A new business model that relies on sustainability and begins with pro bono projects supporting the community is both a marketing strategy and a moral imperative.

Thirty-five years ago at the World Game Workshop in Philadelphia, Buckminster Fuller said, “Don’t talk about your dreams, talk about your accomplishments.”

When the Columbia Public School District of Missouri lost an overflow classroom trailer to arson fire in 2007, my firm, Peckham & Wright Architects Inc., proposed replacing it in a way that would better serve the school district, teachers, and children. The Eco School House, an energy efficient building designed as an alternative to trailer classrooms, resulted. The project was a cooperative collaboration between the school district and leaders in the design and construction community. In fact, I think of it as a project that resulted from the integrated design process at its best.

Most remarkable was the outpouring of community support for the project: 100 percent of the labor and services were completed pro bono with donations of design, materials, and construction from more than 150 people in 40 organizations. In fact, labor and material for the entire building were donated except for some small partial payments covered by a tiny insurance check. These acts of sustainable kindness will have a profound effect on the lives of children for many years to come.

Design and construction activities were recorded by volunteer filmmakers, as was the building’s impact on the community. Earlier this year, a documentary film about the project was released — Eco School House.

The building, which was opened in September 2008, is prominently located on a major street adjacent to the 100-year-old Grant Elementary School. It offers the public a tangible example of the school’s sustainability focus. With a design that meets the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) criteria for Gold certification, the school has become a teaching tool, allowing students to see, touch, and learn about the building’s environmental and socially sustainable components. Some of these include:

•    Skylights and windows for natural daylighting

•    A built-in recycling station

•    Floor tile made from a low-emitting, durable, and renewable corn product

•    An energy recovery unit that captures energy from exhaust air

•    Native plantings that require less water and maintenance

•    Rain barrels

•    Photovoltaic panels that supply more than a third of the building’s power needs

•    Recycled aluminum acoustical panels

•    Low VOC paints and coatings

•    Durable fiber cement siding

•    An insulated, fly-ash containing slab

Performance and Effects

Of the five adjunct classrooms at Grant School, the Eco School House has enjoyed the lowest rate of student absenteeism and visits to the nurse during its first two years of operation. This suggests that the building’s conditions enable better attendance and health, which generally lead to better learning.

Additionally, the school district has compared the Eco School House’s energy use (at $0.80/square foot/year) to 35 of the district’s buildings and found energy use ranging from $1.20/square foot/year to $4/square foot/year. Energy use of this classroom was also compared with the use of the standard mobile classroom that it replaced. The Eco School House used only 8,171 kilowatt-hours in its first year of operation, which is 46 percent of the energy used by a standard mobile classroom.

The primary goals for the Eco School House were to design a new classroom that would have a reduced environmental impact, to increase student and staff health, to increase student performance, and to have the building be a teaching tool on the merits of sustainable design and thinking.

The project created a snowball effect, prompting the principal and teachers to integrate sustainability into the school curriculum and parents to donate time and materials to expand the garden. Many follow-on school, teacher, student, and community activities have resulted:

•    Local utility representatives spoke to students about energy efficiency and sustainability issues.

•    Parents, children, and businesses donated time and materials for the garden, which has become a National Wildlife Society Certified Wildlife Habitat.

•    Students participated in creating a garden sculpture.

•    Styrofoam lunch trays have been replaced with a biodegradable product.

•    The school’s recycling program has expanded.

•    An Eco Club and a Stream Team now focus on environmental issues.

•    Paper consumption at the school has been reduced.

•    An Eco School House song was written and performed by kids at various community events.

•    The Eco School House is on the Missouri Solar Homes Tour.

•    Partnerships with community groups and business neighbors has reduced the need for parking and increased walking to school.

•    Bike racks were installed to promote alternative transportation.

The Eco School House is one example of how the green building movement can spur synergetic effects between design and education to yield better behavior.

