Building the case for green

Professionals in the home and design sectors are working hard to demonstrate just how sustainable building can help the environment.

Professionals in the home and design sectors are working hard to demonstrate just how sustainable building can help the environment.

Earlier this year, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) launched "Walk the Walk," a multifaceted campaign designed to highlight the role architects play in building environmental and sustainable solutions. The campaign is intended to broaden the public's understanding of contributors to climate change, while also giving a boost to architects' professional image. The organization is working with its AOR Peppercom to promote the initiative.

"Traditional thinking is that cars are the biggest polluters, whereas buildings make up to 40% of carbon emissions," says Phil Simon, MD of marketing and promotion at AIA. When one factors building electricity generation, Simon estimates buildings account for 70% of carbon emissions.

"The 'Walk the Walk' message is essentially that architects have solutions," he adds. "We are taking this message and creating story ideas that help illustrate aspects of addressing climate other than increasing fuel mileage on cars."

Indeed, when climate change first surfaced as a major concern, much of the focus was on cars and oil emissions. Lost amid all that was the sheer amount of pollution generated by an even more fundamental aspect of society: homes and other buildings. As the scope of the climate-change discussion has broadened, professionals building sustainable homes and other buildings are expanding the dialogue.

"Walk the Walk" includes many traditional PR components like media relations and organization partnerships. But increasingly, Simon says, consumers are using the Web to learn about environmental issues, prompting the AIA to establish a Web page, RSS feed, and microsite. The new-media components include a video case study of a client and architect joining forces to implement green initiatives into the home and a short tutorial about sustainable living options.

Offering new solutions
The solutions offered aren't just switching to energy-saving light bulbs; rather, they deal with more complex issues, such as water conservation, that architects regularly address, Simon adds. While the effort has a concerted consumer focus, it also targets other market sectors with interests in sustainable building, like healthcare, government, and real-estate development.

"Messages are essentially the same, but level of detail and some specifics would be different," says Ann Barlow, partner and president of Peppercom's West Coast operations.

The effort's key messages highlight buildings as the largest pollution contributors, architects' qualifications to address this issue through design, and encouraging the press to expand coverage beyond the problem to applying practical solutions that architects offer.

"[Current media coverage is] moving in the right direction," Simon notes. "We're past the point of, 'the Earth is about to burn up,' and focusing on the fear aspect of climate change. We're moving into asking ourselves what we can do."

Yet economic woes continue to mire the green movement, and saving the planet could well take a back seat to more immediate monetary concerns. From a communications perspective, Simon says, the key is to ensure audiences understand that initial expenses might be higher until the movement reaches a critical mass, but efficient solutions can save a great deal long term.

"Environmental sustainability is where good business sense and good environmental sense actually meet," Barlow says. Another tactic is moving away from encouraging consumers to consider switching to energy-efficient solutions cold turkey and instead targeting those shopping for replacement systems.

Michelle Moore, SVP of policy and public affairs at the US Green Building Council (USGBC), says the idea that green is good for the bottom line and for health is being increasingly embraced by business and consumer audiences. In March, the USGBC partnered with the American Society of Interior Designers to issue "regreen" remodeling guidelines for professionals and homeowners that can be applied to various projects.

The challenge is not just to raise awareness about the carbon emissions from homes and buildings; it's about communicating solutions and persuading the public that green does not necessarily come at a high price, she explains.

"The myth of green premium is something the USGBC continues to push back on," Moore says. "For a long time, green had a bum rap. It was only for the wealthy. You had to pay more for it. It was not really a mainstream idea."

Yet conveying cost savings as part of a remodeling message can be tricky in terms of holding the public's attention when the messaging is muddied with the technical details of an efficient energy system.

"There is a level of detail and complexity behind what makes a building really good - that can be a challenge to engage people in that conversation," she says. "Yet consumers care about their health and they want it to be affordable."

City sets an example
Mike Ragsdale, town evangelist for Alys Beach, an upscale sustainable community in Florida, notes that challenge has been to capitalize on the media's interest in green building while communicating to consumers the other benefits of the community to attract buyers.

"We've been out in the press selling beauty as a green message," Ragsdale says. "It's been working because historically people think being green means having to make sacrifices in terms of beauty."

Alys Beach has earned coverage in The Wall Street Journal, Coastal Living, The New York Times, Robb Report Vacation Homes, and The Discovery Channel's "Planet Green."

He says the high level of media interest in the community stems back to the messaging strategy of equating beauty with green. The idea that a community can be both aesthetically attractive and environmentally friendly goes against the prevailing stereotype about green homes that people equate with unsightly solar panels, adobe structures, and windmills, he adds.

"There are only so many people who [will] take a bullet for Mother Earth," he adds. "At the end of the day, you have to build a product that makes them understand the benefits of being green."

Making green a priority
Stats on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings in the US

1,325 commercial buildings are LEED-certified

10,309 commercial buildings are LEED-registered (on their way to certification)

502 homes are LEED-certified

11,390 homes are LEED-registered

Source: US Green Building Council

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