“Sustainability” becoming standard practice for architects

Tom Dennis writes on the Prairie Business website about the changing environment for architects. Do you see the same developments in your country?


On beyond energy efficiency: For architects, ‘sustainability’ now means so much more

GRAND FORKS – Jim Galloway agrees:

“In architecture these days, there are fads, there are trends and there are standard practices,” said Galloway, architect and principal at JLG Architects in Grand Forks.

“Sustainability is one of those that now is a standard practice.”

Paul Breiner agrees:

“Absolutely. It’s really not a trend any more,” said Breiner, project architect with Ackerman-Estvold in Minot.

“In fact, while it might not be the core, it’s certainly one of the core elements of architecture today.”

And Richard Graves, associate professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Building Research at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, agrees, too.

“Here at the architecture school, we created a degree more than 10 years ago – a master’s in sustainable design,” Graves said.

“It was cutting edge, and one of the first such degrees in the country.

“But we just redid the curriculum of the architecture school, and now, all of those elements that 10 years ago were cutting edge are part of the core curriculum.

“We feel that all of those things, every architect needs to know before leaving the University of Minnesota.”

Daylight dawns

But here’s the key: while the original elements of sustainability – notably, energy efficiency – now are standard practice, other elements have arisen that are the new cutting edge.

This story will explore that evolution. Today, sustainable architecture considers the building’s impact not just on the owner’s wallet, but also on the occupants and surrounding community; not just the presence of insulation and double-pane windows, but also the influence of daylight, solar panels, bike racks and low-flow toilets.

“These days, our students learn that architecture is about more than just designing things that are beautiful,” said Graves of the University of Minnesota.

“It’s about designing beautiful things that are driven by the kinds of performances we need in the future, both environmentally and socially.”

Built in 2013, the Gorecki Alumni Center at the University of North Dakota remains one of the few buildings in the state to be certified Platinum by the LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. That’s the program’s highest certification.

Every year, third-year architecture students at North Dakota State University visit UND to tour the Gorecki building and Wilkerson Commons, a Silver-certified building. Which also is a sign of the times: “When I was at that point in architecture school, we never even talked about sustainability,” Galloway said. “It wasn’t on the radar at all.”

But what the NDSU students discover is worth the visit, because it shows how far sustainability has evolved beyond energy efficiency.

For example, “in the Gorecki building, the office interiors are all glass,” Galloway said. The design brings natural daylight to 97 percent of the spaces and greatly reduces the need for artificial light.

And in Sustainability 2.0, that matters. LEED’s point-based system evaluates not only energy use but also other factors, including whether occupants have access to daylight and outside views.

There are three reasons for the focus on daylight, said Breiner of Ackerman-Estvold. The first is aesthetic; daylight has been a factor in architecture for centuries, as the world’s cathedrals show.

The second is economic, as sunlight can cut lighting and heating bills.

And the third is comfort. “There’s a ton of research that shows that people work more productively and are more comfortable in a natural versus an artificial light setting,” Breiner said.

Breiner helped craft the National Energy Center of Excellence at Bismarck State College, another building that incorporates sustainable design. Besides daylighting, architects considered transportation – “we made sure we had a place where people could store their bicycles if they chose to ride to work,” Breiner said – recycled and low-emitting building materials for indoor air quality, water conservation and light pollution, among other factors.

“We were conscious of the light fixtures we’d select so we wouldn’t send light off-site,” he said.

“It’s not just the building itself. It’s how it treats the people inside as well as how it extends out and affects the community around it.”

Net zero

Net zero construction is an even newer element of sustainable design. A net zero building is one with zero net energy consumption, meaning the energy used by the building equals the renewable energy produced on site, typically through solar or wind.

“That’s one of the things we’re seeing: a shift from energy efficiency to a goal of being carbon neutral,” Galloway said.

“We’re working on project right now in Colorado – a hockey arena at Colorado College, the goal of which is to be net zero.”

Details about the arena haven’t been finalized, but the Tutt Library at Colorado College achieved net-zero construction when it was renovated in 2017. The library earned this status by virtue of an 80-well geothermal energy field as well as rooftop and offsite solar arrays, among other factors.

Above and beyond

All of the institutions referred to above are colleges or universities, and that’s no accident. For a big reason why energy efficiency – Sustainability 1.0 – now is a part of virtually all new construction is that it pays for itself in a short period of time.

It makes clear economic sense, in other words.

But the payoff for aiming higher – toward high-level LEED certification or net-zero construction, for example – generally is longer-term.

And at this point, universities tend to be the owners who’ll spend extra to “go green.”

One reason is that high-level sustainability now is a part of colleges’ brands. It matters, especially when it comes to student and faculty recruitment.

“Students today are so much more sophisticated in picking one college over another,” Graves said.

“They’ll ask about whether you have a sustainability program or not.” They’re drawn to colleges that make net-zero a priority.

“And once they’re here, they insist that the university walks the walk,” he said. “They want to know your carbon reduction plans – and not only for the existing campus but for new buildings as well.”

Now, here’s a prediction: Other industries will follow the path that higher ed is on.

Expect to see more companies touting their sustainable designs, in other words.


First, because the movement toward sustainable architecture shows no sign of stopping. Second, because social and environmental awareness now are important in corporate brands.

And third, because the higher-level investments still can pay off – just not as quickly as laying fiberglass batting in the attic can.

“If I were to speak with some MBA students – the people who’re going to build and own buildings in the future – I’d tell them that high-performance and sustainable buildings are good business,” Galloway said.

“It’s in their interest; it helps their corporate reputations.” It also can enhance productivity, because most people perform better in a building with clean air, lots of daylight, a rooftop garden and other green features.

“I’d start that conversation early, because over time, I think they’d realize that this is just a good investment for them.”

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