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Are You JUST? The Benefits of Being a Practice-Centered Business

Image Credit: International Living Future Institute

I still clearly recall a professional practice class in architecture school that made the distinction between two types of architecture firms: the Business-Centered Practice and the Practice-Centered Business. In my view, the former was a business that simply happened to practice architecture, while the latter existed to practice architecture and simply happened to function as a business. 

Regardless of a business’ purpose and where it falls on that spectrum, if it doesn’t make money it will not survive long enough to realize its goals. But I was certainly drawn to the Practice-Centered model. I joined Lord Aeck Sargent twenty years ago precisely because it was a Practice-Centered Business that prioritized ecologically sensitive architecture with a core mission of responsive design.

Over the past twenty years, as ecological design considerations have matured and expanded to embrace sustainability (economic, ecological and social sensitivity) and now have begun to consider not just ‘sustaining’ but ‘improving’ through regenerative design, our mission and policies as a Practice-Centered Business have continued to evolve in tandem. While we have been involved in the design of numerous innovative ‘green’ building demonstration projects throughout our firm’s history — Zoo Atlanta’s Conservation Action Resource Center, a pre-LEED project featuring a green roof and rapidly renewable materials; the Southface Energy Institute Eco Office, one of the Southeast’s first LEED Platinum-certified buildings; and Arizona State University’s Wrigley Hall, home to the nation’s first School of Sustainability — we have wrestled with how to consistently improve our entire design portfolio. We aim to deliver the projects in which clients are asking for innovative green design as well as “walk the talk” through sustainable operations.

In a 2003 Metropolis article titled, “Architects Pollute,” Ed Mazria noted that the leading cause of climate change wasn’t our cars or our factories, but the energy used by our buildings, which were responsible for about half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions; architects were directly culpable and had a responsibility to take action. “If architects don’t attack this problem then the world doesn’t have a chance,” Mazria noted. He released the 2030 Challenge in fall of 2006, calling for all new buildings, developments and major renovations to be carbon-neutral by 2030. 

We invited Ed to serve as keynote speaker at our annual “all hands” meeting in January 2007. Inspired by his call to action, Lord Aeck Sargent became one of the first architecture firms in the world to adopt the 2030 Challenge in February 2007 with unanimous support by the firm’s leadership. We also committed to carbon-neutral operations that year and have consistently offset office energy use and travel emissions each year since. In 2010, the American Institute of Architects developed the 2030 Commitment reporting framework, calling on architecture firms to report energy performance annually across their entire portfolio. We were among the first 56 firms to report performance in its inaugural year and have consistently reported each year since. 

Some of our latest efforts have been driven by the Living Building Challenge (LBC), a regenerative building performance standard which asks, “What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?” We are now designing the Living Building at the Georgia Institute of Technology in collaboration with the Miller Hull Partnership. The project seeks to be “the most environmentally advanced research and education building in the Southeast” and the design team has committed to publicly sharing the design process on the project website.

The LBC is modeled after a flower and is organized into seven performance “Petals.”  In addition to requirements related to design and construction, such as requiring net positive water and energy, its Equity Petal includes a “JUST Organizations” imperative, which focuses on equitable and transparent operations in the workplaces where LBC projects are designed. 

The JUST Program provides a “transparency platform” for organizations to report on 22 organization- and employee-related indicators, with the goal of helping organizations “optimize policies that improve social equity and enhance employee engagement.” Addressing the topics of Diversity, Equity, Safety, Worker Benefit, Local Benefit and Stewardship, the JUST Label provides a public reporting framework and scoring system, rating an organization with one to three stars for each indicator.

The JUST Label process has already prompted some difficult but ultimately beneficial conversations about equity in the workplace and our associated policies. Lord Aeck Sargent became one the first 20 architecture firms in the world to earn a JUST Label in February 2017. I’m hopeful that the two-year renewal cycle will result in continued pressure for improvements in our operations, with the associated benefits in equity, diversity and employee engagement. Our current JUST label can be accessed here, and my recent blog post on the topic offers more detailed information on the JUST Label process.

Whether a Business-Centered Practice, or a Practice-Centered Business, design firms must ultimately be profitable to continue to practice. I am confident that a commitment to sustainable, equitable design and operations is not only the right thing to do, it also contributes to our bottom line through improved competitiveness in the marketplace, increased engagement and retention of staff, and the enhanced ability to recruit the best and brightest who are the firm’s future.


Jim Nicolow is the Director of Sustainability at Lord Aeck Sargant and a nationally recognized expert in sustainable design and the LEED Rating System. A frequent speaker, author and blogger on issues of sustainable design and high-performance buildings, he has… [Read more about Jim Nicolow]


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