexibility or trial innovation. We can remember there are rarely simple solutions to anything and ask hard questions of anything that claims a cure all. We can value communication, including qualitative information that can add context to simple dashboards. We can make time to teach everyone from design to construction to sales how their efforts fit into the bigger picture of sustainability, rather than having them rely on a separate expert. And we can keep sight of goals and individual motives, remembering that numerical benchmarks are not themselves the goals, but the indicators for whether goals are being achieved.

As with most things, the trick is finding the balance between getting it right and getting it done.

Part of why we simplify things is to make it easier to act on, but we need to balance this with making sure that what is done is still worthwhile. Something is not always better than nothing. Doing it the right way is usually harder than ticking off boxes. We are keenly aware of this at KLH, so we approach each project with a strategy bespoke to the needs of that project and the people working on it. We pair number crunching with discussion, data analysis with data gathering, all in an attempt to continually work to reconcile certainty and simplicity with flexibility and complexity.

Integrating People, Not Just Parts, at Ecobuild 2015

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This post originally appeared in KLH Sustainability’s blog.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend a day of Ecobuild, billed as the world’s biggest event for sustainable design, construction and the built environment. I’d heard mixed reviews of it before I went, some saying that what had started as a grassroots movement had turned into a run-of-the-mill trade show. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the running theme through the sessions I attended was a focus not on parts, but on people. So often the focus is on the technological innovations required to develop sustainably, but it’s critically important to invest in the people part of the people-profit-planet triple-bottom line, which was emphasised throughout the panels.

Many of the sessions highlighted the performance gap (the disconnect between the way sustainable buildings are designed and how they operate) and the role that early interaction and communication with occupants plays in reducing that gap. Developments are more successful from a technical, environmental and social standpoint if people are an integral part of the design process rather than having design solutions imposed on them.

Chris Twinn, chairing the The missing link: Engaging and empowering residents to optimise building performance session, indicated that we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of “educating” people, but rather, we should be “working with” them.

The road from technological innovation to user integration can be like a game of Chinese whispers (that’s “telephone” in the US), attempting to relay product instructions from inventor to supplier, to designer, to developer, to sales team, to property manager, to occupant. This results in lack of confidence about products, scepticism about policies promoting them and fundamentally poor sustainability outcomes.

To counteract this, promising, people-focused solutions suggested at Ecobuild included:

  • developing better user integration into products;
  • improving behaviour change messaging by appealing to emotion and value instead of only economics;
  • integrating intuitive feedback loops into smart systems instead of hiding efficiency behind a black box;
  • communicating to audiences through local community leaders through spheres of influence;
  • developing programs that train local representatives to be able to explain, troubleshoot and repair smart systems; and
  • end-user focused approaches that measure comfort, wellbeing, health and other factors that people looking for homes and businesses care about.
Successfully integrating people throughout the process of sustainable development takes work. Unlike pipes, valves, computers and other complicated, but engineer-able solutions, humans are complex. Remembering that humans are a key aspect of successful sustainability means adapting practices and systems to fit how people think, how we act and what we value.