Talking (Less) and Listening (More) for Design Value Fluency

Introducing our new series of “What to Know and Say” articles

This article is the first in what will be a series of articles about how to communicate with your clients (and others) about climate action in a more effective way. It should be no surprise that, as Kira Gould, Hon. AIA, outlines in her article, the first rule for talking to your clients about sustainability is to avoid that impulse and listen. Future articles will delve into the specific issues of climate action and client communication by building and client type.

Robust communication — between design teams and their clients and stakeholders — is a key to design that delivers on the social, environmental, and economic needs of the place. But many architects and allied professionals think that this means they have to “sell sustainability” as an idea, to clients. This is an unfortunate framing of the issue, because it separates aspects of design from design itself. That separation invites itemization. This does not support integrated design for quality and value. This kind of compartmentalization is often associated with checklist point-grabbing, or piling “green bling” (green technologies) into a project. Good design is not a feature or a technology that you can line-item out of a project, even if that project or site or district might not (yet) be able to install the PV array or cistern.

This is also why my friend and veteran consultant to AEC firms, Barbra BatShalom, calls sustainability (or LEED) charrettes “the kiss of death” because they can disrupt relationship dynamics, they separate the sustainability process from the design process, and they often happen before project goals are set (if that happens at all), further silo-ing the aspirations of the parallel processes.

The most common question I hear — even now, in 2022! — about delivering design excellence that performs on all levels, meeting high standards for human, community, and ecological health as well as resource effectiveness, has to do with “convincing” clients. I suspect that this is rooted in an unfortunate (and patronizing) architectural misconception about “educating clients.” People tend to make decisions on an emotional level, rather than an intellectual one. Making emotional connections requires a deep understanding of what is motivating the other person/group — what drives them, what is important to them. Once you understand that, you can connect design intelligence to those desires in a powerful way.

Owners, stakeholders, and communities may be able to learn from design teams about what is possible for their project, site, and community, but they already know what they value. Design teams can and should spend more time learning about that. Such teams can listen more deeply, and orchestrate processes where deep listening is the primary communication activity of the entire design and delivery team. Facilitating this needs to include data about the value of a project that delivers at a very high level — these projects will be an asset to the owner, users, neighborhoods, stakeholders, and regions. They will play a role in broader, long-term resilience, and they will be positioned to support human health, even in times of extreme events. All these attributes have value. Architects and allied professionals know what to do to create buildings that meet or exceed these value thresholds and how to make the sometimes very difficult choices between strategies (and technologies) that support them.

Deeper listening to clients and communities will reveal what each member of the stakeholder ecosystem values most, setting up a framework for decisions that can drive the project to holistic excellence — and convey its value by a number of measures. This is a systems-thinking exercise that goes far beyond the building, integrating climate and community and human health into design and practice.

By the way, you don’t necessarily need to use the word sustainability at all.



Kira Gould, Hon. AIA, LEED AP, is a writer, strategist, and convener dedicated to advancing design leadership and climate action. Kira is a Senior Fellow with Architecture 2030 and serves on the AIA Committee on the Environment national leadership group (which she chaired in 2007). Through Kira Gould CONNECT, she provides strategic communications for leaders designing, planning, developing, and building the sustainable future. Kira co-authored Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (2007) with the late Lance Hosey, and is today the co-host of the Design the Future podcast with Lindsay Baker.

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