The ultimate measure of success for sustainable design will come when we stop thinking about it primarily in terms of attaining a silver, gold or platinum rating and we just get on with it.

In 1991, the Americans with Disabilities Act became the law of the land. It was a civil rights law, not a building code and, like poetry, was subject to interpretation. ADA launched a whole new fleet of consultants who professed to be experts in the arcane details of the new regulations, right down to the diameter of a grab bar. In the beginning there was no shortage of seminars, conferences, or articles about ADA and the effect it would have on new construction and renovation. Some provisions seemed overly stringent or even impossible to achieve in certain existing structures. Excessive cost was a big concern, particularly among owners, who faced the prospect of expensive litigation if they failed to bring facilities into compliance. For institutional landlords such as medical centers and universities, the tab ran into millions of (heretofore unbudgeted) dollars.

In short, ADA triggered a sea change in how buildings were designed, especially with regard to main entries and paths of travel.

But within a few years, nobody gave ADA a second thought. It quickly became as natural as breathing. People understood the rules and knew how to apply them. Line item budgets isolating the cost of ADA compliance ceased to exist. The benefits were assumed to outweigh the costs, and litigation now occurs rarely, if at all. All those consultants have found something else to do. When it comes to ADA, we’re well past the tipping point; we just get on with it.

Going Green

The sustainable design movement is following the same trajectory. In the beginning, the notion of going green was mostly aspirational ( “Let’s save the planet!”) and involved as much mythology as science. Opinion was rampant and reliable data scarce; nobody knew what should be measured, what standards should pertain, or what would really make a difference in the long run. Issues of engineering and architecture were often blurred by politics and economics. With the birth of the U.S. Green Building Council, some logic began to creep in to the debate, and this blossomed into a framework — the LEED rating system — that offers at least some guidance about how to achieve beneficial outcomes on a consistent basis.

On a societal level, going green has been embraced by the public at an amazing rate. Sustainable design is now a widely held cultural value, as evidenced by the amount of media attention it receives. Magazines, newspapers, and television shows are full of stories about it, and the movement has gained an enormous political constituency (think global warming). Because environmental issues transcend borders, it’s become clear that everyone, everywhere, rich or poor, has a legitimate stake in the debate, and this will greatly affect both public policy and the economic landscape (think cap-and-trade). Green design now has an international constituency. Indeed, the very notion of sustainability has become … well, sustainable.

Of all these fundamental shifts in attitude, the biggest and most important is that the green agenda has been fully embraced by the business community. Even such publications as the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The Economist give it regular coverage. Savvy business leaders have figured out that there’s  money to be made in this game, and enormous sums — billions of dollars each year — are being invested to create technologies, products, and services that will use less energy, reduce pollution, and limit carbon emissions. Indeed, going green can now be taken literally as well as figuratively. This is sweet irony indeed, as some would argue that it was the profit motive that created the pollution that in turn became the impetus for the sustainable design movement.

Just as with ADA, in a few years all this will be old hat. It used to be that achieving a LEED rating for a building took a great deal of effort and commanded a premium of 5 percent to 10 percent above the overall project budget. LEED Silver or Gold projects were exceedingly rare, LEED Platinum almost unobtainable. No longer. Now a standard LEED rating is just the ante to get into the game. Even commercial real estate developers are recognizing the inherent value of the LEED badge, as it has a direct effect on the rentability of their projects, which can command premium rents even in a tough market. Many owners are selectively retrofitting properties for that very reason.

The premium for achieving LEED certification on new construction is fast approaching zero (except for the cost of navigating the review and approvals process, which requires copious paperwork). Leading firms, particularly those with in-house engineering, can now design projects that will use demonstrably less energy or water, thereby proving that sustainable design actually pays for itself. Sophisticated owners know that the long-term cost of maintenance and operations dwarfs initial capital cost (by a ratio of about 10:1), which makes going green an even more compelling value proposition.

The recent surge of building information modeling, which is fast becoming the standard for design documentation, has accelerated the rate of adoption. Various BIM programs make it possible to model in advance the technical aspects of building performance, such as heat loss, cooling load, light distribution, and acoustics. For example, modeling different options for a standard wall section makes it easy to correlate aesthetics, capital cost, and energy savings so that owners, architects, and engineers alike can make informed decisions.

Taking Green for Granted

In the future, as design software becomes ever more powerful, reliable predictions for energy performance will be taken for granted. If new cars and appliances already come labeled with ratings for gas mileage or kilowatt hours, why not extend that concept to entire structures or even whole communities?

It’s not hard to see where all this is taking us: better, healthier buildings, more efficiently constructed and designed to cost less in operations and maintenance over the long haul. Under these circumstances, who wouldn’t be interested? Which is precisely the point. Just as nobody would think about designing a building without an accessible entry or with a toilet room too small to accommodate a wheelchair, sustainable design will become standard operating procedure in the foreseeable future. As often happens, the pace of innovation will outrun the pace of regulation so that new projects will not only meet but exceed prevailing standards. This is consistent with well-established patterns in many industries, including information technology, transportation, and medicine.

Because buildings remain in service for many years, even marginal improvement in overall performance will add up to huge savings. At the same time, this is a great opportunity for designers to move beyond incremental thinking. Some bold goals have been put forth — like the 2030 Challenge — that may seem impossible to achieve but could actually be well within reach. (Recall the initial reaction President Kennedy got when he proclaimed in 1962 that the United States would put a man on the moon by 1970. Yet that “impossible” goal was met ahead of schedule.)

What makes this moment especially propitious is the alignment of three key factors: culture, politics, and finance. As society at large has come to embrace the green agenda, we’ve simultaneously developed appropriate technology and have figured out how to make it profitable in the bargain. Yes, it will take time and there are many problems still to be overcome, but there should be no doubt about the eventual outcome, especially since everybody has skin in the game. As a species, our impulse to innovate is unavoidable — it’s how we’re programmed. The ultimate measure of success for sustainable design will come when we stop thinking about it primarily in terms of LEED points. Then we’ll just do what comes naturally.

Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and a member of its executive board. He is a Richard Upjohn Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. With James P. Cramer, he co-authored the books How Firms Succeed and The Next Architect.