New Opportunities Emerging

Sustainability, green design, and safety are saleable priorities for communities and corporate clients. Shore up your firm’s competencies in these markets to enhance business opportunities.

Sustainability, green design, and safety are saleable priorities for communities and corporate clients. Shore up your firm’s competencies in these markets to enhance business opportunities.

The downward economic spiral that began in 2008 has changed the stakes for design firms as Americans’ expectations of consistent annual growth have been replaced by a cautious new reality. Prudence, frugality, and return on investment are the watchwords of the day, and they’ll likely linger for years to come as the public and private sectors reconsider their risk tolerance and goals for the future. Commercial, retail, and municipal clientele — the bread-and-butter of many design firms — have not only cut back, but they’ve begun to reconceive their long-term objectives and ask hard questions about the types of projects they’ll fund in the future.

This has challenged the A/E/C field tremendously over the past four years, but within this tectonic shift, new opportunities are emerging that are tightly bound to the country’s current mood. Quite simply, the past emphasis on reckless building is being supplanted by the responsible stewardship of existing assets. This spawns new possibilities and invites us to take a close look at how we’ve done business in the past.

Today, sustainability, resiliency, green design, and safety are saleable priorities for communities and corporate clients as they reject flawed design, grow the infill, repurpose defunct facilities, invest in existing infrastructure, and demand ROI. Perhaps the most reassuring part of this new reality is its potential to last for decades to come.

A relentless focus on sustainability and resiliency (even when our clients didn’t value it) enabled our regional landscape architecture and community planning firm to expand consistently for 30 years in business, never once laying off staff despite downturns in the economy. Moreover, this focus placed us in a position to make one of the most important expansion decisions in our history: to accept an invitation to merge with one of our former partners, the international firm Environmental Resources Management (ERM), in late 2010.

The move has brought our ongoing municipal clients bench strength in the environmental assessment and engineering disciplines, and it has allowed us to bring to scale our sustainable design techniques and social consulting services. We’re now contributing to a broader audience, including the worldwide oil and gas and manufacturing industries, where we’re finding fresh territory in which to practice and expand our talents.
From both the small business and international corporation vantage points, I can share how important it is for design firms to shore up sustainability and resiliency competencies if they want to develop new markets.

Proactive Evolution

Our landscape architecture firm was launched more than three decades ago on a leap of faith. We had few initial clients, but as landscape architects with a commitment to sustainability, we had a specific vision for our work. Clients sensed our sincerity, and for the first few years, we delivered progressive designs to a diverse client base. These projects allowed us to add permanent staff and build our brand.

This was only part of what we sought to accomplish, so after more than a decade in business, we planned our first major evolution: courting projects that allowed us to showcase our sustainability principles in the public square.

Municipalities, which then offered the potential to shield economic stress, became our new target market. We began winning public land use projects in which we could test our mettle in resilient design. We developed sustainable parks, repurposed a retiring military base, restored a lakefront once flattened by a Category 5 hurricane, and redesigned historic points of interest and streetscapes in dozens of cities and towns.

Three Questions

We begin every project now as we always have, with three diagnostic questions related to sustainability:

  1. Does the plan increase the level of safety to the site and to the client program?
  2. Does it increase functionality? 
  3. Does it add value to the client and to the larger community?

These guiding principles helped us create award-winning sustainable designs, often with clients or communities completely new to planning.

As our reputation in sustainable planning developed, we had an opportunity to work on a remediation project for a national manufacturing facility. We worked closely with ERM, a global provider of environmental, health, safety, risk, and social consulting services. Our role on the project was to create a land use plan for a non-operational site. It was a successful project, and it came with a surprising by-product.

ERM, which has 140 offices in 41 countries and 4,300 employees, asked us to join forces with its operations in our region. Seeing an opportunity to align with international experts, reach a larger audience, and expand our platform, we accepted. Today, we’re able to continue our work with municipalities while also bringing our design planning and land use services to scale with a variety of ERM clients.

Clients worldwide recognize that developing a sustainability program is crucial for their future survival, and ERM has responded by making sustainability a major tenet of its work. Moreover, ERM has organized seven internal priorities to nurture its own sustainability practices, which focus on people, health and safety, business conduct, ethics and policies, environment, community, thought leadership, and clients.

For any design firm, sustainability is about helping clients navigate the megatrends about which we’re all well aware: shrinking resources, growing populations, and the urgency for good stewardship.

From stockholders to city managers, from homeowners to business owners, everyone wants to know that where they invest today has staying power. Design firms that choose to add or expand the discipline of sustainability will be able to find new markets.

Service in Sustainability

Sustainability is fundamental to our future as design professionals, but it takes authenticity and smart planning to expand the discipline in an effective manner. Here are a few principles to keep in mind.

Provide safety, function, and value, in that order. To create truly sustainable projects, the priority must be the personal safety of the human beings who ultimately interact with the design. All sorts of factors can threaten safety, including disorganization, time constraints, and external factors such as natural disaster. The recent rash of catastrophes across the globe reminds us that good design must withstand nature’s blows as effectively as possible. How often have we seen poorly executed structures lead to inexcusable loss?

Next, designs must be functional. Features have to complement, not work against, the surrounding envelope. They must also match clients’ capacity to manage them over a short-, medium-, and long-term cycle. While projects are always defined within prescribed boundaries, it is essential to examine peripheral features and factors that could impact a design’s success.

Finally, sustainable designs must bring real value to the client and the larger community. The project must meet the expectations of the community, enhance the client’s brand, and act as an economic development trigger.

