When the idea of sustainable or ‘green’ design first began gain industry attention in the mid-1990s, the imperative was almost entirely environmental.

Designers, developers, planners and builders were learning about new ways to design buildings or even entire precincts in ways that consumed fewer energy-hungry raw materials, produced fewer emissions or used recycled materials.

The agenda for building smarter under ESD principles was led by a relatively small but committed section of the property industry. The Green Building Council itself was only established in 2002 in response to the energy and enthusiasm of these policy pioneers.

At the time, much of the industry resisted the call for change. ESD design was considered more costly, more time consuming, and a less efficient use of capital. Many said that green design “was nice in principle” but “doesn’t work in practice.” Green building design and operation was regarded as something of an experiment, and many likely believed it would be an experiment that would fail to get broader support.

How times have changed. Today, ESD and green building design is an accepted cornerstone of industry policy. It guides a wide variety of urban planning, master planning, building design, landscape design and interior design disciplines.

This is undoubtedly largely because we’ve all now accepted the social responsibility to treat resources with respect and to be conscious of the environment in everything we do, but it’s likely that along with ‘environment’ there is another ‘e’ word at work: economics. The great advances in how we approach ESD or green design these days have much to do with the measureable economic value that green design can achieve.

For example, with rapidly rising power and other utility costs, a building which is vastly more energy efficient than another translates directly into lower operating costs, meaning lower outgoings for tenants and a better bottom line for the owner. A building which uses materials which offer better insulation qualities will do likewise. The additional cost that some of these features may incur can now be measured against the economic performance of the ESD initiatives over time – and the answer is usually in the black.

On a larger scale, it is now possible to measure the cost benefit of master plans that take into account site orientation, building orientations, prevailing breezes and other features. While a traditional approach may have sought to maximise site yield, an informed ESD approach can deliver a more energy efficient local environment, and the costs of that efficiency can be measured against any trade-offs on site yield.

For a time, this concept was popularised as ‘triple bottom line’ but it appears what’s happening now is that the economic outcomes are gaining wider appreciation and greater credibility. There’s no longer any need to ‘guild the lily’ on why better green design makes sense: increasingly the numbers are there to prove it. These are the types of numbers that accountants and bankers can understand.

Soon enough, they will also be numbers that HR managers also understand – with measurable criteria in terms of people and performance. We will have moved beyond perception and attitudinal surveys of tenant satisfaction to spreadsheet numbers which prove the financial case for cost efficient space and increased productivity. These are the sorts of criteria that CEOs and Boards will be able to assess against internal benchmarks, building an even stronger business case for adopting improved green design.

As green design moves further forward, it will become less and less agenda based and increasingly based on good and demonstrable economics. For many of us, that will mean learning new techniques in how we promote green designs or ESD recommendations. Research, case studies and evidence-based modelling around increased economic outputs or reduced cost inputs will become the norm.

The calculator and the spreadsheet will become the new allies of better green design.