Perkins+Will's Peter Syrett: The business case for greener, smarter buildings

We spend 90 percent of our time indoors. So why aren't we more concerned about the environment inside a building? Perkins+Will architect Peter Syrett makes the business case.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says we spend some 90 percent of our time indoors.

So why aren't we thinking more about smarter, greener buildings?

Peter Syrett, principal at sustainable design firm Perkins+Will, says thousands of chemicals surround us in our homes, workplaces, hospitals and retail stores that we know very little about -- some of which can be harmful to our health.

I spoke to Syrett in New York City about green building, going beyond LEED certification and his team's work to develop a publicly-available list of materials and chemicals that builders and architects should try to avoid.

SmartPlanet: Let's start with the basics: what does Perkins+Will do?

PS: We're a very large architectural firm and we practice in a lot of different building types. We're trying to change how we do business and how everyone does business. We actively seek to raise our performance through building.

We have over 75 projects that are certified LEED, nine of which are platinum, 44 which are gold. As of last February, we have 994 LEED-accredited professionals. We're extremely active in this. As a company, our mandates go beyond merely LEED. We have an SDI -- sustainable design initiative -- with benchmarks that involve energy, water, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, such as acoustics and daylight.

We're on the forefront of sustainable and green design thinking. Humans spend 90 percent of their time indoors -- that's an EPA statistic. Buildings have such a great influence on our lives. How products contribute to indoor air pollution and the overall quality of the building is pretty significant. There's a lot of concern around volatile organic compounds that degrade the overall air quality in a space that contribute to the degradation of a person's health.

I personally think that this is the material idea of the 20th century that will totally change how we think about the built world. Every morning, you turn your cereal box around and see what's in it. We should be able to do that will everything in our lives. We don't know how Kellogg makes corn flakes, but we do know that's in corn flakes. We should know this for building materials. The idea of transparency.

What we're trying to understand is a constant question to us. It doesn't just come out of Chinese drywall. We see it in every single building type. There's a greater awareness between the built environment and human health. Architects sit squarely at that fulcrum point.

SmartPlanet: Your team has created a list to advise builders and architects. Why?

PS: We, as a firm, created this precautionary list. We're telling people what we're thinking about and discussing in the office. We've been using it internally and now we're sharing it with the design community. Every fall, we update it. For these 25 substances, wherever there's an alternative available -- and there isn't always one -- we specify materials.

The first thing is to understand what you have. The building stock in New York City, and the United States, is really varied. Lead and asbestos are notorious and well-known. But the first thing is to educate and inform people so that this is not an issue that is dismissed as insignificant. It's a complicated topic and not an easily penetrated one. It's opaque, and it needs to have more light shed on it.

Brown buildings are not green buildings. Less sick days, higher productivity -- companies are definitely interested in that. For example, California found that math test scores were better when the classroom had daylight. This would be true for the office worker as well.

There's satisfaction, there's performance, and there's alignment with brand and vision. I think that's really important. We can look at BP, which very plainly has made sustainable goals in their mission, which was tarnished after the oil spill. If you're a green company with green products and you do not have a green building, there's a disconnect there. It's a holistic approach -- people call you out for doing it incrementally.

Lastly, there's definite economic reasons in terms of ROI. It gets less clear in terms of indoor environmental quality -- you have to link it to productivity. It's really about institutional or organizational transformation.

With green buildings, they're not only manifestations of your values to the outside world, but they're a manifestation of your values to your employees.

SmartPlanet: You personally specialize in clients in the healthcare industry. Tell me about that.

PS: Healthcare is a really interesting building type. When you really get down to materials and action, you really have to put your money where your ideas are. Traditionally, hospitals have been investing in technology as an answer to say they understand what's going on in healthcare. That's beginning to change. Now there's a whole other measurement: how green your hospital is.

Healthcare consumers are beginning to look for this. Three years ago, we were doing a cancer center, and the building materials that are used are carcinogenic: flooring products, furniture products. Doesn't that violate the Hippocratic oath of, "Do no harm"?

I don't want to know exactly how you cook your stew, but I do want to know how it fares against these issues.

We live in a world that's largely artificial. Very few natural materials are used in the building environment. Very few natural materials are left in their original state. A wool carpet may have a flame retardant. A wood panel has a coat of urethane. You almost have to be an industrial hygienist.

The organic food movement and what happened with water bottles and BPA -- when people know, they buy accordingly. It's going to go toward transparency. Manufacturers that catch onto this will begin to see the bottom rise. People buy because of this.

