Formerly in the lexicon of crunchy-granola types alone, words like “sustainability” now hold cachet. That’s because Americans are going green. And that’s a word design firms can relate to.

Formerly in the lexicon of crunchy-granola types alone, words like “sustainability” now hold cachet. That’s because Americans are going green. And that’s a word design firms can relate to.

Design typically reflects a facet of the collective public psyche in some way, whether that reflection is a mirror image, a disaffirmation, or an intentional distortion. It’s no surprise that designers and design firms have gone green because it’s official: Americans care about climate change.

A Yale research survey reveals a significant shift in public attitudes toward the environment and global warming. In 2007, 83 percent of Americans said they believed global warming was a “serious” problem compared to 70 percent who felt that way in 2004. More Americans than ever have serious concerns about environmental threats such as toxic soil and water, deforestation, air pollution, and the extinction of wildlife.

A separate national survey conducted by Yale in collaboration with GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media in late 2007 found broad support for local action on global warming. Specifically, Americans want local regulations requiring new homes to be more energy efficient and they want subsidies that will encourage the installation of electricity-generating solar panels and the replacement of old HVAC systems. They also support changes in local zoning and regulation, citing a desire for renewable energy sources, decreased suburban sprawl, and mixed urban development that would decrease the need for a car.

And what about the issue of national security to capture the public’s attention? A National Intelligence Council assessment released in June explores how climate change could threaten U.S. security in the next 20 years by causing political instability, mass movements of refugees, terrorism, or conflicts over water and other resources in specific countries.

The U.S. Green Building Council is contributing substantially to the national debate about climate change, having testified before the U.S. Congress most recently about the importance of green buildings as one aspect of the climate change solution. USGBC Senior Vice President for Policy and Public Affairs Michelle Moore spoke in May before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. She detailed the impact of the built environment on the natural environment and economy as well as the health and productivity of building users, citing buildings as the single largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions.

Architects today are in an elevated position to create new-definition, high-performance buildings that operate at optimum efficiency and offer reduced environmental impact. Design firms are creating buildings that consume less energy and create some as well. But we have a long way to go. Zero-energy buildings, green roofs, water conservation, solar, wind, and personal behavior. These are all explored in this issue of DesignIntelligence.

To find out how design leaders feel about sustainable design and their firm’s progress toward it, we commissioned the 2008 DesignIntelligence Sustainable Design Survey. We collected opinions from design offices throughout the United States. Respondents represent a good mix geographically and in terms of firm size, with the majority (84 percent) offering architecture services, among other specialties.

While we found survey respondents largely concerned about and involved in sustainable design, they aren’t, for the most part, holding professional associations accountable for forwarding the green agenda. In fact, with few exceptions, respondents indicated they were unaware whether or not organizations’ leadership and resource deployment adequately addressed green and sustainability issues. Notable exceptions were the American Institute of Architects, for which 61 percent of respondents indicating they are satisfied or very satisfied, and the USGBC and Architecture 2030, for which 77 percent and 49 percent, respectively, feel the same way. Interestingly, the AIA also had the highest score on the opposite end of the scale, with 20 percent of respondents saying they are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. We surmise this is due to the survey audience’s greater knowledge of the AIA programs compared to most other professional associations. (Although 66 percent of respondents offer interior design services, 61 percent indicated they don’t know how well the International Interior Design Association fares on green and sustainability issues.)

Respondents also had a story to tell about their own firms, indicating confidence in their current status. For example, 69 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with their firm’s progress toward green and sustainable design. And 72 percent consider their organization to be ahead of peers in this area. Recognizing that it’s not logically possible for the majority of a population to be ahead of their peers, we feel this self rating is reflective of the Design­Intelligence audience of leading firms in general and is probably not indicative of the entire universe of design firms.

Given that the survey population thought highly of their sustainability efforts, it’s interesting that nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of respondents approximate the percentage of their firm’s work that meets or exceeds LEED Silver or equivalent levels to be less than 50 percent. By contrast, 63 percent consider 50 percent or more of their firm’s work to be environmentally responsible. This may speak to a feeling on the part of respondents that the LEED Silver rating is an exceptionally high bar to reach.

Questions we asked about personal sustainability habits reveal a population that is increasingly putting their actions where their values are: 82 percent have changed their habits to reduce their carbon footprint by taking such actions as driving less, recycling more, and reducing energy use overall. Confirming what we found in the Design­Intelligence Technology Survey earlier this year, design leaders indicate they are purposefully taking part in less long-distance travel. The high energy impact of air travel, combined with escalating costs and inconveniences, make audio conferencing and online meetings all the more attractive given their convenience and increased acceptance.

Finally, we asked respondents to cite role models in the areas of firms, individuals, and product manufacturers. Within days of the close of our survey, which found HOK rated as the top firm among designers, a survey by Engineering News-Record confirmed that choice, ranking HOK “the greenest design firm on the planet” based on the revenue for design services generated from projects actively seeking environmental rating certifications such as LEED.

There is plenty of opportunity now for boldness. Moreover, there is a marketplace for radical new solutions that defy conventional thinking. Creativity and innovation are in the domain of design professionals including architects, interior designers, engineers, landscape architects, environmental graphic designers, product designers, and others who make up this tiny but increasingly indispensable design profession. In fact, we’re looking for major breakthroughs in thinking — and in action — that can accelerate change. As we look at the exploration of the future by architects and designers creating our new landscapes, we see pathways ahead that were previously invisible. There lies the potential for fresh relevancy, career reinvention, purpose, and new life.

James P. Cramer is founding editor of DesignIntelligence and co-chair of the Design Futures Council. He is chairman of the Greenway Group, a foresight management consultancy that helps organizations navigate change to add value.

Jane Gaboury is the editor and associate publisher of DesignIntelligence. She is an award-winning writer and editor with 20 years of business-to-business publishing experience.