Building a Green Practice

Ophelia Wilkins

As I started strategizing about how to take our firm’s commitment to sustainability and green design to the next level, I came up against a Catch-22 situation. It’s similar to the one architects face when branching out to pursue new building types: you need to demonstrate experience with a particular project type in order to get projects of that type. Only through project participation do we build the specific skills that constitute “experience.” Choosing to launch a green building practice area is no different—to win new, highly sustainable design projects, it helps to already have them in your portfolio.

As with a hospital or an airport project, opportunities don’t just walk in the door—you have to lay extensive groundwork. So, we’re placing stepping stones to do just that. I developed a proposal I call “KR Green,” a green building practice area for Kuth Ranieri that demonstrates our commitment to harmonizing the relationship between the built and natural environments and introduces skill-building opportunities into the trajectory of our current projects.

The plan consists of four pieces: our shared philosophy, achievement targets to measure success, a set of tools to facilitate implementation, and a process for adapting our philosophy to the range of project scales, types, clients, and team structures.

The next step is to use KR Green to create a sustainability action plan that outlines our approach to operations, management, and design. To gather information, last May, at the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) 12th Annual Living Future UnConference in Portland, Oregon, I attended a session called “Building a Sustainability Action Plan: How We Get From Now to a Living Future,” during which Miller Hull Partnership presented their sustainability action plan. The firm has been a leader in sustainability from their founding in 1977, but even they said that writing an action plan was a new challenge for them, because it requires everyone in the firm to have a shared language and a common skill set.

Miller Hull Partnership’s Sustainability Action Plan

In developing KR Green for Kuth Ranieri, I’ve found this to be true. I want to get feedback from everyone in the firm, but at the same time, a certain level of knowledge about green design has to be in place for feedback to be valuable. Other challenges: once we have our action plan in place, how do we phase it in over time? How do we define our achievement targets in a precise enough way that we can set both interim and long-term goals that are achievable and measurable? Also, having worked primarily on interiors or renovation projects—we’ve had fewer opportunities to engage with comprehensive building energy performance.

However, we do have experiments in progress right now that promise to help close the gap. Two of our recent residential projects, Helford Place in Sonoma and Oak Manor in Fairfax, represent a deeper involvement with green building as part of our aspiration to be better architects and to better serve our clients. In both cases, the client did not come to us with an energy reduction goal per se, but an interest in a low-maintenance, durable, and timeless home. We are offering a path in which strategic choices result in a simpler mechanical system and long-term operational savings.

The Kuth Ranieri team visits DPR’s San Francisco Headquarters – the first certified commercial Net Zero Energy Building (NZEB) in San Francisco by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI)

For both projects, we have engaged a consultant specializing in energy optimization who we have not previously used on our residential work. We will be tracking the energy savings and setting up metering dashboards so these clients can better understand how their house is working for them and how to fine-tune its performance.

Meanwhile, on a commercial tenant improvement project—a pediatric dental clinic at UCSF which primarily serves disadvantaged kids—we are introducing a zero-volatile-organic-compound finish palette that will include a number of products free of chemicals on the “Red List”—ILFI’s list of chemicals commonly used in construction that are persistent environmental toxins. Removing these chemicals from material manufacturing altogether is one of the goals of ILFI’s Living Building Challenge.

These test cases are seeds for future growth. With each new consultant, we learn a new way of working that allows us to expand our own scope of services. As we test new materials, we build a healthy materials library which becomes the baseline for our next round of projects. Through a local chapter of ILFI, the San Francisco Bay Area Collaborative, I am working as part of a group to break down the extremely complicated topic of healthy materials into smaller pieces, so that firms can make incremental improvements in this area. I look forward to adopting these increments as our own achievement targets.

Sustainability is about more than just racking up LEED credits. It’s a value system that enhances our designs. It’s about having a plan that guides how and why these tools feed into our design work flow. It’s about offering our clients a product that reflects their values in its operation as well as its form. With KR Green, we’re making a road map out of the Catch-22 and into a greener—and better—practice.

The Kuth Ranieri team visits the SFO Terminal 1C construction site.

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