It's an irony of the modern age that what we come in contact with the most we know the least about. We know a lot about Lindsay Lohan's personal life, but we don't know anything about the chair you're sitting in.

[The] BPA [controversy] spoke to a very active and informed demographic: mothers. They want the health of their children to be good. They buy really, really assertively.

SmartPlanet: With green buildings, who is responsible for change?

PS: In a corporation or large institution, it is the senior leadership. The middle can't delegate or push this upward terribly effectively. And certainly the bottom can't. There are too many operational issues. It has to come from the highest echelon, and backed up by vision, like all major business moves. When it comes from the top, things happen quickly, things change. You can really have transformative impact.

I love to use the example of Walmart. Walmart is a cost-driven institution, if there ever was one. [Now] they're cutting skylights into their big box stores to bring daylight in and have their lights on less [often].

After World War II, we were led to believe that technology was the solution. Our buildings project that. They became wider and bigger and more sealed from nature. Now we're realizing that maybe we took it too far. There's a better world for us to operate business-wise or environmentally whatever way you want to look at that. We began to challenge that precept.

Daylight, a more careful selection of materials -- this is now beginning to trend in the retail world.

The education market is very aware of this topic, and are fairly progressive to it. Because buildings for schools can become teaching tools. Not only do you get the benefits, but you use the building to demonstrate ideas and concepts.

We're beginning to see the link in healthcare between rest and preventative care and buildings. We're beginning to see corporate buildings and the link with productivity.

You can no longer preach to the choir. They're in the choir. Now it's trying to get people into the choir. That's a harder conversion. We have to gather more and more data. The green building movement is a very new endeavor, really, and there's not the depth and breadth of data out there. Information-gathering about metrics and performance and cost, the more that's done on that, the more the conversation will move from conversion to explaining the data -- more the facts, less the ideas behind them.

"It isn't about green building -- it's about what I do." Often those things are related, and the more we can show people that, the more we can change.

SmartPlanet: How can businesses actually make changes? Do you have any examples of smarter building?

PS: We can't rely on machines and automation. If we've designed a building that doesn't need that at all, maybe that's a better building. One that doesn't need to be air conditioned, maybe that's a better building.

An operational example of how indoor quality can be changed is floor maintenance. Hygiene is related to how bright and shiny things are, an erroneous and specious logic. That comes at a high operational cost, to buff and wax the floors. And indoor air quality. Often, if you select a different floor that doesn't have the waxes but still shines, in five years or so, you'll begin to see a distinct return on your investment. You can do ROI calculations around materials, but they tend to be targeted.

We have a lot of people ask us -- and this is true for organizations with large building stock who spend a lot of money on maintenance -- they want to know if things will be harder and cost more money to maintain.

For example, in the Hearst Building, there's a consistent lamping protocol that saved them a lot of money. They change the lamps consistently, on a schedule. The lights are running more efficiently. People are using less electricity because each individual lamp is running more efficiently. In the long term, you accrue savings. It's sort of counter-intuitive that changing the lamps regularly saves money, but that's what it is.

Legionnaire's disease: in 1978 or '79, that was the first notorious "sick building" incident. We're now aware of it. In the '70s, no one was thinking that way.

SmartPlanet: Up until now, we've spoken about individual buildings. We talk a lot about smart cities on SmartPlanet. How can we build greener, from a big-picture point of view?

PS: With buildings, until recently, your property stopped at the property line. Now, we're beginning to see macro thinking -- beyond the edge of the property line. Cities are trying to inspire people to think that way. For example, the green roof movement taking off in Chicago and New York. Cities, through tax breaks and other means, are trying to reduce heat island effect and deal with storm water. I think that is very much another big trend that's going to happen in the next few years: this movement toward more macro drives in performance.

With Title 24 -- California's energy code, basically -- it's tiered based on energy reduction. We're seeing more municipalities take that approach.

SmartPlanet: Many big-city initiatives are met with administrative red tape. Are the political winds at your back to spark planning changes in cities?

PS: The Bloomberg administration [in New York City] has a great many urban and sustainable design initiatives. We're really beginning to see that happening. So yes, there are still plenty of hoops to jump through as design professionals.

It's really beginning to change in the major cities. It's economy of scale. The issues they're fighting are so large and big they really have to take large positions on it. That's why they're the generators of these ideas. New York City's garbage can bury a whole state in a year -- they really have to think carefully about it. Same with electricity usage here.

What I hope comes is that we have the vision to do our water system. Will there be this kind of vision for renewable energy sources for cities? Ways to deal with transportation and electricity? I hope so. That's what I haven't seen yet -- this large, public works rethinking of infrastructure.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com