Over the past three years, Hanley Wood has consulted building and architecture experts under its  Vision 2020 program to discuss the role of sustainability in the future of the design and construction industry between now and 2020. The consensus is that we must change the way we design, construct, and operate our buildings, and we must do it now. So what does this mean?

For  Hanley Wood Sustainability Council members Doug Bennett and Mary Ann Lazarus, it means expanding the scope of our professional relationships to tap into new collaborations and alliances. Bennett is the conservation manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority and Vision 2020 Water Efficiency section leader, while Lazarus is the founder of HOK's sustinable design initiative, AIA resident fellow, and co-lead of the Building Design + Performance section for Vision 2020.

How  can architects and builders work with the utilities and other partners to advance sustainability? How can utilities and other partners work with architects and builders?

Doug Bennett: I’ll tell you about my “aha” moment related to this. By the mid 2000s, I had been a conservation professional for a while, and spent my time gong to siloed meetings with other conservation professionals. Yet when I got home from each one, I'd have other meetings with builders and consultants who were looking for guidance regarding water. With this in mind, I approached the American Water Works Association about inviting other sectors and people to our meetings to make them more dynamic and to build relationships that would help everyone involved. But they said no.

I kept insisting that we needed more interaction and after a couple of years, my own agency allowed me to start an interdisciplinary conference, which became Water Smart Innovations. There are more than 100 presentations, and people are only allowed to speak for 25 minutes. The idea is to share ideas and find common interests among 1,000 people who ordinarily wouldn’t interact that much.

Mary Ann Lazarus: There's value to having everyone in the room. From my experience, with an integrated design solution, you want people that will be operating a building in on the early decision making process because they can not only come up with pretty innovative ideas, but also can offer a reality check.

The team is changing. There is the traditional team that includes engineers, architects, planners, and specialty consultants. But, in the last 20 years, there have been changes to include contractors, as well as a new layer of team members who start to touch on additional issues that we recognize are important, even if we don’t really understand how they work. This can lead to breakthrough thinking. As an example, at HOK I’ve worked through a collaboration with the Biomimicry Institute, known as Biomimicry 3.8 after the idea that we can understand the way nature has solved problems for 3.8 billion years, and adapt these lessons either directly or analogically to the built environment. To work on those translations, we’ve had biologists—people who have training in biological solutions and adapting and abstracting them to make them understandable to design professionals—at the table. This opens up a whole new world of ideas.

Another partnership that is really important is with building scientists to create a deeper knowledge of the science and being able to do early performance models to help guide performance. A third that is just starting to appear in the world of design and planning is with climate scientists who provide data and predictability to climate change modeling. There is a new ilk of social scientists that is also hugely important because actual building performance is very dependent on occupants. Do you understand how to work with occupants and bring them into the design process? How does that engagement become part of the long-term operations plan? These questions make a social scientist a very valid member of the team.

These are just a few examples of the next iteration of specialists and knowledge that can be brought in to provide a different way of thinking and, like Doug said, it really opens up the dialogue.

Bennett: You mentioned a few things that could be contact points between architects and utilities, and one is climate change. Progressive utilities are getting very involved with climate change and hiring their own climate professionals who can interpret scientific studies. Climate change has the potential to dramatically affect our long-term resource portfolios, so that’s an arena where we may all be able to talk along the same plane. If my water supply is going to change, then changing the built environment is a good way to try to cope with that. How can we predict the change and how it will affect demand over time?

The other interesting element you mentioned is occupant engagement because I believe we both get unintended consequences in this realm where you think people will interact with an idea in one way and they don’t. Sometime you get the opposite of what you were aiming for, and there’s a lot to be learned there. However, professionals on projects cash their checks and move on. It’s too rare that people go back and look under the hood to see what they did, how it’s performing, how the building is functioning with people in it, how people use the amenities and features put into the building, and what can be learned for the next project. I would guess that there are a lot of people in the architectural field that just look at one project at a time.

Lazarus: The way that contracts are written pushes that model, but there is an element of the profession that is trying to build post-occupancy evaluation into the process. It’s not mainstream yet, but one step was LEED requiring the owner to report energy and water use after a year. This info goes into a database where can be analyzed. Another is the benchmarking legislation that is developing around the country.

When you’re doing responsible, energy-efficient design, the effect of occupant variables can be very big. If you’ve taken care of all the things that you can automate, and you have highly efficient systems, lighting, and a high-performance envelope, then you see occupant issues becoming critical. How can you build that into the planning and address both the occupant’s needs and flexibility? You don’t want to design a new building that can't change function—it has to be flexible and adaptable to whatever comes down the pipe so that it’s not torn down and replaced.

Doug, we’ve chatted about your interactions with homeowners and ways to engage people. Are there things that you’ve learned that could translate to the building design process?

Bennett: One thing that came to mind when Mary Ann was speaking was Jevons Paradox, which is the theory that as you make something more efficient, people will increase their consumption of it. We see it happen. It’s a behavioral thing where people use efficient devices and designs as a rationale for loosening up on their conservation efforts. For example, think of someone who gets a hybrid car and ends up driving more miles per year. Why do they do this? One reason is that they think it is ok and the other is that the impact the gas pump is lower and for the same amount of gas money they were spending before, they can drive 50 percent farther. The same behavior is true when you give people things such as LED lighting—they are become more likely to leave the light on when they leave a room because they rationalize that it’s only using a tiny amount of energy. We have seen this in graywater studies. An Australian utility gave people graywater systems and found people increased their potable water use. Does this mean we should try to hide efficiency efforts?

