"Sustainable development involves … meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” was said at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and subsequently adopted by the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Handbook, according to the College of Design, states that “sustainability refers to the ability of a society, ecosystem, or any such ongoing system to continue functioning into the indefinite future.”

Such declarations imply sustainability is not limited to impacts on the natural environment but on people and communities as well. “Sustainable design is design in which built and artificial systems, human health, and natural ecosystems are holistically considered and addressed, with the end goal of designing healthier places to live and work that do little or no damage to the environment,” said Max Zahniser, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accredited professional and program manager for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Washington, D.C.

The current movement toward more ecologically sound design principles has been based partly on the increased understanding that common development practice is not sustainable. Some of the most important ecological issues impacted by common design practices include global climate change, declining sources of nonrenewable fuels, habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity, and toxic pollution.

“Sustainable design incorporates those features which minimize a building’s impact on the environment and that are long-lasting,” said Brian Castelli, COO and executive vice president for the Alliance to Save Energy (ASE), Washington, D.C.

Sustainable design means accounting for reusing and recycling materials; using safe and nontoxic materials that don’t negatively affect indoor air quality; and minimizing landfill impact, deforestation and degradation of the natural environment. Sustainable design also means using architecture and technology to better manage a building’s response to the environment and to better manage the resources used to construct and orient it, said Mark LaLiberte, president of Building Knowledge Inc., Minneapolis, Minn., and trainer for the National Houses That Work educational series offered by the Energy and Environmental Building Association, Bloomington, Minn.

Evolution of sustainable design

The green movement of the 1970s was an offshoot of the ’60s culture that was searching for a clean, organic environment, according to Castelli. Then, in the 1990s, the movement recognized an opportunity to promote global sustainability.

“The ideas of more than a decade ago were an advancement of the community green concepts of the 1960s and ’70s, but they had evolved to examine making state, country and global infrastructures more sustainable,” Castelli said.

Gary Gerber, president of design/build firm Sun Light & Power Co., Berkeley, Calif., and board member of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), San Francisco, agrees that the movements of the 1970s and 1990s were similar, and today, society is rediscovering many of the concepts put forth then, such as the use of solar hot water and the promotion of sustainable forestry practices.

“However, we are a bit beyond the 1970s in terms of knowledge and sophistication,” Gerber said. “Back then, the idea of resource conversation was more politically based, while today there is more urgency concerning global resource depletion, as we are actually running out of cheap oil.”

Although earlier sustainable design movements strived to make buildings more efficient by using alternative resources, the architecture and design concepts at that time were not particularly aesthetically pleasing to the average buyer, LaLiberte said.

“Since then, we have realized that buildings can be designed to be aesthetic and still remarkably functional in terms of resource use and energy conservation,” he said. Changes in architectural concepts, along with new or advanced technologies, such as more efficient photovoltaics and more efficient insulation techniques, have led to more mainstream acceptance and demand for sustainable buildings.

“The current sustainable design movement is crossing party lines in a way it never has,” Zahniser said. Rising oil and gasoline prices, a desire to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, the human health and productivity benefits, and the availability of skilled practitioners that can deliver green buildings at little or no premium over traditional construction all are bolstering the solid business case for sustainable design.

“What the current chapter of the green and green building movements has in common with the previous incarnations is that they are value driven. The current evolutionary state is more realistic than its predecessors and more aware of other human systems, such as global economics, but the drivers still have harmony with natural systems at its heart,” Zahniser said.

According to Castelli, sustainable design has also gained new ground today because the way buildings have been traditionally built has not actually been economically viable.

“Current sustainable design methods create ways to construct buildings differently than before but with the same quality end-product with lower energy costs and improved indoor air quality,” Castelli said.

Previously, businesses were not necessarily attracted to the concept of sustainable design, perhaps believing it was a phase and too expensive. However, according to Gerber, today’s economic incentives are actually engaging businesses to use sustainable design concepts.

“Huge, multinational companies are now adopting green practices and are seeing the value of sustainability on their bottom line,” he said. Individuals and companies are finally understanding that wasting resources equals wasting money, allowing business and conservationists to no longer be at odds in their philosophies concerning the environment.

Shaping your green business

It appears that today’s sustainable design movement is no phase but that it has an economic basis in necessity. Electrical contractors need to adjust to this fact and shape their businesses to respond to the increasing demand for green, sustainable buildings, homes and industrial and other facilities.

“Electrical contractors need to examine the best energy-efficiency design practices being used today,” Castelli said. In addition, they need to understand that homes, buildings and facilities are more “wired” now, and they must have the technical capabilities to respond to the demand for increased connectivity that is more energy efficient.

There are several areas where electrical contractors can have an impact in terms of adjusting to the demand for sustainable buildings, according to Gerber.

“Electrical contractors can incorporate photovoltaics into their businesses and get fully trained in the art and practice of installing these systems,” he said. There is a great amount of specialized knowledge involved in solar technology, and electrical contractors can get photovoltaic design and installation certification from the national North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP), Malta, N.Y.

Lighting design is another area electrical contractors can explore to shape their green business.

“Electrical contractors that are not already delivering design/build projects need to learn the proper practices of lighting design and familiarize themselves with the equipment required for the energy-efficient lighting, controls and energy-management systems that are being specified so that they can develop the technical skills to install and maintain them,” Gerber said.

LaLiberte agrees electrical contractors can do many things to respond to sustainable design demands. They can, he said, be on the front edge of technology by embracing changes and advancements, consult with planners and architects and help determine the most efficient and innovative ways to reach sustainability goals, and learn about and understand green programs such as LEED.

“Electrical contractors need to become a solution partner in resolving design and sustainability issues and add value above installing electrical systems,” he said.

According to Zahniser, electrical distributors can position themselves in this market by gaining sustainable design expertise, partnering capabilities and by actively participating in the promotion of environmentally sound projects.

“Electrical contractors positioning themselves for sustainable design will need to understand and work with on-site generated energy systems, such as photovoltaics and small-scale residential wind turbines, raised floor systems that house electrical equipment and cabling as well as HVAC and data infrastructure wiring, more efficient lighting fixtures, and daylight sensors and other daylight harvesting technologies,” he said.

The future of sustainability

“We are really just beginning to see the growth of the sustainable design movement,” Castelli said. As energy costs and the demand for materials and resources continue to increase, so will the need to grow or manufacture sustainable materials closer to where they are being used to reduce the use of energy in transportation and carbon footprints.

“I believe that businesses that are involved in sustainable design, including designers, architects and electrical contractors, as well as producers of energy-efficient appliances and insulation, are going to see a huge market explosion as societies continue to realize the need,” Castelli said.

According to Gerber, sustainable design will become mainstream in less than a decade.

“Already, sustainable practices that were considered fringe ideas 10 years ago, such as LEED, are now becoming dominant in design practices,” he said.

Sustainable design, he added, will be essential because our society no longer has a choice and must conserve resources and behave in a way that secures a healthy global future.

Specifically, LaLiberte predicts there will be real innovation in the near future in the integration of wall systems and in streamlining construction processes through prefabricating wall panels.

“There will be less site work and more prefabrication,” he said. In addition, there will be improvements in motor technology and lighting, and an increased mainstream acceptance of photovoltaic, wind and other alternative energy sources.

Zahniser agreed that the use of sustainable design practices will continue to increase, meaning energy efficiency and other sustainability measures will become more commonplace.

“Contractors positioning themselves as experts at working with these technologies at no premium over traditionally designed and built projects are likely to have the edge in this rapidly growing movement,” he said. EC

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.