September 7th, 2012


Chief Sustainability Officer, Turner Construction Company

Executive Director, Gensler

Design Partner, SOM


Buildings account for about a third of the energy consumed in the US as well as a third of the country’s carbon pollution. For numerous reasons, including environmental, corporations are increasingly looking for ways to use resources more efficiently in the their work spaces. What are some of the largest building design and construction firms doing to help meet client goals and drive the market toward cleaner built environments?

Craig Hartman, Design Partner with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, spoke of LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—as a measurement system to begin to quantify how well buildings perform environmentally. Buildings are ranked LEED Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum. “It’s become a common metric for the performance of buildings specifically, but now happily also has gone much broader, to large-scale neighborhood developments. This is where the major impact can be had, where you think not just about the building itself, but where it’s placed—can you walk from your office to your house—and so forth.”

Does it cost more to have LEED certification? According to Phil Williams, Vice President at Webcor Builders, there’s a nominal fee, but the design doesn’t have to cost more. “Actually, it can’t cost more to deliver a LEED Gold office building in San Francisco because that’s the building code that was established in January that many people here, including myself, helped write.” It’s not an arbitrary thing that comes from the outside; it’s the industry taking responsibility. “We’re fortunate here in California, and because we can offer a leadership position, it’s become the standard for commercial real estate. It’s not about energy and it’s not about cost, but how can I be competitive in the marketplace.” New buildings drive existing building portfolios, he said. “There’s no one more competitive than real estate, and that’s what I like about this business.”

David Gensler, Executive Director of Gensler, added that LEED is not a panacea for defining what is a good building, but it’s a proxy for performance, where you earn points for every aspect of your design. Some points have greater impact on the performance in terms of resource utilization than others. “It’s not an ideal solution, but it is the one we’ve all standardized on, so it’s better than nothing.” He went on to say that the US Green Building Council (USGBC) is now developing methodologies that will require reporting and ongoing monitoring of performance to allow builders to continue to enhance the operation of the building.

Michael Deane, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer at Turner Construction, added that, until such reporting and monitoring standards are in place, the problem is huge. “You can build a high-performance automobile, but if I don’t know how to drive it and I run into a tree, I can’t blame the car. It’s me. I’m the driver,” he said. Resource utilization and indoor environmental quality are a function of how the building is operated over time. “We’re thinking of total cost of ownership, not just about how much it costs to build it at first.” Moving forward, “there’s more emphasis on measurement and verification in real-time interaction with the building to make sure it is performing to the standards to which it was designed and built.”

Using Deane’s auto analogy, Williams added that many technologies used in buildings are often independent systems. “We’re about to have a car that’s really integrated, more efficient, runs quieter, less tune-ups. As technology starts to merge these items, the buildings are going to rely less on Bob, the ex-Navy guy who ran the destroyer, to make this thing work.” What’s even more exciting, he went on, is that innovative technology migrates from new buildings to existing buildings. Speaking of wireless technology in particular, he said, “That’s where this building market’s going and that’s where the technology-driven world, the LEED world, the energy world is going to provide platforms.” He concluded, “Now we’ve got the right tool for the right purpose and we’re not afraid to use it.”


– Lucy Sanna
September 7, 2012
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California