The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the construction market hard across the board. However, for firms providing sustainable design and construction, the impact of the crisis may have more profound effects. The notion of sustainability is evolving, from a more systems-based approach to aid in preserving the environment to a more fundamental concern over human health.

The interest in sustainable green design and construction can be seen in the results of the 2020 ENR Top Green survey. As a group, the Top 100 Green Design Firms generated $7.28 billion in 2019 design revenue from projects registered with and actively seeking certification from third-party ratings groups under sustainable-design standards, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. The total is a 7.5% increase from $6.77 billion in 2018.

Among contractors, the sustainable market also did well. The Top 100 generated $72.71 billion in 2019 contracting revenue from projects actively seeking green certification, up 6.0% for the group, from $68.61 billion reported for 2018.

Clearly, though, the overall market has taken a large hit during the pandemic. The necessity for people to work or learn from home has many clients wondering about how much space they will need in the future, whether office expansions are necessary, or how much classroom space will be needed in an online-learning scenario. So many projects in the pipeline are on hold as clients take a wait-and-see attitude.

For those projects going forward, sustainability remains a key factor in client thinking. But some of that thinking has shifted in focus. The projects that are going forward continue to pursue sustainable design, perhaps more than ever. “An emphasis on resilience and health was growing in our sustainability discussions before the pandemic, but COVID-19 was a catalyst to put an even greater emphasis on these issues,” says Greg Mella, corporate director of sustainability at SmithGroup. He says that COVID-19 demonstrated how the built environment impacts health outcomes.

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Healthy Buildings

For many sustainable design and construction firms, the pandemic is changing the conversation about what sustainability is all about. Sustainable design had traditionally focused its outcomes on environmental health, but to some, the relationship between buildings and environmental health was seen as indirect, benefitting future generations. “The focus on health and wellness is more direct with benefits that impact today’s building occupants’ productivity and well-being. As such, it is an easier value to promote, with benefits that are more readily accessible, contributing to the increase in interest within the market,” says Mella.

Many of Mella’s colleagues agree that it is much easier to justify high performance design solutions that are focused on the health and wellness of occupants and the nearby community. “People may say ‘no’ to energy savings, but they rarely say ‘no’ to health and wellness of building occupants,” says Colin K. Rohlfing, HDR’s director of sustainable development.

“The focus on health and wellness is more direct with benefits that impact today’s building occupants’ productivity and well-being. As such, it is an easier value to promote.”

– Greg Mella, Corporate Director of Sustainabillity, SmithGroup

However, some leaders in the sustainability field see the shift in emphasis as potentially putting health concerns in conflict with longer-term environmental goals expressed in more environmentally oriented sustainability standards. “Due to the elevated focus on health and wellness, there will be many trade-offs with sustainability in future buildings. For example, one wellness strategy promoting increased HVAC filtration requires more energy, conflicting with sustainable goals,” says Madeline Smith, senior associate, sustainable development manager at Clayco.

Firms are studying how to provide safe buildings that do not contribute to environmental challenges. “To do this, decoupling heating and cooling from ventilation by employing systems such as chilled beams is imperative,” says Ted Hyman, managing partner of ZGF Architects.

Healthy buildings may become a necessity for owners going forward. “This means that projects will look to incorporate best practices found in the WELL Building Standard, the WELL Health-Safety Rating and other similar rating systems and seek certification or expressly communicate as an external signal that their spaces are optimizing the health and well-being of their occupants,” says Jennifer Taranto, director of sustainability at STO Building Group.

Further, the damage done by COVID-19 will not just be measured in people infected and people who die. The legal and insurance industries are beginning to sort out who is liable for catastrophic financial losses due to shocks and stresses from pandemic to climate change related impacts. Everyone from owners to tenants to design professionals, construction firms, product manufacturers and even brokers may be at risk. “Owners who are risk averse will require durable, flexible, resilient projects up front rather than risk damage or liability they may be unable to recover from financially or reputationally,” says Gail Napell, Northwest regional design resilience director for Gensler.

Owners increasingly are beginning to look at healthy buildings as a necessity, not just something nice to have. “Clients are also reconsidering what ‘resiliency’ means. The concept has traditionally applied to responding to changing weather events but is now also viewed as adaptability for wellness and human health,” says Teresa Rainey, director of engineering at EYP.

LEED’s Rocky Road

When the U.S. Green Building Council launched LEED version 4.0 in 2014, there was an uproar in the industry, particularly over its Building Product Disclosure and Optimization requirements, which many in the industry thought would be very difficult to achieve. USGBC deferred implementing the standard until 2016, and followed up with LEED v4.1, which allowed limited material substitutions.

