Fighting for a few green jobs
With so many green building professionals and few green projects, what’s next for green building and sustainability consultancies?
With 175,000 LEED Accredited Professionals (APs) and still fewer than 14,000 LEED certified projects, it’s clear that there is far more supply of green building professionals than there is demand at this time. That situation is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. What should the hundreds of green building consultancies and thousands of LEED APs be doing to assure their economic future?
Over the past few years, four related phenomena have helped push many green building or sustainability consultancies “over the edge.” First of all, the continuing recession (or weak recovery, if you prefer) has dramatically reduced the amount of new construction overall and the number of projects pursuing LEED certification in particular. Second, the rise of LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED EBOM) as the dominant certification scheme has reduced the need for external green building expertise because so much of the work can (and must) be done by in-house facilities and property management. Third, the recession and oversupply of LEED professionals has done what “Economics 101” always predicts but that we never think will happen to us: reduce the prices (fees) green building consultancies can command for their services. Fourth, the recession has forced many architecture and construction firms to seek fees wherever they can, by leaning on their suppliers (e.g., engineers, subcontractors and consultants) to cut fees and also by building in-house LEED expertise rather than outsourcing it.
In light of these business and market dynamics, what should green building and sustainability consultancies be doing to stay viable? The first step, taken by an increasing number of smaller firms, is to merge with larger firms, in most cases being bought up by more diversified professional services firms. Second, firms do try to get more efficient at processing large volumes of data from LEED projects so that they can live with a smaller fee per project; this is also accomplished by bringing in younger and cheaper people. Third, by far the more popular method is to broaden the scope of green building services offered, by going beyond LEED services to such areas as energy modeling, engineering design and building commissioning. However, this latter move brings LEED consultancies into conflict with more established firms and may not be possible without acquiring more experienced and therefore more expensive people. The final method taken by a few firms is to “morph” into much broader based sustainability consultancies, especially looking at rating and certifying green products and green operations for companies and also at providing sustainability planning and software.
The bottom line is this: there are not nearly as many “green jobs” in building design, construction and operations as people envisioned four years ago, because many established firms and their employees have broadened the scope of their services to make green building a standard practice. After all, if green buildings cost no more to build than regular buildings of the same quality (e.g., Class A offices), then where are the additional revenues to support those “green jobs”? It’s only by defining every green building as creating “green jobs” that we get to these millions of new jobs that you hear talked about.
So what should you do? There are two areas I would suggest looking for opportunities: first, consider what companies and buildings spend on water, waste and energy, still huge industries awaiting a fully green transformation. Look at what companies and building operators spend each year on water supply, sewage disposal, solid waste management, chemicals for water treatment (e.g., cooling towers) and energy, and then try to find a way to reduce those costs and/or help them meet sustainability objectives by converting to renewable energy and onsite water and wastewater management, or chemical-free water treatment. I recall a conversation two years ago with a very large grocery chain facility manager about how they had taken waste management from a “cost center” to a “profit center” in just three years. In brief, they found American companies that would pay them for their waste stream (all of it, not just the good stuff like corrugated cardboard and aluminum cans), presumably to be shipped to China on those thousands of empty returning cargo ships, for use as raw materials.
The second area is clearly “the cloud,” finding everything that is done in and with a building, from conception through construction, occupancy, operations and demolition, and figuring out how to get it out of the building and into cyberspace. Think of the human body, millions of sensors (nerve endings), but only one central processing unit (the brain); if you want to practice biomimicry in design, figure out how to apply intelligence in one place (the cloud), using inputs from thousands of places (buildings). This transformation is well underway, but there’s plenty of work (and “green jobs”) to be had in the next decade applying “smarts” rather than “hands” to our sustainability opportunities.
Consultants and consulting services will always be with us, but what green building and sustainability consultancies actually do will continue to change to take advantage of new technologies and changing business needs. Where are the new opportunities that you see on the horizon?
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