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Interview with Barbra Batshalom, Founder of Sustainable Performance Institute

July 11, 2014
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For U.S. businesses, 1987 marked a watershed for sustainability reporting. That year the chemical industry began making mandatory updates to the Toxics Release Inventory, after which corporations of all stripes rushed to make environmental safety and other responsibility practices more transparent. By the time KPMG conducted its 2013 Survey of Corporate Responsibility Reporting, the global accounting firm found that 93 percent of the world’s 250 largest companies produce sustainability reports within their annual reports or as standalone documents.

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Architects have not begun issuing sustainability reporting nearly as decisively as they have adopted CAD or BIM transition, but Barbra Batshalom is working to speed the transition. As founder of the Boston-based Sustainable Performance Institute, Batshalom teaches design firms and real estate owners to institutionalize sustainability. The organization also audits the effectiveness of firm-wide sustainability programs, a first-of-its-kind certification that HUD has since incorporated into its Affordable Green Initiative. She spoke with GREENSOURCE about sustainability reporting conducted by architects and by the institute itself, and compares these efforts to the information collection taking place under the AIA 2030 Commitment, the AIA program in which firms pledge to carbon neutrality in both operations and design.

GreenSource: When you founded the Sustainable Performance Institute as The Green Roundtable in 1998, you were focused on simply making sustainability a part of the design dialogue. Now that it’s mainstream, how has your work changed in addition to your name?
BS: About five years ago, it became clear that many firms’ portfolios only had a small percentage of LEED-certified projects. It’s super to incorporate heat recovery and other strategies into a building, but individual solutions weren’t spreading throughout organizations. To this day a minority of design firms are truly institutionalizing sustainability, and a majority are committing random acts of it.

What are some firms in that leadership minority?
Perkins+Will is a great example. They’ve operationalized sustainability—by having a reporting structure, subject matter experts, knowledge management, and accountability around project performance. You can’t be in the firm and not be touched by sustainability. RTKL, Gensler, and HOK all have effective, albeit different, approaches to systemic sustainability, while smaller firms that often don’t get this spotlight include Lake|Flato, Bergmeyer, and Wight & Company.

Does firm-wide sustainability reporting help firms realize more green buildings, more comprehensively?
A sustainability report can be significant, if it is an indicator of action. There are a number of firms that have issued sustainability reports, but which never built a corresponding program of accountability structures or ongoing tracking to make the report have meaning. Sustainability is so big and complex that if you’re not figuring out how to implement it, then it’s not going to stick.

On Earth Day, RTKL released its first-ever sustainability report. It was surprisingly candid, even measuring sustainability perceptions of and within the firm.
RTKL’s effort indicates some serious work going on in the firm. We should think about the perception metrics: they make the point that firm-wide sustainability is not a technical challenge, but a cultural challenge. I absolutely agree with that point, and RTKL made it pretty bravely.

The Sustainable Performance Institute certifies firms as green: What metrics do you use that architects’ sustainability reports do not?
Our metrics evaluate leadership and accountability, systems, processes, and collaboration. And we emphasize project delivery, as a sustainability report may cite integrated design, but not how consistently it’s implemented or measures of effectiveness.

What is the role of sustainability reporting in light of the reporting required of joining the AIA 2030 Commitment?
Independent sustainability reporting really conveys identity and culture; it can be much more individualized. Yet if a sustainability report does not include the 2030 metrics, then it really has no meaning. The AIA 2030 Commitment is one of the most important programs the AIA has created, because it requires rigor and accountability. It’s also telling that less than 300 firms have signed up.

Couldn’t you argue that property owners should be responsible for these disclosures, independent or 2030-related?
On the one hand, absolutely owners need to be targeted. But we’re not going to wake up tomorrow and all owners will be sophisticated and enlightened. So on the other side of the equation, there’s an awful lot that architects can do that is independent of the owner, such as grasping passive design and building science, and working with engineers to minimize energy consumption.

Are there wider benefits of standardizing and collecting data?
There is the AIA 2030 Commitment’s intent to develop information across the industry, to allow apples-to-apples comparison of building types in shared locations; it’s a good metric if predicted versus actual energy use intensity is going to evolve. Analogously, applying a Big Data perspective to firms’ sustainability culture helps us establish a baseline and then push it higher. The fact that firms are beginning to quantify performance gives the industry an understanding that it didn’t have before.

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