However, these actions led many owners to seek out alternative green standards. LEED is now regaining its preeminence in the industry. “The initial lag in certifications after the launch of v4.0 seems to have recovered and interest in v4.1 is helping,” says Scott Beckman, PCL Construction’s director of sustainability, Denver. LEED is still the most universally recognized standard for sustainability in the construction industry, so it remains a significant player for clients, he says.

One impact of LEED v4.0 was that contractors became more involved in the sustainability process. “We recognized the value of educating and training all parties involved, from our project team members to our trade partners, on the new documentation process,” says Matt Rossie, COO at Webcor. He notes that when entering into pre-bid conferences with trade partners, the firm will review the requirements it has for waste and materials tracking—going over the new reporting documents required—and review again during scope kick-off meetings. “We’ve also developed detailed training documents with reference materials to inform our teams on what they should be tracking.”

“There will be many tradeoffs … For example, one wellness strategy promoting increased HVAC filtration requires more energy, conflicting with sustainable goals.”

– Madeline Smith, Sustainable Development Manager, Clayco

While many contractors already had taken leadership positions on the sustainable construction front, this process has accelerated over the past couple of years. Sustainable construction leaders from more than 30 large general contractors are now collaborating “to move the needle in the industry and leveraging opportunities to talk with manufacturers about healthier materials, as well as creating metrics and standards for carbon reduction, waste diversion and water use reduction and wellness on the job sites,” says Taranto of STO Building Group.

The demand for sustainable designs has only grown in the last five years, but the demand for LEED-certified work has slowly declined, says Mella of SmithGroup. “We are increasingly seeing clients, governments and communities creating their own standards rather than relying on LEED.”

For example, Duke University no longer is pursuing LEED certification, and instead has developed its own sustainability framework required for all building projects on campus. “Federal and state-funded projects are increasingly following their own guiding principles or pursuing certification programs alternate to LEED,” Mella says.

However, Mella warns that the new standards may not be as holistic as LEED, “and LEED has the advantage of constantly evolving ahead of the market, as well as providing brand recognition that remains valuable to many clients.”

While many other green building and sustainable design and construction standards have emerged, “LEED remains the most robust program with the most significant infrastructure to support projects pursuing formal green building recognition,” says Erik Ring, director of engineering at LPA Design Studios. “Typically, if clients are interested in another certification program, they are pursuing it in addition to LEED, not in place of LEED.”

Mella also points out that LEED’s Indoor Environmental Quality category and design approaches reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Further, this past May, the USGBC published the “Healthy People in Healthy Places Equals a Healthy Economy” report, shifting USGBC’s mission to focus on promoting human health. “LEED even includes new pilot credits to encourage design solutions that reduce the transmission of the COVID-19 virus,” Mella says.

Other Standards

There has been an increase in topic-based sustainability standards that focus on specific areas, such as wellness (WELL, Fitwell) or passive design (Passive House) to target enhanced performance in that one criteria. “While the holistic standards such as LEED certainly address these topics, we are seeing an increased desire to push beyond LEED in certain key areas of focus, especially around wellness,” says Heather Jauregui, senior associate and sustainability specialist at Perkins Eastman.

However, Jauregui warns that owners should be careful of going down this path. “Only zooming into one issue, while important, is not going to solve our bigger challenges. We can’t lose sight of considering our impact on the planet by only considering occupant health and wellness.”

Industry firms increasingly are getting used to the proliferation of green standards. For example, CannonDesign is currently working with over a dozen different certifications and standards around health, energy, sustainability and more, says Eric Corey Freed, the firm’s sustainability director. “To help us achieve our goal of targeting net-zero energy on every project, we’re using LEED, WELL, Living Building Challenge and Passive House as a means to greening our projects.”

Further, CannonDesign also is using project-specific standards like the Collaborative for High Performance Schools standard for school projects. “Our approach is to go beyond the checklist and use these standards as a framework for discussions with our clients and uncover all of the possibilities for what’s best for them and the project,” says Freed.

CannonDesign, like many designers, are approaching sustainability by being more outcomes-based for clients. “For example, rather than simply chasing points on a certification, we focus on the benefits to the occupants and focus on how to best achieve those outcomes,” says Freed.

The Living Building Challenge from the International Living Futures Institute (ILFI), Seattle, has gained significant interest in recent years and to some represents the next level of sustainability. With net positive energy, net positive water and elimination of all materials containing chemicals of concern, it focuses on a truly sustainable building. “ILFI has also released different variations of Living Building Challenge, including Core Certification and Petal Certification, to help ease projects into the concepts,” says Smith.

Beckman of PCL is a seeing growing demand for net zero, a target that is showing up more often in requests for proposals. “This tells us the concept of net zero, whether for energy or carbon, is becoming more mainstream.” He also sees more interest in the Living Building Challenge, “which is a stretch goal on several upcoming projects.” These trends reflect a growing awareness among clients that there are many options to consider when it comes to defining sustainability for their projects, he says.

