Driven to Deliver: Environmentally-Responsible Design & Construction

Environmentally-responsible design and construction begins with a passion and commitment to sustainability. We have that passion and commitment, plus a knowledgeable, experienced team.

Our portfolio includes 17.2 million square feet of green projects.

Our approach to sustainable buildings is ethically and morally aligned with our way of doing business. We aim to positively impact our communities and make them better today and for future generations. We are committed to sustainable design best practices in every project we undertake.

We're kicking off Earth month with a Q&A on sustainability. See what Tom Burke, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Project Architect, has to say about the past, present and future of sustainable design and construction.


What is the current state of sustainability in the industry?

Tom: Sustainability continues to capitalize on building synergies to improve performance. Two trends gaining traction in the industry are modular construction and occupant health and wellness.

Currently under construction in St. Paul, Minn., The Alvera is Opus' first modular project. Developed by The Ackerberg Group, it consists of 192 apartment units (most of which are modular).

Already gaining momentum prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, occupant health and wellness is also in the limelight as end users value improved indoor environmental quality in buildings. We have been analyzing a project's ability to meet the requirements of rating systems such as WELL.

What does sustainability in construction look like?

Sustainability is not new; it is expected. Cities and clients often have their own 'design-to' project standards that meet or exceed codes and sustainability standards. Projects with these standards lower the impact on the site and provide better air quality, thermal comfort, access, monitoring and safety, while also reducing energy and water usage. Projects can also achieve sustainable certifications that garner statistically higher rental rates.

As with most things in our changing world, technology is playing a larger role in the design, construction and operation of buildings. The conceptual design of a project has always been informed by the physical and environmental factors of a site. However, now computer software can evaluate building performance analytics, create accurate energy models and provide nearly instantaneous material take-offs. Product manufacturers have also greatly stepped up their game to eradicate the use of harmful red-list materials, providing safer products and environments.

Builders have the responsibility to execute on a project. Project safety and sustainability is important for both our construction team as well as for the end user. Proper job site management will protect materials from degradation and ensure correct installation. After construction, protocols are established and commissioning may be completed based upon the project's sustainability goals.

What sustainable elements do clients want?

Clients want functional, high-performing buildings. We integrate sustainable design as part of our, “Best Practices" so that decisions throughout the design-build process are informed by the desire, knowledge and ability to create a healthy and environmentally-responsible facility. In addition to our sustainable design standards, clients may request to have specific design elements included or for verifiable performance metrics to be used, or both.

For example, an owner may see the growth of electric vehicles and request to have charging stations roughed-in for future use. Performance metrics through building performance standards, such as LEED, WELL, FitWel, etc., are other ways to verify the project's sustainability. While sustainability goals will effect each project differently, there is an increasing trend of client and builder partnership that is focused on enacting these elements successfully.

What would you say to a client that doesn't want to spend the money for a sustainable project?

I'd ask them to review their long-term goals. More so than ever, organization's goals have come into alignment with the goals of a sustainable project. Products come and go, but buildings are permanent. Energy savings are often understood on a ledger, but the emphasis on culture and wellness of occupants is often stated within company handbooks. While we can only motivate the interested, the client is usually willing to engage in discussions on occupant wellness.

Certain parts of sustainable construction that were cutting-edge years ago are now standard. What are those? What are the benefits to the building's operation and impact?

Some of the early sustainable strategies focused on interior finishes and recycled content. Good examples of these are carpet and wall coverings. Sustainably-harvested wood finishes received FSC certification (Forest Stewardship Council), but this was typically a cost premium to a project in the early days. Paint manufacturers started producing low-VOC paint for projects. Another example is lighting. LED lighting was a premium. Now it is fairly commonplace to see LED lighting in virtually every part of a building. Other building components that are produced sustainably through recycled content include concrete and steel.

The evolution of sustainable development has had a tremendous [positive] impact on how a building functions as well as its occupant's wellbeing. Traditionally, buildings have been large consumers of energy. While this still remains true, with the introduction of occupancy sensors, low wattage lighting and more efficient mechanical systems buildings are consuming less and less energy. Occupants are the beneficiaries of these sustainable changes to the interior environment, while building owners are the beneficiaries of long-term cost savings.

What do you want to see happen with sustainability over the next few years?

I want to see a greater emphasis placed on community and amenity spaces. Many have the ability to participate in the digital world, which in turn, negatively impacts our ability to socially connect in a traditional sense. It's interesting to think about how hundreds of people can live/work together in a building, yet there can be a lack of community. Although we can't possibly know what the future has in store for us, we should be designing for a future utopia.


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