To delve deeper into the case studies for our Spring 2013 issue, ECOSTRUCTURE asked each firm to detail its experiences with sustainable design. These offices didn’t just happen upon commissions for their respective projects—rather, they’re all well-versed in integrating high-performance strategies into their designs. Below we take a closer look at some of the core values that shape each firm’s ethos.

Location: Cleveland, Ohio
Principals: Debbie Donley, Paul M. Voinovich, Matt Heisey
Date Founded: 1987
Size: 100
Little-known fact: All of Vocon's conference rooms are named after Vodka brands (i.e. Absolut, Effen, Skyy, Grey Goose).

What was the biggest lesson you learned from the Calfee Building
Valerie Molinski, sustainability coordinator: The design team recognized the value a renovation project could have by allowing the community to re-capture this classic example of Beaux Arts architecture. An important part of Cleveland’s past was restored while rebuilding the fabric of the city. It demonstrates that a historic building can be reclaimed as an effective and efficient modern office space. This project has enabled Calfee, founded in Cleveland in 1903, to reaffirm its ties to the city and, most importantly, to move its practice into the 21st century. The City of Cleveland has not only gained back a piece of its heritage, but also returned a revenue-producing property to the tax rolls.

What insights from this and other sustainable projects would you share with other professionals?
It is important to establish what the project's sustainability goals are as early on in the project and process as you can. With Calfee, we had early buy-in and support from the client and from there, we pieced together our goals and our team with that in mind. Expectations were well known and the project team was asked to work towards those sustainability goals from the beginning. Additionally, as projects tend to last over months and various parties become involved, it is essential to continually manage the process and revisit your sustainability goals as you go. Often, we get so immersed in the daily issues of the project, we lose sight of the long term goals. On Calfee, we did not have control over the developer's work in the building, who was not as engaged in our efforts as the rest of us. We had to keep an eye on our own portion of the project as well as theirs to make sure Calfee's sustainability directives were fully met. Educating the entire project team on the why and how of what we are trying to do is equally important, as it helps to engage everyone involved and can ensure success.

What is your firm's philosophy on sustainable design?
The Vocon team seeks to bring sustainable design elements to every project by listening and working with our clients to determine what is appropriate for their project needs. We work with our clients to not only create sustainable spaces that work for them on a functional level, but inspire them as well. At the same time, we employ green design best practices related to space planning, material selection, and other approaches to meet the client’s sustainability initiatives. Vocon has a proven track record of completing and administering the certification process successfully, but it is truly a collaborative effort put forth by the entire project team that makes certification achievable. Efforts towards a common goal are required by team members such as the owner, owner’s consultants, landlord, contractor, sub-contractors, architect and engineers.

What kinds of sustainable solutions are non-negotiable for your firm? What are the baseline standards your firm aims to meet with every project?
Even if we are not pursuing any third-party environmental rating, our firm always considers chosen materials and products we are using in a sustainable light. We always specify low-VOC products and request that the contractor follow indoor air quality plans as much as possible. We include waste diversion language on our drawings and specifications for demolition materials. We look to our consultants and engineers to specify things like low-flow fixtures and efficient systems on all of our projects. Related to MEP systems, we always try to steer our clients towards the option of commissioning, even if they do not seek LEED certification. We feel that it is a very important and useful service. It is important to make sure that all building systems are installed correctly and functioning optimally in order to save energy and water, which is an important step towards sustainability in projects.

What are the top energy-saving features you put in your projects?
We always install lighting controls, whether they are as simple as occupancy sensors or more complicated, like controls for stepping down of lighting levels that are daylight sensitive. We also spend a lot of time with our lighting designers and engineers to look at the fixtures themselves, as technology is constantly changing in this arena. Every year, products become more efficient and more cost effective, so we must remain educated. We rely on our engineers as well to guide us towards the most efficient HVAC systems that are often coupled with BAS [building automation systems] technology, and measurement and verification software. While we can predict what type of energy savings and efficiencies our clients can achieve in their spaces, it is so important to maintain control and monitor to make sure the systems are working properly and achieving those results. It also helps diagnose issues that can be corrected sooner rather than later. In the case of plumbing, we always specify and install the latest water efficient fixtures to lessen our impacts on usage, as this is becoming just as important a metric as energy savings.

How do you think these types of innovative green solutions, products, and strategies, might become standard?
The more we specify and use these products and strategies, the more we learn and become comfortable with them. Educating our clients and consultants is key as well. There are often times during the process where the team is employing certain strategies or technology and it is dismissed as "for LEED" or similar with no real understanding as to why we're using those elements. It is essential to take the time to sit down and discuss the thought behind these things and how they might benefit the project itself (diverting waste from landfill, providing recycling areas, purchasing or producing green power), the occupants of the space (low VOC products, providing high amounts of daylighting through design), or even the economic bottom line (energy and water savings translates to lower utility bills). Much of it just makes common sense and does not have to be attributed to something that is just done to address sustainability or earn a certification. It will eventually become a matter of course that we design spaces in this way.

Read more about Vocon's Calfee Building in ECOSTRUCTURE's case study.