Green design: Look again. It's sustainable — and profitable, too

Instead of running from environmental concerns, business is embracing them with sustainable design.

David Suzuki and Wal-Mart have arguably never shared the same ideology, but a February 2007 meeting at Wal-Mart Canada in Mississauga, Ont., had them sharing the same room. The environmental guru addressed 1,200 Wal-Mart managers to talk about the environment and why it's critical that business take a leadership role on sustainable development and design.

Andrew Pelletier, director of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Canada, says Wal-Mart took up the cause about a year and a half ago. “We believe the business world has a major role to play in helping preserve the environment for future generations, and specifically in reducing the world's waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Wal-Mart is in a unique position to take a leadership role on environmental sustainability given the scope of our business.”

According to Pelletier, Wal-Mart is testing a range of sustainable features in 'experiment stores.' In January, the retail giant opened a store in Kansas City, Mo., that uses 20% less energy than existing stores. He says the company is retrofitting stores across Canada with energy-efficient lighting. “Last summer we reduced all the lighting in our Ontario stores by two-thirds. That meant we were able to reduce our greenhouse gases by several thousand tons of CO 2.” Wal-Mart won't reveal the details it has planned for March — when it announces its 2007 waste-reduction targets — but Pelletier boasts the company will reduce its waste by “millions of kilograms” this year alone.

Tell that to Peter Busby. A world leader in sustainable design, he's one of the founders of Canada's Green Building Council and he's also the architect of the greenest Wal-Mart never built.

“When we started working for Wal-Mart, they weren't at all convinced that this was an important issue, but they knew that to get approval for a building in Vancouver, they needed to do something special. So we convinced them to develop a green strategy as part of the building design.”

In early 2005, after two years of planning, the Vancouver designer revealed his vision, which included windmills to partially power the heating and cooling systems and skylights to replace daytime lighting. The proposed store was expected to reduce energy consumption by 37%. But it was never built because Vancouver City Council voted to keep Wal-Mart out of the city limits (though Busby says the proposal will be reintroduced in March). However, it demonstrated to Wal-Mart that sustainable design was not only better for the planet, but could also help them save money in the long run.

Saving on operating costs is the main reason Busby's business clients opt for sustainable design. The other important reason is occupant health. “The statistics are there,” says Busby, who maintains operational savings can average 40% and go as high as 60%. “In properly ventilated, healthy green buildings, there's less sick leave and less complaints from occupants. Productivity goes up — and that can really impact a firm's bottom line.”

While design professionals like Busby have been important catalysts in promoting sustainable design, in the last few years the market has begun to demand it. John Robinson, professor with the Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, says he's noticed the action-oriented response business has taken: “I've noticed this huge change in the last 10 years. I find now that when you go and talk to business, you don't have to start by convincing people there's a problem; they don't want to talk about that. They want to talk about 'What can we do?'”

One of North America's largest commercial real estate investment firms is doing just that. Oxford Properties Group, with an operating portfolio of $6 billion, recently approached design firm HOK to determine what could be done to retrofit its existing buildings. Author of 2005's Guidebook to Sustainable Design, HOK designs almost $5 billion in new construction and renovation worldwide each year.

“I think that we're seeing a groundswell,” says Lui Mancinelli, HOK's managing principal for Canadian operations. “In the next two to five years this won't even be a question. Green design is just going to be the way we design. Whether it's because of legislation or because people will demand it, the market will change.”

Sustainable design has marketplace benefits of another kind, as well. It meets some of the criteria for SRIs — or socially responsible investments. “What we look for in companies are comprehensive efforts to reduce their ecological footprint,” says Bob Walker, VP of The Ethical Funds Company — the first and largest socially responsible investment firm in Canada. “So things like building retrofits and building or occupying LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified buildings are on our scorecard.”

Walker says the mainstream has really taken an interest in the past couple of years. “Some of the world's largest pension funds and investment institutions are beginning to use tools we've been using for quite some time — integrating environmental, social and governance issues into their decision-making.” (The non-profit Social Investment Organization says that by July 2004, $65.46 billion in assets in Canada were being managed according to social responsibility guidelines, up 31% from 2000.)

However, barriers to the adoption of sustainable design remain. Besides lukewarm federal government support, there is the problem of building operations. Designers and developers can construct technologically advanced, energy-efficient buildings, but if no one knows how to operate them sustainable design won't matter. John Robinson and Peter Busby are part of an integrative team working on a solution that will help bridge that gap: the soon-to-be built Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) in Vancouver. It's been forecast as “the greenest structure on earth.” But the building's most important function is that of a teaching facility, so professionals who design, build and operate buildings can come see how it works and copy it for themselves.

“One thing CIRS will be measured on is how we get this stuff out in the marketplace,” says Robinson. “We don't have time anymore to just keep doing research.”