DesignIntelligence Media


Sustainability Going Forward

August 9, 2017 | Lois Vitt Sale

The practice of sustainability has been built upon relativity in measuring, managing, and making improvements to the status quo. In large measure, the practice of sustainability is influenced by both local and federal policy environments as well as by market and economic forces.

Since we now have new occupants in the executive branch of the federal government we must acknowledge that the policy environment at the federal level is likely to undergo a dramatic alteration. To what extent the policies will change is unknown, but many of the baselines that have underwritten the work to shift building performance toward higher thresholds are possibly at risk.

For example, in preparing for a class I teach at Northwestern University called Sustainability in Construction, I was researching the latest data on waste diversion. In the thirteen years I’ve been teaching this class, the EPA has been the best repository of information on the subject. Some states monitor and report data, but to get a national picture, the EPA has really been the only source. When I looked for the information earlier this year, I found an EPA archived website with a banner in red that stated, “This content is not maintained and may no longer apply.”

Questions also exist about the future status of incentives like tax credits that make investments in clean energy economically viable. For solar in Illinois where I practice, a 50 percent bonus depreciation allowed by the IRS can greatly improve the return on investment for private investors. For years, the payback on photovoltaics was over 20 years, a number that moved the motivation from economically sound into the realm of “doing the right thing.” I had a client who chose to invest in solar power on his nearly zero energy home (he used 1200 kWH in the first year he lived in his home) when the price per watt was $8.00 and a battery array for his home was an additional $22,000. I questioned his investment in battery power given that his system was grid tied and net metering was available. He told me early adopters like him paved the way for the next generation of technology that would be more affordable and more widely deployed.

Since then, the economics of solar has been rapidly moving into the realm of affordable. However, the price of a kilowatt hour (kWH) varies greatly across the country from a high of 27.68 cents for residential power in Hawaii to a low of 4.61 cents per kWH in Nevada for industrial power ( The viability of solar power will vary widely across the country with the price of power. In places where the price is at the high end of the spectrum, solar power will be equal to or better than the cost of grid-sourced power. In states at the lower end of the spectrum, where the price per kilowatt hour is comparatively low, paybacks are longer and incentives like tax credits and bonus depreciation make projects viable.

For sustainable design leaders and our firms, net zero buildings have moved from pie in the sky to achievable. We have the energy modeling tools and the knowhow to connect parametric design with envelope and building system design. We can drive up the efficiency of buildings and lower the metabolism of our designs so that rooftops can support solar arrays to provide power for the buildings. In addition, solar panels are improving. The newest panels are producing 340 watts when not long ago panels of the same size produced thirty percent less energy. Selling our clients on reaching for net zero is a much easier discussion when the right elements are present—the tools and know-how to get to net zero, a desire to be responsible, and economic realities that make the net zero investment sound business practice. Currently, these elements are all present.

The same industry know-how is present in firms that focus on high performance design in water balancing too. A favorable policy environment is critical for the advancement of graywater reuse and onsite water treatment. Often, these policies are local and not dependent on Federal regulation or incentives.

I belong to a network of sustainable design leaders who are informally organized. Many of the firms that belong to the Design Futures Council have sustainable design leaders that participate in this network. We communicate all year by email and meet a few times a year to discuss our practices. At times, we have come together to advocate for or against issues in our industry that concern us and may impede our ability to deliver good buildings. At the change of the administration in January, we exchanged many emails voicing our concerns about possible impacts to our ability to continue to raise the bar on high-performing buildings. The angst among many of my colleagues matched my own. We have enjoyed a favorable policy environment since the Carter administration that continually provided improvements for water, air and, more recently, energy. Yet it appears that the policy foundations we’ve relied on may either alter or disappear altogether. That leaves many wondering how we will continue to climb Mt. Sustainability (as coined by Ray Andersen), should such occur.

In February, we held one of our bi-annual retreats where 100 members of our network came together. In one of our focus group discussions, we had a chance to discuss the possible new challenges posed by the new administration and what we can do individually and collectively. We came to a number of conclusions that I will share here.

First, we acknowledged that there is information— the established baselines that have matured over the past few decades. As sustainable design leaders and as leading design firms in high-performance buildings, we can use our voices individually or more powerfully as a collective to express the importance of that data and make a case for preserving it.

Second, we acknowledged that much policy work is done at the local level. While what is going on at the federal government is concerning, the building industry is largely governed by local forces. Each city and state adopts its building code of choice and then has the power to modify it at will. Many sustainable design leaders have served to provide their subject matter expertise to continue advancing progress on policy at the local level. This we can and will continue to do.

Third, as a design industry, the knowledge among sustainability design leaders and design professionals who are keen to deliver high-performance buildings is at an all-time high and this coupled with advances in technology have created a sense of optimism that we can shape the built environment toward a healthy future.

Finally, we acknowledged that the new president did not get elected because everyone in the U.S. was happy with the state of the Union. There are issues in small towns and ex-urban areas across our country, and many of our fellow countrymen and women have felt left behind. There is poverty, poor health, failing infrastructure, few jobs, and more. In the rise of the green building industry, sustainability has been overwhelmingly city centric. Yet there is nothing in the definition of sustainability that says it can only be located in our cities. In our field, we work to create and restore human and ecological health. We must find a way to take down our intellectual fences and bring our sustainable framework beyond the cities. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Greensburg, Kansas, a town of 800 leveled by a tornado in 2007. Conservative and rural, this town was rebuilt from scratch and is powered by 100 percent green power, 8 percent of it onsite.

Sustainability is a framework for addressing issues in the built environment, in every location, at every scale. Whether in the city in the U.S. or elsewhere or in small town America, we have work to do. And we have the tools. So let’s get to it.

Lois Vitt Sale, AIA, LEED Fellow, is the Chief Sustainability Officer for Wight & Company.