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Breaking Down the Barriers

By facilitating communication between landlords, tenants and property managers, designers can ensure their sustainable spaces don't underperform.

02/28/2011 By Elaine Aye, IIDA

Breaking Down the Barriers

Designers craft the spaces that shape human lives, affecting how people move through buildings and interact with each other within them. They also have substantial influence on a building's environmental performance by creating layouts designed to maximize daylighting and views, improve indoor air quality, provide opportunities for personalized controls, and implement lighting systems intended to maximize personal comfort and reduce energy costs.

Best practices in both interior and sustainable design processes call for a systematic and coordinated methodology, including research, analysis and integration of knowledge into the creative process. For this reason, interior design is well-suited to rapidly incorporate green building insights. Indeed, designers have made great strides in creating spaces capable of providing occupants with great comfort while reducing environmental impact.

Yet expertly-designed commercial spaces routinely underperform when occupants and building managers are not fully educated about and committed to the principles behind a "green" design. It has become clear that occupant behavior has not caught up with the intent of sustainable design. Communication barriers between designers, landlords and occupants undermine the potential impact of sustainable interior design practices on occupant behavior. To deepen the behavioral connection, these barriers must be identified and removed.

High-performance designs rarely live up to their potential because building occupants and managers are neither incorporated in the design process nor properly equipped to collaborate with each other to maximize a building's performance levels. By engaging building owners and tenants early in the sustainable design process, designers can lay the groundwork for much higher performance levels in the finished product. In fact, when landlords, managers and tenants become involved in the sustainable design process, project teams can nearly double their ability to create truly effective high-performance buildings.

Unfortunately, there currently are no clear guidelines for implementing a targeted engagement strategy of this sort. Building owners and tenants alike have expressed frustration over ineffective partnerships in the design and implementation phases of tenant improvement projects. Simply encouraging stakeholders to reach out to each other is not enough to resolve this lack of cooperation. Specific processes need to be defined.

Landlord teams often have inconsistent recognition of the value of green improvements and are unclear about the return on investment that energy- and water-efficient upgrades can provide. Designers are in a prime position to help the landlord teams understand their buildings and what they can provide in terms of resource efficiency and a healthier workplace.

Measuring the building's baseline performance will illuminate the steps needed to transform the building into a place that attracts and retains tenants. Incorporating sustainable measures in the building, such as water-efficient plumbing fixtures, accommodations for bike racks, green cleaning policies and sub-meters in tenant spaces so occupants can understand their energy usage, will help the building outperform its conventional counterparts. In addition to providing a better space for occupants, implementing green measures will prepare landlords to be more amenable to sustainable ideas that tenants may suggest.

Outmoded lease structures disincentivize landlord support for tenant green improvements, and few buildings have programs and policies that enforce the tenant improvement build-out in a sustainable manner. Designers can help landlords craft leases that inform tenants about the building's sustainable features and describe them in a way that clearly shows tenants the value these features hold. This is a critical first step in educating the tenant.

Landlords can also create lease language that requires tenants to adhere to established environmental goals, such as achieving a LEED-CI certification or meeting a set of minimum green standards. Specifications that can influence occupant behavior through their purchasing practices and day-to-day operations include:

  • Limiting energy use through a predetermined lighting power density and plug loads; requiring that a certain percentage of tenant equipment and appliances be ENERGY STAR-certified; and specifying tenants to have their space commissioned post-occupancy
  • Requiring an indoor air quality management plan be implemented during construction and pre-occupancy
  • Specifying that low- or no-VOC paints, sealants, adhesives, materials and flooring be used in the space
  • Having tenants use construction materials that contain recycled content, locally harvested materials and/or rapidly renewable resources
  • Encouraging tenants to include measurement and verification systems that provide current data on actual operational efficiencies and energy usage

Because the landlord has put in place the building infrastructure which allows the tenant to be successful in achieving the goals, green lease requirements become the basis for a partnership between tenant and landlord.

Tenant improvements (TI) are fast-track projects and lack of coordination among stakeholders can severely impede sustainable goals. Brokers and property managers are focused on getting leases signed and preliminary space plans underway. With things moving so quickly, the team often doesn't stop to consider the best course for a sustainable TI project. It can be difficult and costly to change things later (e.g., the contractor may not have bid a green project, the installed lighting system may not support lighting controls, purchased plumbing fixtures may not conserve water, etc.). Designers who thoughtfully drive the process can have a huge impact on creating a sustainable TI and inform tenants about best environmental practices in the process.

Ensuring high indoor air quality is a prime example. People spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, yet 30 percent of the buildings in the U.S. have poor indoor air quality. Perpetual air quality problems affect productivity and create unhappy employees prone to illness. Effective ventilation and good filtration strategies take on an extremely important role in occupant well-being. Vent placement is a critical consideration in the space layout. If rash decisions place conference rooms in areas with inadequate ventilation or interior walls and partitions hinder air flow, occupants will experience the space as too hot or too cold. In this case, the landlord suffers as well because the facility staff will be constantly responding to tenant complaints.

A general sense of mistrust between building owners and tenants can also be an obstacle to making sustainable spaces operate as intended. Designers can help landlords establish methodologies that set building teams and tenants on a course for collaborative, continual improvement. Making tenants aware of the sustainable strategies implemented over time and engaging them in sustainable solutions forges a sense of community within the building. The creation of a green team that includes representatives from each tenant group or opening a series of regular brainstorming sessions to all building occupants are two strategies that landlords have used with great success.

Designers play a key role in determining how successful a work environment will be: they create an awareness of the space through design, education and their partnership with key stakeholders. For designers to assume a leadership role in assuring occupant behavior doesn't undermine sustainable space design, however, they must first have a robust understanding of the various elements that define sustainability in the built environment. As new concepts, technologies and products perpetually emerge, continual education is essential. Designers must stay motivated and well-informed. With the right resources, tools and processes in place, designers can play a much more pivotal role in how occupants learn from and interact with their surroundings, resulting in effective strategies for ensuring that their designs perform as intended.

Elaine Aye, IIDA, LEED AP O+M, BD+C and ID+C, is a principal at Green Building Services Inc. She was recently awarded the BetterBricks Award for Green Advocate in 2011, which celebrates the achievements of standout leaders in high-performance buildings throughout the Northwest. Elaine can be reached at (866) 743-4277 or