Conduct an orchestra. To achieve sustainability, clients need planners who act not only as design experts but who can also mold diverse perspectives into a single objective. Just as an orchestra conductor coordinates individual instruments, the planner should bring an overarching sense of order, structure, and intentionality to a project. As a conductor, a planner can turn everyone with a role in the project, including municipal officials, project engineers, private investors, business owners, young entrepreneurs, and others, into sustainability champions. This principle entails more than simply gathering participants in a room. It requires that sustainability goals remain intact throughout the project’s execution.

Acting as a conductor also means learning to orchestrate public-private partnerships. This is an essential competency among design firms today as more projects require involvement from both public entities and private investors. Design firms must be able to unite assets from each, including private-sector capital and public-sector tax breaks and services.

Market green space. As we know, the past few decades have been dominated by unsustainable building practices. Ring after ring of available land has been built out in the name of progress, even as this strategy has worked against the greater social and environmental good. Today’s cash-strapped communities have paid a high price for this dilution of resources. Roadways are gridlocked and drainage and sewage systems are overburdened. It’s our job to show that real value lies in knowing where to develop and where to leave the earth alone.

We’re seeing this unfold for a current municipal client who has accepted the concept of integrating permanent green space into a design strategy even if it limits availability for badly needed retail and housing. Historically, this would not have been an easy sell. This community has seen an uptick in population because of its rural charm, excellent public school system, and proximity to two growing urban centers. Its housing stock is at capacity, and development must occur for the city to gain more revenues and thrive. In the past, a client in this situation might have favored a quick fix and converted low-lying, undeveloped flood-prone acreage into single-family neighborhoods. Thankfully, our client accepted keeping development out of the floodplain and pushed through a zoning code specifically for passive green space. Now, thousands of acres of protected green space will act as a stormwater management tool while reinforcing the community’s bucolic brand.

Moreover, by eliminating future development in the floodplain, building has been confined to areas that the community can better manage. Our client can invite development within a very specific framework, and we can deploy leading-edge recommendations on green building technology, design-build trends, and life cycle management for innovative spaces in the civic core. This is true resiliency planning.

Understand the region’s promising sectors. The languid economy notwithstanding, there are upside sectors in every state and region. In many cases, states are taking assertive public policy measures to spark growth. For example, Louisiana has introduced the most aggressive digital media and software development tax credits in the nation to attract digital, video gaming, and entertainment companies. Design projects, including the new North American testing facility for the international gaming company Entertainment Arts, have sprouted throughout the state. Design leaders around the globe should peer into regional economic development efforts and consider the implications for design.

Natural gas is an example playing out in several states and countries. In the United States, the ability to reach natural gas in “shale plays” through horizontal fracturing has led to a growing number of drilling rigs and processing facilities since 2000. These significant building projects, some of which are developing almost overnight, need expertise in land use. A variety of factors should be in place to create sustainable outcomes for new facilities, such as emergency access, drainage features, traffic and water management, and integration into the existing community. A smart design firm brings to the table the ability to help a client think through sustainability sincerely and to reduce “nontechnical risks,” or factors outside the fence line such as community interaction. If not handled effectively, these risks can cause costly delays and threaten permitting.

Develop creative reuse strategies. The current focus on the stewardship of existing assets means that planning and design firms will be called upon to find creative solutions for defunct sites and blighted properties. Communities want to see available space within the existing infrastructure restored to commerce, and a design professional must be ready to offer innovative strategies for the unanticipated challenges that can accompany these types of sites.

We recently developed a re-use/redevelopment strategy for one of the largest contaminated site clean-up projects in the United States, which included the takedown of a former manufacturing plant. Our initial role was to devise a reuse for tens of thousands of tons of slag material and broken concrete that would otherwise have been removed and dumped.

Our sustainable solution for this hindrance was to organize the materials by color shade, load them into gabion baskets, and use them along a highway retention wall as erosion control in the same community. The baskets will be placed in alternating patterns according color, creating a visually appealing and highly functional solution. The success of the project led to subsequent phases of work with this global client.

Identify internal strengths. The new normal for design firms means doing more with fewer staff. Be sure your team is exhausting all of its possible talents and that, as a leader, you’re doing what you can to foster further learning. The firm’s collective brain power has to be excited about staying on the leading edge and mastering the latest techniques in building technologies, life cycle management, and more. A keen awareness of the firm’s collective strengths will help it secure projects that dovetail with its competencies.

Consider how M&A can work for you.
In some cases, a merger or acquisition may make sense. Is it time to join forces with a team that brings different strengths to the table? How would this increase exposure to new markets? If you lose staff in the process, will you have the team you need to fulfill your brand promise?

Be sincere. The Latin word for sustain is sustinere, which means “to hold up what one cares about.” It’s crucial, therefore, to find out what our clients care about and create a plan that supports those aspirations. In a broad sense, we know that clients want to invest in projects and adapt practices today that will continue to add value well into the future. It’s our job to develop specific strategies and systems to help them get there.

Most important, firms that offer resilient design will be successful only if they practice what they preach. Just as our clients are at different places along the continuum of sustainability awareness, so are design firms. Examine your commitment to sustainability and develop strategies to improve your systems continually.

Patrick C. Moore is a partner with ERM’s Southern Division, where he leads sustainability planning. A 30-year design professional, Moore has served as vice president and trustee on the American Society of Landscape Architects Board of Directors and is a fellow of ASLA. He has written and lectured nationwide on sustainability.