Behind the Scenes of Your Urban Sustainability Rating System 3

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Wednesday, July 1st, 2015
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For 20 years now, green building rating tools have been part of our daily lives. They are an integral part of our professional practice, government policy and real estate investments. They have truly transformed the property sector, the world over.

From Botswana to Bahrain, New Zealand to Nicaragua and Palestine to Portugal, green building rating tools shape the design and performance of our buildings. The World Green Building Council, representing more than 100 Green Building Councils (GBCs) around the world, reports that there is now more than 140,000 green buildings registered globally – an impressive number that continues to grow.

On the back of the success of green building rating tools, many GBCs have now released tools that measure sustainability performance at the neighbourhood level. The theory in doing so, of course, is that scaling the success of our green building achievements will help us create more sustainable cities, quicker. And with scale will come opportunities to create happier, healthier and more environmentally responsible development, so goes the value proposition. And I believe it will.

It’s not just the GBCs that provide community rating tool offerings. My fellow sustainability tool geek, Eliot Allen of Criterion Planning, recently launched a global registry of urban sustainability rating tools called TransformativeTools.Org, highlighting the smorgasbord of tools available to policy makers, practitioners and developers alike.

I have just returned from the Canada Green Building Council annual conference in Vancouver, where I presented alongside Jeff Ransom, the executive director of the Toronto 2030 District. I love these guys, their approach and philosophy on collaboration, but I was asked a number of times how the 2030 District movement is different to the EcoDistricts Protocol, and different again to the neighbourhood and community rating systems.

It was clear we still have confusion in the market place. Decision makers and potential users are unaware of the differences between the systems, in particular the neighbourhood and community-scale tools. Whether they are private developers, city planning directors or armies of community development corporations bettering our neighbourhoods, to some, all the rating tools and frameworks seem the same.

Curtin University was awarded Australia's first Green Star - Communities Rating

Curtin University was awarded Australia’s first Green Star – Communities Rating

At times, with confusion comes angst. Unsure stakeholders, pressed to determine which tool(s) suits their project best, tend to get caught up in the technical issues. Does the tool include health and well-being metrics? Does it reward zero-energy, or innovation? Does certification happen at a planning phase, or later, after it’s built? What’s this going to cost, and will it add value to my project?

These are all good questions, indeed, but without a solid foundation, there’s no need for nuts or bolts. The marketplace for neighbourhood rating systems is becoming more global, and more rating systems are on the way.

Here are my top 10 often forgotten features that potential users of urban sustainability rating tools should consider:

1. Brand

Brand is important. Strong brands are often characteristic of quality, market penetration and market acceptance. Brand can be a seal of quality. Associating yourself with a strong brand brings benefits, and each tool comes with some kind of brand equity.

2. Organisation

There is always an organisation behind the tool; the back of house, keeping the tool relevant, responsive and reliable. Is the organisation deep in technical know-how, and does it have industry engagement capabilities and marketing staff? Whether it consists of two people, 20 people or hundreds, the organisation behind the tool is sometimes as important as the tool itself. What is the organisation doing to build the brand of the tool? Do you know the organisation behind the tool?

3. Engagement, Feedback and Transparency

This attribute is best described through the following questions:

  • Who developed the rating tool, and who keeps it updated?
  • Are you invited to be part of the tool development and updating process?
  • Whose ideas does the tool represent?
  • Is providing feedback easy, and do you receive a response when you provide input?
  • Is the organisation transparent in its processes, and is information readily available on the what, why and how of making decisions?

4. Audience and Language

Each neighbourhood rating tool does, or should have, a clear audience or set of audiences. This audience then influences the language of the tool. Has the rating tool been written for planners, designers, developers, financiers, policy makers and/or builders? Has it been written for you?

The language of the tool, and thus its (compliance) requirements and/or benchmarks, often match the overall objectives of the tool. Is the tool relatively easy, or is it extremely difficult? Some tools are built for leaders, other for mass-market uptake. Some are deliberately challenging, seeking market transformation, rethinking the way be design and build. Its important you understand which audience you are, or want to be.

