2019 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Design Futures Council! Over the years, the DFC has grown a very strong legacy of leadership and transformational change. DFC’s leadership in key trends includes sustainable design, technology, process innovation, management and design, and international practice. We wanted to share some of our articles from our 25-year history—from the beginnings of DesignIntelligence (1995) through today’s DesignIntelligence Quarterly. Enjoy!


Improving Your Bottom Line Through Sustainable Design
Amory & Hunter Lovins, The Rocky Mountain Institute
[originally published November 15, 1995]

Contrary to popular myth, Green Design, designing in an environmentally sustainable manner, does not have to be more expensive than conventional design. In fact, researchers from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) have proven this time and time again. For 13 years, RMI has been harnessing the problem-solving power of free-market economics to carry the banner of efficient and sustainable use of resources as a path to global security.

Nestled into a lush mountainside in Snowmass, Colorado, RMI was founded by resource analysts Hunter and Amory Lovins. To listen to the Lovinses is to become one of the “converted” to green design. From the practical application of their ideas to real-world building projects come energy-saving, cost-saving, and productivity-enhancing recommendations that can be used in the real world.

Amory Lovins is a firm believer in looking at all problems from a multidisciplinary perspective. “Understanding the hidden connections between resource issues frequently suggests solutions to one problem that will solve many others at no extra cost. Crafting solutions so that they multiply is RMI’s credo,” he says.

A prime example of Lovins’ multidisciplinary approach is the AIA’s feasibility study for “Greening the White House.” RMI served as technical advisor, and following the study, RMI noted that the participants were all recognized experts within their respective fields, and were selected because they could contribute a unique approach to the study. In the process, they were charged to look outside their own fields of expertise and examine the project with an eye toward possible interactions and interdisciplinary solutions. The results of the study, made available by the White House, showed how even a huge client such as the U.S. government could benefit from green design.

In 1994, RMI proved its point that green design doesn’t have to be expensive. Together with Joseph J. Romm of the U.S. Department of Energy, RMI’s William D. Browning, Director of Green Development Services (GDS), presented case studies of four retrofitted and four new commercial buildings. The findings surprised the owners, architects, and occupants by not only showing impressive energy cost savings but also proving measurable employee productivity gains that far exceeded the energy savings! In a paper publishing the results, “Green the Building and the Bottom Line,” Romm and Browning noted that “only those designs and actions that improve visual acuity and thermal comfort seem to result in those [productivity] gains.”

What’s happening here? Contrary to an earlier public perception of green design as an expensive fad, RMI’s GDS is documenting that “green office buildings and houses typically use one-third to one-tenth as much energy as conventional ones, and pay back their small added cost (if any) in a few years or less. The best designs even cost less than normal to build.”

RMI is so convinced of the potential for client cost savings through sustainable design that it has campaigned for performance-based fees to reward engineers and architects for what they save, not what they spend. This approach has the added benefit of assuring clients that architects share a vested interest in keeping project costs down. It’s a curious inversion of the traditional percentage-of-construction-cost fee structure, which has never been popular with clients for obvious reasons.

While the 1980s saw many architects relinquishing their traditional coordinating role on building projects to others on the design team, green design by its very nature returns project control to the architect. As RMI has found, “Green or sustainable design is not a checklist of technologies to be added to a conventional building; that approach typically results in mediocre performance and higher costs. It is, rather, the artful integration of dozens of techniques to produce a structure that is better and cheaper than the sum of its parts.” It’s that “artful integration” which the architect can achieve better than any other professional on the building team.

RMI challenges business-as-usual in the design, engineering, real estate and construction industries by speaking with each profession in the language it understands and bringing all participants together from the beginning of the development or retrofit process to explore and pursue means of conserving money, resources, and time. As part of its extensive information outreach program, RMI is publishing a book detailing major case studies. Interwoven through the text are photos and financial descriptions of process and outcome that will show persuasively how a highly integrated design process results in better building performance. Project types featured will include new towns, commercial buildings, institutional buildings, hotels and resort properties, industrial facilities, and retail spaces. New and retrofit, domestic and international facilities are covered. Says Amory Lovins, “If you capture synergies among design elements in the beginning, you end up reducing capital costs.”

The new book is only one part of a trade, media, and consumer outreach program that keeps RMI staff on the road, giving keynote addresses at annual conventions such as that of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), and conducting specialized workshops at MIT for industry organizations such as the AIA, ASHRAE, BOMA, and CSI. The Institute’s findings have been published in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Wired, Utne Reader, Self, Good Housekeeping, and many other publications in the U.S. and abroad. Films featuring RMI’s work have been produced by the PBS series Future Quest, ABC News, CNN, C-SPAN, and others. RMI also publishes a newsletter with a circulation of 24,000 three times a year.

RMI’s consulting projects, media outreach, research, publication, and public information activities are so extensive that one of its constant challenges is to keep up with time demands, the result of RMI’s success in publicizing and popularizing the idea of profitable efficiencies. Now that the word is out, more and more people want to know how to incorporate RMI’s integrative resource efficiencies into their projects. In 1994, RMI handled over 10,000 requests for information, double the number of a year earlier.

On the consulting side, RMI’s GDS acts as an information broker, facilitator, and educator in working with architects, builders, developers, and property managers. GDS director Browning prioritizes proposals that promise “the most learning, exposure, leverage, innovation, and impact.” The Greening of the White House fit these criteria as do current GDS projects. RMI’s assignment list includes Stapleton Airport in Denver, where they are advising on the transition of the old airport site to a sustainable urban community. In Arlington, Va., RMI is leading a team of experts in energy and environmental design, compiling recommendations for the $1.5 billion Pentagon Renovation project. At the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, RMI is studying what to do with 950 buildings located on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Says GDS senior researcher Lisa McManigal, “We’re looking at the design of communities, not just buildings.”

In 1994, RMI unified its separate research programs into a single interdisciplinary Research Group. According to executive director Hunter Lovins, the move is already yielding dividends. “Close collaboration among researchers is increasing the cross-pollenization of ideas, speeding the development of projects, improving feedback, and clarifying priorities. The energy and green development staff has written a book on environmental responsive real estate projects; the economic renewal staff is putting least-cost-access transportation theories into practice at the community level; and a water researcher is investigating the job-creating potential of environmental industries, a new area of inquiry for RMI. Through streamlining, RMI has the flexibility to ratchet up key efforts at short notice and to scale back orders to make the best use of its people in a rapidly changing world.”

It’s interesting to observe that in the course of its quest to promote sustainable architecture, RMI has learned how to create a sustainable organization. Its proven ability to use sound business and publicity principles to carry out its mission is a good example of “walking the walk” as well as “talking the talk” of green design and multidisciplinary thinking. Many of these same principles can be effectively applied to the long- and short-term management of architectural design practices as well.


Written by Susan Bilenker.
This article originally appeared in DesignIntelligence, 11.15.1995.