We’ve also found that people consider graywater or alternative water supplies to be a low-valued resource so they only use it on low-valued uses. It’s the idea that if you were walking to work today and found $20 on the street, you wouldn’t spend it as thoughtfully as you would $20 that you earned by working, because the money on the ground came to you for free and it seems like bonus money. It’s similar to people who get their tax rebate and buy a motorcycle or things they wouldn’t spend their hard-earned money on. People behave that way with a lot of things, including fuel, electricity, and water. For example, if you have a high-efficiency toilet, do people flush it more?

Lazarus: That provides more reason for bringing in the social scientists who really understand these behavior issues.

Bennett: We have to keep in mind that some technologies work really great in the hands of the choir and that often, in our professions, we’re engaging with the choir—people who think like us. However, these technologies may not work as well with the masses at the karaoke bar because they don’t care as much as we do. There are technologies, such as alternative water supplies, that produce great results in the hands of green thinkers, but produce horrible results in the hands of the tract-home dweller.

Lazarus: Thinking about the early days of doing green buildings at HOK, we would get excited to try new techniques and products, such as incredible light controls. The clients were willing to try them, but we learned that the technology could be more sophisticated than the client could handle. The easiest thing to do was the stuff that no one knew about.

Bennett: My pet peeve with show homes that have the highest level of cutting-edge technology is that it seems wasteful. We put extreme things in these homes rather than thinking about how to get 10 percent better housing for 50 percent of the market instead of doing high-tech homes for three percent of the housing market. We need early adopters to get press and lead the way for others to follow in their footsteps, but I think we tend to go overboard and miss the opportunity to make what we are doing incrementally better and get a large number of people to adopt it.

Lazarus: We always liked to say “raise the base, stretch the top.” If everything was a little bit better, you’d have a net benefit past the one or two signature projects. Those signature projects demonstrate the feasibility of doing breakthrough ideas. You can’t have one without the other.

How do you forecast the type of use or occupant behavior that might happen in a building? How do you create flexibility knowing that the performance may not necessarily end up being there at first?

Bennett: We look at averages. A person in one unit may use three times as much energy as someone living the same hours in the unit next door. Sometimes I look up the water usage on my own street because I’m familiar with the people living there and what their landscape looks like, and it’s all over the place. As a utility, all you can do it look at the larger outcomes and find what is expected from the average home.

Lazarus: Monitoring and submetering is important so that we can watch and see if something has been left on over the weekend. It’s been promoted as a long-term efficient methodology that might have an upfront cost, but it pays off and there is a track record now showing the benefits of metering and submetering.

In terms of flexibility, things are changing and we now talk about being net-zero ready. Can you design or retrofit a building to potentially transfer a clean energy solution to it? Those kinds of strategies are being developed so that we don’t necessarily depend on a particular electricity or water source.

In terms of resilient design, you don’t want to be relying on a single system. Optimally, you will have a backup system that could be used temporarily if you are without power for a while. Hospitals and crisis centers did this in an old-fashioned way, but they also are now taking other technologies into account, such as PV that can feed back into the grid. To me, it’s not just about flexibility of a utility, it’s also about flexibility with redundancy.

Bennett: You still have to be sensitive about the cost of those things because they don’t get used often.

Lazarus: That’s the conundrum.

Bennett: I found it interesting that Tucson adopted a code so that all new homes need to be dual plumbed so the homeowner can choose to use greywater if they wish. It added $1,200 to the cost of building a home, and they built more than 700 homes. But no one connected to the greywater system. The advocates anticipated 20 to 30 percent of people doing it in the near term, but so far no water has been reclaimed.

The reality is that most people think “Water comes into my house, it goes out, I pay a bill, and I’m fine.” Now, don’t get me wrong: The system is an asset at some point. But it’s discouraging to see how much it cost to do that and have such a little impact, when there are other ways to spend that money and product results on day one.

I wanted to go back to something Mary Ann brought up. One of the challenges of utilities is that they are local. Now, big firms such as HOK work all over the world and can design a building anywhere that there is a client and analyze the situation in each place. Utilities don’t do that—they focus on their specific place and customer base. One of the challenges in finding data and comparable building types. If we wanted to study multifamily housing to see how much more efficient it is than single-family housing, we may want to collect data from other cities and communities, but one of the challenges ins that because utilities are local, they all have different classification systems. I don’t have the same customer classes as my peers in Texas and what I call a Class 3 residential multifamily dwelling in my jurisdiction may be a Class 4 in Texas. So, when you want to combine data on bigger projects, there’s an extraordinary amount of work that must be done on the front end to make sure you put apples in the apple basket and oranges in the orange basket. That data would be extremely valuable to the green building effort. You wouldn’t necessarily need tons of sub-metering data, but you would at least have base-level data on the performance of different buidings.

Lazarus: USGBC is starting to gather that kind of data on LEED buildings, and we primarily rely on the CBECS database for standard energy use across the nation by building type, but it’s now 11 years old. You can drill down regionally, but sometimes people tell me that the regional numbers are bogus because there are too few buildings in the mix. I hadn’t heard that this was a quandary on the utility side, but we’re hampered by this, too, and it’s constantly a challenge.

Stay tuned for future conversations between the 2014 Hanley Wood Sustainability Council participating in our Vision 2020 program. Scroll over points in our on-going timeline to learn more about the path ahead in green building. Track our progress all year as the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council shares its perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward these sustainable priorities and goals. This year's program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in conjunction with Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in New Orleans, and with a special Fall edition of ECOBUILDING REVIEW.