The Sustainability Consultant Has Reached Its Use-By.
Climate Action is the new agenda, and traditional Sustainability Consulting needs to be retired.
This post might be a little upsetting to a lot of people, but if it makes things any easier — I’ve been just as guilty as the next person.
For nearly 30 years I’ve consulted and designed in the sustainability space in the built environment. It’s been one hell of a ride, from times when the payback for solar panels was 90 years, to today when in many situations it’s fiscally irresponsible not to install them because the payback is under 5 years.
And today we’re evolving into this fascinating and wonderful space where ‘sustainability’ has deepened… restoring biodiversity, connecting with Country through indigenous-led design, circular economy, social value — the list keeps growing.
And for the past 20 years I’ve grown accustomed to ‘sustainability’ being last on the agenda. It’s often even after Landscape Architecture — and you don’t have to look far to find a landscape architect who is familiar with watching their design visions get trimmed down through ‘value management’… we added plants at the end, so it’s easy to just take them away again.
If we are indeed in a Climate Emergency, why do we leave the sustainability topic until the end of the agenda?
Being on the end of the agenda is like being the last speaker on a Friday of a 2-day conference. Some people have left, those still there have checked out, and everyone is too tired to retain anything other than pithy anecdotes.
How did it get this way?
Why do we put a topic — one that is now arguably dealing with the very existential challenge of climate change, last on our list of priorities?
To be honest — and this is why I’m as guilty as the rest of us, I’d simply grown accustomed to being at the end of the agenda.
But this week, as yet another meeting opened and the chair noted that sustainability was the final agenda item (queue eye roll emoji), something really interesting happened.
We’d commenced working our way through the agenda in an orderly fashion, each consultant reporting on their findings in relation to their own discipline. Architecture, planning, mechanical services… all neatly packaged and contained.
And then the architect asked my opinion — something to do with options for air conditioning systems and what the energy demand would be.
I guess because of the way I see sustainability, we were soon talking about the extent of landscape and tree canopy we might achieve if we removed cars and de-paved the campus — creating a cooler microclimate and reducing the air conditioning load.
We were talking about the heritage conservation management plan and our chances of being allowed to install solar panels on the heritage-listed buildings — providing a much higher yield of renewable energy for daytime use.
Where might we install the batteries, and when? And if we’re creating a renewables micro-grid for the campus, what would the future energy demand be from e-mobility? Electric scooters and bikes for hundreds of students all needed charging, and somewhere to park. What would the parking structures look like, and where would they be located?
Are we designing for 2050 or 2100 and beyond, where 50C days might become normalised…
All because the architect asked my opinion on which air conditioning approach might be better from an energy perspective.
And this might not be an unusual occurrence. I’m sure it happens from time to time. But in this meeting it kept happening.
We found ourselves exploring design themes rather than talking in disciplines. And by the time we’d worked our way to ‘sustainability’ on the agenda I only had one minor note to add — everything else had been covered during our thematic discussions.
It flowed as it should flow.
It was the next morning that it hit me.
“This was how we did it ‘back in the day!’”
We designed to themes. There was no such thing as a dedicated sustainability consultant — we just all contributed through our own lens, and it worked.
It worked really well.
You see, I’ve been around long enough to remember how we worked with ‘sustainability’ prior to 2000, which was when we started introducing green building rating tools, energy efficiency tools and standards and the like.
As an architect I watched during the next decade as the rise of green building rating tools were adopted for measuring ‘green’. And, to my dismay, time and time again when a project team met their required number of green points — they stopped.
Stopped trying to innovate, to improve, to go greener and deeper — because that was beyond the contract. ‘Green’ had already been achieved, according to the rating tools.
And sustainability became a commodity.
The ESD Consultant was born (Ecologically Sustainable Development). We charged fees for adding green-ness, which I often referred to as Green Ninja Dust because we were brought in after concept design to ‘make it green’ — already too late.
Sustainability became a line item on a cost plan.
We were given a place on the agenda.
Were we at the end of the agenda because we were the most recent specialism?
But I digress. Back to my ‘ah ha’ moment after this meeting.
The meeting worked beautifully. Everyone cooperated, co-created. It was un-scripted — just as it was before 2000.
We played the ball not the umpire.
With the now clearly urgent threat of climate change, leaving sustainability until last on the agenda is no longer acceptable. Climate action should not be an optional pay-for-service commodity.
The diagram below leads us through (my observed) history of the sustainability consulting model since the mid-‘90s, and arrives at a diagram that captures this ah-ha moment. We organise around key climate action themes, embedding climate action into all that we do. Everyone contributes, and the sustainability consultant’s role is to glue everything together — true integration.
Lead the agenda with the key design interventions and provocations, then sweep up the small stuff afterwards — by discipline if you need to.
To be honest, unless we can completely re-brand the ‘sustainability consultant’ label it might be time to retire it in favour of ‘climate action consultant’ (or something less militant?).
Our role should be to facilitate design exploration of each theme, with ALL relevant disciplines involved in each discussion. They specialise in the technical detail, we specialise in seeing and understanding the holistic systems.
Regardless of the magnification of the theme or topic, we still perform the same role.
To be fair, this model has probably been many years in the making and what I’m sharing here is a distillation of those years of exploration, reflection and experimentation. Many design teams might organically arrive at this model during discussions, and what I’m curious about is how we might better and more intentionally adopt this approach.
The reality is that we can no longer attempt to address climate change by breaking the topic down into traditional disciplines. It’s a systemic problem (and opportunity) that demands holistic design.
The way in which we organise project meetings, agendas and language have an incredible influence on the built outcomes.