5. Defining the Neighbourhood

Neighbourhood, community, precinct and district. Greenfield, brownfield or greyfield. Each neighbourhood rating tool has been tested on various scales and development typologies. Not all tools can apply to all development scenarios. Do your research and find out what type(s) of projects the tool has already certified; this may help you determine which project types the tool works best for.

6. Governance

By governance, I mean the leadership system or framework that manages the tool’s development and administration. Who makes decisions on increasing benchmarks and criteria within the tool, approves changes and ensures that an assessment of potential impacts/benefits is undertaken? Does an organisation’s board ultimately approve the tool or amendments to it? Who is ultimately responsible, and is this clear?

7. Certification

Certification is an important feature of all neighbourhood rating tools, yet all have subtle and not so subtle differences. Is your certification independent, verified by a third party? When will you actually receive your certification? The process for certification is often not well understood, so make sure you are aware of the certification you are seeking.

8. Supporting Infrastructure

As with any product, support and service is essential. Professional accreditation, networking events, research and advocacy and marketing are but some of the necessary support infrastructures for neighbourhood rating tools to be successful. While it might seem to be all about the tool, it might actually be all about what’s around it.

9. Advocacy

Is the organisation behind the tool actively advocating for greater demand in its use, and thus its brand, reputation and continued existence? Is the tool game-changing, project-changing, or both? Advocacy is often a forgotten item when shopping for a neighbourhood rating tool. Are you checking the contents label?

10. Partnerships

Finally, it is important to understand whether the tool and the organisation behind it is part of something bigger; a movement, a network, a partnership or alliance. We will go further and faster together, and as toolmakers look to expand their reach and market share, partnerships become more and more important. Going global is often an aspiration, and doing it in partnership is one of the most effective ways. And of course, local partnerships are fundamental, particularly when it comes to content development and education. What partnerships are inside your urban sustainability rating tool of choice?

The neighbourhood rating tool is a game-changing concept, a true market-based method for transforming our cities, one community at a time. Such rating tools have a role that is fundamental, their mission ambitious. The audience for the tools is growing, globally, and users need to understand their application and orientation to ensure successful projects are realised.

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3
  1. Kevin Farrell

    I absolutely support the drive towards sustainability, and an essential element of that is measurement. I think this article states the issues at the top level very clearly, but I want to throw on the table a very real set of issues at the delivery end of rating tools: subcontractors.
    Many a day begins with a call from someone I don't know, saying "I'm told that you can help me, I'm in some trouble with XYZ rating on a project, and I don't understand it or know what to do."
    Most builder's contract managers think that merely by including requirements in a 300 page contract, everything in there will magically happen when it's signed-off by the local window manufacturer, or steel fabricator, carpenter, demolisher…
    Subcontractors will sign anything to keep the work flowing, and when they hear anything related to "green" they just think "easy – we recycle all the time" and don't give it a second thought. That is, until their first progress payment is withheld because they have not submitted their XYZ rating documentation, and then the panic begins. Sometimes it's already too late – they've bought from uncertified suppliers, installed non-compliant materials, etc.

    • Kevin Farrell

      Subcontractors will sign anything to keep the work flowing, and when they hear anything related to "green" they just think "easy – we recycle all the time" and don't give it a second thought. That is, until their first progress payment is withheld because they have not submitted their XYZ rating documentation, and then the panic begins. Sometimes it's already too late – they've bought from uncertified suppliers, installed non-compliant materials, etc.
      We're all in this together. If we want it to work we have to help each other out, and we would if there were not hidden agenda. Sometimes it becomes blatantly clear that the rating requirement has been abused as a tool for financial gain, in the same way that safety documentation often is.

    • Kevin Farrell

      This may come as a surprise to many, but please keep in mind that in every situation where there is tight regulation (and therefore penalty) there is good margin to be made from corrupting it. That's why organised crime operates only in trade where the laws have the highest penalties. Construction margins have been very tight for decades, so there is plenty of motivation to squeeze every opportunity for everything you can. What I'm saying is that even though the auditors may be quite sure that a building's rating is accurate, their system may have been used as a tool to gain financial advantage (many tactics are available).
      I'm not suggesting that it is widespread or a major issue. I'm putting on the table that behind the scenes there is a lot going on that is not ideal, and ought to be considered in the structure and application of rating systems.