Case study Thomas Hacker Architects

Thomas Hacker Architects, Inc. of Portland, Oregon is widely recognized for the design of libraries, museums, theaters, higher education buildings, and urban design. Since the firm's founding in 1983, Thomas Hacker's designs have received 40 national, regional and local design awards. Jonah Cohen is the firm's President and says that "sustainability has been part of our core values for a long time. Even before there was LEED, we approached design by trying to make sure our projects were appropriate to their settings and oriented in ways to take advantage of natural forces at work on the site."

From a marketing standpoint, sustainability is a core value of the 40-person firm, and that's what gets communicated to clients. One way the firm demonstrates this commitment is that for most projects, Cohen claims, "we will do a sustainability charrette whether or not the project is aiming for LEED certification. We do it regardless of whether the owner wants to participate because we're interested in pushing the boundaries [of sustainable design with each project]."

Thomas Hacker was the first architectural firm to have its own office LEED Silver certified. This was a valuable learning experience, according to Cohen. "It was interesting because it really tested our values; we had to spend a little more money that we had anticipated. Sustainability is definitely part of values, and from a marketing standpoint it has been important to us."

Cohen says, "I often give tours of the building; during one particular tour there was someone who later became a client. He became very interested in our firm because he saw us talking about our own work environment." So a strong marketing recommendation to any design firm is to first take care to green your own workplace, using one of the LEED rating tools, then use your own experience as one of the marketing tools for clients. In other words, you have to first "walk the talk," before clients will accept your commitment to sustainability at face value.

Thomas Hacker often enters design competitions in many parts of the country. Cohen notes that, "Often one of the questions [in a RFQ is: What is your experience in sustainable design? So we are able to directly answer the question with our own experience," offering some insights into how a client can manage a green project. "[For example], we just finished a LEED Gold project at Lewis and Clark College, and they specifically wanted the students to be actively involved with the sustainable aspects of the project. The building is designed as laboratory and has a lot of transparent walls and floors that show some of the measures that add to the sustainable design. For instance, some of the floor panels are glass without any carpet so you can see into the displacement ventilation system." For Thomas Hacker, then, client education is an ongoing part of their green building marketing.

Marketing is more subtle at Thomas Hacker. Like most professional service firms, it prefers to let the work speak for itself. Cohen's approach is to not to say, "You should hire us because we're great sustainable architects." Rather, the firm prefers to maintain that it is more "interested in a balance between everything that it takes to make great projects, with sustainability as just one component of how we present ourselves. While some firms really feature that aspect as their strongest point, we're trying to do it in the context that we're also doing buildings that are very well designed, very responsive to the programmatic needs and are on budget." In other words, sustainability is a program element, but Cohen's firm recognizes that all other program elements and budgetary constraints also need to be respected.

In terms of cost, Cohen says that "at a LEED Silver level, the [increased] construction costs used to be 5-6 percent, now it's nearly a wash. It's easy to get LEED Silver in Oregon without too much effort. The costs are definitely going down for institutional projects, city projects and government agencies - it seems like it's becoming the norm."

There is a trend underway called "LEED Lite," something that "tastes great, but is less filling," and that is the tendency of clients to take LEED for granted. Cohen observes that "a lot of institutional clients will go through a LEED-certification process once or maybe twice and they'll prove that they can do it and beyond that they don't feel the need to keep proving it over and over again. So they tell the designers that they'd like to use LEED guidelines and the LEED

point system but not go through the formal certification process____There's so much budgetary pressure on these projects that it's one more line item where they can reduce costs. It's a slippery slope because you sort of get back to where we were before LEED in that you just have to trust us [to do the right thing]."

A fundamental marketing problem

Turner Construction Company surveyed more than 719 building owners, developers, architects, engineers and consultants during the summer of 2004.9 The survey reported "executives at firms involved with more green buildings were far more likely to report that ongoing costs of green buildings were much lower than those not involved with green buildings." The main obstacles to widespread adoption of green buildings were found to be the following three, more or less in order of importance:

1. Perceived higher construction costs (at 14 to 20 percent premium!).

2. Lack of awareness about the benefits of green buildings.

3. Short-term budget horizons for building owners and developers.

Looking at these issues from a marketer's perspective, we can say that green building marketers are trying to sell a product or an approach that:

• does not demonstrate significant benefits to balance the costs;

• must be sold to people heavily concerned about initial cost increases.

This is really hard work, as anyone experienced at all in sales and marketing can tell you! The solutions then become fourfold:

1. Work aggressively to lower the costs of building green, through project experience and a focus on integrated design.

2. Rely heavily on case studies, testimonials from CEOs (and other believable business people) and make good use of the available academic research that demonstrates the benefits of green buildings.

3. Find ways to finance green building improvements to reduce or eliminate the "first-cost penalty" that often frightens away prospective buyers, using utility, state and federal incentives to maximize financial leverage.

4. Become more creative and assertive in documenting the full range of green building benefits, so that building owners with a long-term ownership perspective will be motivated to find the funds for greening their projects.

The Turner survey showed that most executives and practitioners believe green buildings are healthier (86 percent), create higher building value (79 percent) and higher worker productivity (76 percent). They were more skeptical about such issues as higher ROI (only 63 percent believed that), attracting higher rents (62 percent believed that to be the case for green buildings) and higher occupancy rates (only 52 percent), and while only 40 percent of the respondents believed that greening retail stores could bring about higher sales. The results of the survey are skewed even more when the relative experience of the respondents with green buildings is factored in; for example, 75 percent of experienced green building professionals believed that these buildings created a greater ROI vs. only 47 percent of professionals not experienced with green buildings.

One can draw the conclusion that the more marketing and production experience a firm has with green buildings, the more the firm is able to build a case, first in the firm's own mind, then in a client's mind, that this is the right way to go, and then to have the skills to execute one's intention to create highperformance buildings. At this point, the early adopters among the clients are ready for this strong advocacy - they are inherently more sold on the benefits of green buildings, less skeptical about their ability to achieve the desired results, and more willing to work with design and construction teams to solve the problems that usually arise in trying new technologies and new approaches to building design.

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