Reducing Carbon’s Footprint

Embodied carbon, the amount of carbon released in the manufacture and transport of building materials and supplies, is quickly emerging as a major focus in the design and construction industry. “We have been researching low carbon concrete options for several years and had the opportunity to use CarbonCure on a project for an airport client this year,” says Beckman.

“Clients are also reconsidering what ‘resiliency’ means. The concept has traditionally applied to responding to changing weather events but is now also viewed as adaptability for wellness and human health.”

– Teresa Rainey, Director of Engineering, EYP

Many firms now are using new tools to assess and make decisions about materials with an eye toward adopting healthy materials, reducing embodied carbon and improving lifecycle impacts. “Our favorites include: Mindful Materials, the Embodied Carbon Construction Calculator (EC3) and Tally. We work to make using these tools a part of our team’s standard process,” says Freed of CannonDesign.

More and more, local and state governments, along with some institutional and corporate clients, are requiring firms to adopt aggressive sustainability targets. “In states like California with a relatively clean power grid, the focus has shifted from LEED Gold or Platinum to operational net zero carbon,” says Hyman of ZGF Architects.

Many design firms are adjusting their design processes to help reduce embodied carbon and reduce a structure’s overall carbon footprint. For example, SmithGroup has now started to invite structural engineers to its early-concept sustainable design charrettes.

“The embodied carbon of a traditional building can represent approximately 25% of the lifetime emissions of a project, and a building’s structural system can represent half of its embodied carbon,” says Mella. He says the firm is more frequently collaborating with the structural engineer to optimize the concrete mix design and evaluate the carbon impacts of structural bay sizes, and is increasingly considering mass timber systems.

Further, many firms are creating their own databases of materials and supplies to automate their processes. “We are using software that helps us locate sustainable building materials compiled with analytics to make informed decisions. This platform houses an online database that provides filtering options per various rating systems, lifecycle cost analysis and comparison features,” says Ryan Poole, global sustainability leader for DPR Construction.

New Approaches

To combat indoor pathogens while still maintaining overall sustainable structures, many firms are considering new approaches to the problem of creating green buildings. For example, 100% outside air with no recirculation will reduce the threat of exposure within the workplace. “Displacement ventilation to reduce the turbulence within an office environment will also help eliminate the exposure to those in the same room,” says Hyman of ZGF Architects. He notes that this practice has been used in health care environments for years. “Now, everyone is going to demand the same level of infection control.”

“[A]ccording to our annual sustainability survey, 60% of our clients plan to incorporate intelligent building technologies in the next one to two years.”

– Jennifer Taranto, Director of Sustainability, STO Building Group

Other options include 40% to 60% relative humidity, UV germicidal irradiation and bipolar ionization—each activating the air people breathe to reduce aerosol spread and lower infection rates. “At the local/zone level, MERV-13 filters and ionizers in fan-terminal units can limit aerosol spread to other zones. And at the central unit level, enhanced filtration, ventilation, hours of operation and air purification are key,” says George Karidis, corporate design director of SmithGroup.

Apart from COVID-19 concerns, many firms are looking at new ideas for overall sustainability in their projects. For example, SmithGroup is exploring new sewage heat exchange systems. “We’ve been using geothermal heat exchange to improve HVAC efficiency for nearly two decades, but this strategy often is not viable for urban locations with site constraints,” says Mella.

Mella notes that sewage flows through sewer mains at a relatively constant temperature of around 70° F. “Using heat exchangers, this stable temperature resource can be used as a heat source and heat sink, much the same way the ground does in geothermal systems, and the constant flow of sewage makes these systems effective without requiring a lot of land,” Mella says. SmithGroup’s design for public utility DC Water’s new headquarters in Washington, D.C., will be among the first of its kind to use this technology in the U.S.

However, one of the most difficult things in a building to make sustainable are the actions of the occupants after they move in. One method to track this is through intelligent building technologies—including sensors that can optimize building systems, services and management—that can allow for more cost-effective operations and performance. “Many of these technologies are new and are not widely implemented yet—though according to our annual sustainability survey, 60% of our clients plan to incorporate intelligent building technologies in the next one to two years, and 79% believe that this type of technology will help buildings perform more sustainably,” says Taranto of STO Building Group.

The COVID-19 crisis has put a major crimp in the market. But it also has spurred new thinking about what constitutes sustainable design and construction. “The pandemic is a portal, and no one is yet quite sure what lies on the other side of it,” says Freed of CannonDesign. “This is our chance to rethink some of the design decisions of the last century. Can you think of a better time to redesign what the new normal should be?”