As awareness of climate change and the need for environmental responsibility grows, incorporating sustainable design into community facilities is becoming easier. However, many civic leaders, staff, and citizens still are unfamiliar with the available possibilities, and many have concerns about the potential for higher upfront costs. These matters can be obstacles to designers seeking to maximize green strategies. But with an emphasis on communication and a sensitivity to the individual needs of each community, there are a number of ways to surmount these challenges.

One advantage designers have is that most individuals, when they come together to act as a community, place a high value on leaving a better world for their children and grandchildren—often placing more emphasis on this than they would if acting solely as individuals. It is useful to begin with the assumption that they favor environmentally responsible design. The key is to uncover what each community’s specific issues are and then look for ways to address them. For some, preserving forestland and enhancing the environment are strong values. Others may be more interested in the long-term cost savings that energy efficiency can bring. Showing them how sustainable design strategies fit their community’s sense of itself is often essential to success.

The owner, the architect, and the project manager or contractor all have a crucial role in integrating green design into a project. In most cases, at least two of those three team members have to be strongly committed to sustainability for the effort to succeed. However, of the three, the owner is the most important—and the owner of a community facility is the residents. Depending on the structure of the municipal government, the residents' representative will vary. In some cases, it will be the city manager. In others, it will be a steering committee.

Build upon initial municipal support

For the city of Orinda, Calif., the city council was the chief advocate for making the new 13,900-square-foot city hall sustainable. The request for proposals included a requirement to design the facility to achieve a Silver certification under the USGBC's LEED program. The project got under way at a time when construction costs were at their peak, which meant that construction bids came in significantly over budget. Although the project underwent value engineering, the city council held strong in its commitment to the green design elements, and the building ultimately achieved LEED Gold certification.

Completed in 2007, the facility was located to preserve the natural characteristics of the site, leaving the small creek along its northern edge undisturbed. The building responds to its site and climate with its envelope design, shape, and shading strategy taking advantage of natural ventilation to eliminate energy-intensive compressor cooling—unprecedented for office buildings in the hot climates of inland California.

Establishing a steering committee for the project helped as well, which consisted of city council members, commissioners, and citizens who had training as architects. The committee met in public, giving the residents a chance to become aware of the green strategies and their value. As a result, both the committee and the public became strong advocates for sustainable design, ensuring that the council kept its promise..

Orinda’s city manager also played a strong role in supporting the incorporation of the mixed-mode mechanical system, which uses evaporative cooling and 100 percent outside air—providing occupants with superior indoor air quality. Relying on this system meant that temperatures would be uncomfortable for a few days each year, but the city manager understood the benefits and convinced his staff that the trade-off was worth it. Those benefits were significant: a greater connection with the outdoors and a 72 percent energy savings over the requirements of California’s Title 24 energy code.

Prepare for administrative turnover

In some cases, both community members and city employees may be advocates for green, as was the case for the new 10,000-square-foot community center in Yountville, Calif. When the project began, the town engineer was the initial advocate for making the project sustainable. The facility includes a new building that houses an expanded library, a multipurpose room, a teen center, and meeting and program spaces. The project also involves renovation of an existing community hall and the addition of a sheriff’s substation to the adjacent post office. Slated for completion in December, the project includes geothermal heating and cooling, a photovoltaic array, low-flow plumbing fixtures, efficient lighting, daylighting, natural ventilation, and water-conserving landscaping and irrigation.

Given the long time periods required to design and build major community facilities, turnover among elected officials and staff often is a challenge. Since the Yountville project began, a number of town administrators, community services directors, and town engineers have come and gone. For this reason, involving the public during the design period is essential, as decisions are documented and residents remember what green strategies were decided on and why. Even though community members may not vote on a project, they remain an important factor in decision-making. For the Yountville community center, sustainability was woven into all of the community presentations about the design of the project, and the compatibility of green design with the community’s goals for the facility was emphasized.

Capitalize on community buy-in

The USGBC’s LEED program provides a useful framework to help members of the community understand and evaluate green measures. It provides an organized and readily explained starting point. The program’s extensive documentation requirements also help ensure that contractors incorporate all the desired green elements during construction, rather than cutting costs here and there by substituting nonsustainable alternatives. For this to succeed, LEED has to be well integrated into architectural drawings and specifications.

In Portola Valley, Calif., the community was a strong advocate for pursuing green design. The city council began the project to replace the 1950s-era town center—a library, community hall, and town hall—that straddled the San Andreas Fault and had to be abandoned. The city had incorporated in the 1960s to block suburban sprawl from occupying the nearby hills, so residents retained a strong commitment to the environment. All of the discussions, presentations, and major decisions related to the building happened in well-attended public meetings. During community presentations, there was enthusiastic response to opportunities to make the facility more sustainable. The idea of using reclaimed wood from the existing building turned out to be unexpectedly popular; even though it cost slightly more than using new wood, residents repeatedly expressed their desire for reuse.

At one council meeting, a group of residents volunteered to lead a private fundraising drive, using the project's sustainable elements as selling points to attract donations. The effort raised $17 million in one year. The new town center, which opened in 2008, is targeted for LEED Platinum certification, and sustainable strategies on site include rooftop photovoltaic panels, daylighting, radiant heating, natural ventilation, and use of reclaimed wood from the existing town center.

Some sustainable elements immediately catch the public’s imagination. In Portola Valley, the rooftop photovoltaic panels and the exterior wood sunscreens were appealing because they are visible embodiments of sustainable values. Extra insulation and high-performance glazing are less visible, but they are less expensive than photovoltaics and offer a great deal of energy efficiency. Forums where the public can learn about sustainable options are key to help them sort out what strategies make the most sense, given the community’s values and financial means. People intuitively understand that using less wood or concrete in the building's framing minimizes carbon dioxide emissions. More important and harder to communicate are the long-term benefits of energy-saving strategies such as glazing, which, over the lifetime of the building, can save significantly more energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions more than minimizing the framing system.

Show them the savings

Residents always are concerned about how their taxes are spent, so it is essential to address the issue of cost with them directly. While green design sometimes increases upfront construction costs, it cuts operating costs, which, over the long lifetime of most community buildings, results in substantial savings. (Energy and water conservation are among the easiest to quantify in terms of monetary savings.) Performance metrics that demonstrate the benefits of sustainable design with hard numbers go a long way in convincing the public.

The advantages of healthier air quality and natural light are easy to communicate. For materials, the public tends to connect with the value of specifying durable options, which is not only environmentally responsible because fewer resources are wasted on replacements, but also thrifty because replacements need to be purchased less often. Convincing communities of the advantages of using wood certified as sustainably grown can be more difficult, because such wood—if it is certified by a reliable independent source—is more expensive than its conventional counterparts. However, by designing a highly efficient structural system, it is possible to reduce the amount of wood required, which can make up the cost difference.

Municipal leaders and community members alike can be turned off if they feel the design team is preaching sustainability or taking a “holier-than-thou” attitude. Most people are already on board with the fundamental goals of environmental responsibility, and so a designer or architect's task is less a matter of persuasion than of communication. Ultimately, the members of the community are the most important ones to reach, because it is their money being spent. When they understand how the design of the building embraces their unique values, they could be vociferous advocates for going green. ?

Larry Strain is a principal of Siegel & Strain Architects in Emeryville, Calif. Jim Goring is a principal of Goring & Straja Architects in Emeryville. The two firms worked together to design Portola Valley Town Center.