A New Business Model

The challenge of accomplishing sustainability (or the failure to do so) will define the 21st century. Architects, educated broadly to understand interconnectedness, have long known that good design is not available to all. It is time to implement Buckminster Fuller’s suggestion, “Design a world where everyone can succeed.” We know how to do this but so far have not.

A world where everyone can succeed is both the rationale and the basis for sustainability — the human hope for a better future. If this is so desirable and we have the know-how, then why isn’t human behavior leading us in this sustainable direction?

Some of the resistance has been due to lack of a profitable business model. I propose that a viable model may be based on something I call the tetrahedron of sustainability, or “sustainahedron.” This four-sided structure is inherently stable and describes a way of thinking that is useful to architects, engineers, and builders. The four triangular sides, or force vectors, come together at four nodes: social value, incoming energy, nature, and a new definition of success. Each of these nodes is the focus of three of the tetrahedron’s six force vectors: justice, life, purpose, interconnectedness, truth, and universe. The sustainahedron helps inform business thinking; it is not a how-to. Rather, it acknowledges that business is just one of the many issues affecting the world.

In order to increase its social value, architecture must first become the common human experience rather than the rare commodity it is today. Architecture must lead the way to an economy that runs on incoming energy rather than the savings account of fossil fuel.

Architecture must create the built environment from the materials of the Earth with a clear understanding of nature. Through this interconnectedness, architects will help shape a healthier definition of success.

Social value. The synergy of the tetrahedron is set into motion by giving away something of value to society — something like the Eco School House, for example. Paradoxically, doing important work without concern for recompense leads to assignments that are both financially and socially rewarding. I have experienced how often pro bono projects lead to paying work. For instance, as a result of our work on the Eco School House, Peckham & Wright received contracts for various projects. Over the past two years, when architecture firms have been suffering deep unemployment and business decline, our firm has enjoyed extraordinary financial success. Public awareness of the project has been a contributor.

Incoming energy. We the people have burned about half the fossil fuel that Earth has. Fossil fuel burning will end in this century for two reasons: First, millions of people and organizations will stop draining the energy savings account and wisely start using our solar energy income. Second, shortly after mid-century, the planet’s oil tanks will be empty and natural gas will be gone. By the last quarter-century, uranium supplies will have dwindled. We are aware of the broad facts about our universe: 14.3 billion years old; the small star called Sun has a solar system 4.3 billion years of age; life (an amoeba) first appeared on Earth 3 billion years ago. After a relatively late arrival, human beings have now named more that 1.7 million life forms. We must learn to live on our income.

Nature. When I was a grad student at Penn, Ian McHarg wrote the influential book Design with Nature. It was good advice from a wise landscape architect — one starting point on the human journey toward a sustainable society. Each day, new evidence of the complete interconnectedness of life is disclosed. Nature is the teacher. Modern history shows the cascading array of material manipulations that support the things we value — the economy, health care, transportation, cities, work. So often in the 20th century, the materials we took from Earth and combined to form other things were in hindsight blunders: DDT, lead paint, asbestos, PVC, draining the Ogallala Aquifer, Freon damage to the ozone layer, and on and on. Now, at last, we are in the Age of Nature. Since the built environment dominates insults to nature, we in the A/E/C professions must lead the awakening.

New definition of success. One reason for our nature-damaging behaviors is that the typical Western definition of success focuses on the accumulation of things. Certainly not every individual has been focused on just gaining more stuff, but our economy is based on exchanging goods and services using the tool of cash. Dialog on a new definition of success that is rooted in nature is already taking place. One alternative is gross national happiness, which attempts to define quality of life in more holistic and psychological terms than gross national product does.

Since architects have no involvement in most of what gets built, a new business model that relies on sustainability and begins with pro bono projects supporting the community is both a marketing strategy and a moral imperative. It is also the practical solution that gives optimism to the young.

Nick Peckham is the chief executive officer and a founding principal of Peckham & Wright Architects Inc. He is committed to the principles of sustainable urban design and seeks to apply them to both infill and new construction. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in marine engineering followed by Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Architecture degrees. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.