This is the third part of "Seven Practices of Highly Effective Green Building Consultants," an nine-part series from green building consultant Jerry Yudelson.

Practice #2 of highly effective green building consultants: Visualize the end goal.

It’s almost impossible to achieve high-performance green building projects without visualizing what that might mean. Increasingly, the end-goal is a net-zero-energy building or a Living Building. Highly effective consultants start each project with the end goal in mind and they also start by asking important questions.

The practice of visualizing success can often be handled through what many call “back casting,” a practice of starting with the end result and working your way back to the present. For example, I often ask project teams a question such as: “in five years, what do you most want to be proud of?” or “in five years, what do you really want people to say about this project?” In other words, “what are the most important achievements that you have in mind?”

As green building consultants, this practice helps us to focus the building team’s attention on what the owner of the project values most, which is typically not just a LEED label, but rather some other achievement that relates to the core purpose of the building. Remember, most buildings are not commercial offices for rent. They are built by government agencies, universities, nonprofits, hospitals, corporations, retailers, sports teams, residential developers, housing agencies, and others. Once we realize the diversity of owner types (and of building types for even the same owner), then it’s natural to start each project with a dialog about the core purposes of the building.

For example, corporate owners should focus far more on the health and productivity of employees than on lower energy costs, since employees cost 100 times per square foot more than the energy bill and 10 times more than the equivalent rent. Universities might focus more on attracting the best students with a campus-wide commitment to green practices, such as green labels for all of their buildings, while hospitals are likely to focus more on lower operating costs and measures that increase the rate of patient healing. Private office developers want to lower operating costs for tenants, but more importantly, they want a green label to attract and keep the better tenants. 

Take the Bullitt Center in Seattle, as an example. It was completed in 2013 and conceived by the Bullitt Foundation, which is an environmental nonprofit that has been headed for the past 20 years by Denis Hayes, the founder of Earth Day. Denis wanted the Bullitt Center to advance state-of-the-art practices in green building, and so he chose to meet the rigorous Living Building Challenge standard that mandates, among other things, zero-net-energy use and zero-net-water use. Try doing that in a standard, six-story office building! In this case, the Living Building requirements drove the project, forcing the architects to do extensive research to avoid using any “red list” materials, while still finding ways to achieve the performance and durability required in a 50,000-square-foot commercial office. At the Bullitt Center, the photovoltaic system hangs over the sidewalk and the tenants use composting toilets. In addition, tenants are given only a small energy allowance in their rent, with penalties for excessive energy use. 

This project is aiming for LEED Platinum and Living Building status, and it's already billing itself as “the greenest building on the planet"--a bit prematurely, in my opinion, as it is well before the actual operating results are in. But for the consultants, the price of admission to working on the project was to start with the owner’s aggressive end goals in mind and work backward to the start of design, taking into account the building program, budget, construction quality and amenities required.

We would love to hear your experience regarding this practice of effective green building consultants. How has visualizing the end goal at the start of a project changed the outcome on your projects?

Jerry Yudelson, LEED Fellow, is principal at Yudelson Associates, Tucson, Arizona. This post originally appeared on