How to Encourage Clients to Pursue Sustainable Living

Wayne Turett’s all-electric, energy-efficient home on the North Fork of Long Island, NY consumes ~90 per cent less heating energy than existing homes and promotes outstanding air quality. (Photo: Liz Glasgow)

The following situation is not uncommon: an architect, aware of the environmental damage that construction and building can impose on the planet, is an advocate for green building and sustainability. The only problem is, their client does not share the same passion for energy-efficient homes as the professionals designing it.

As the owner of a New York City architecture and interiors firm, I experience this first-hand and hear about it often from others in my field. The good news is: there is always room for discussion. Talking to clients early-on about the personal benefits of green building is one of the best ways to introduce them to the idea. In my discussions with clients, from “activists” to investment bankers to developers, I have gained some valuable insight into what works and what does not. The key to a successful discussion is understanding your client. I believe there to be three types of clients in this scenario: residential clients who are passionate about, or at least open to, sustainability; residential clients who may be apathetic or even opposed to the idea; and developers who prioritize concrete return on investment numbers.

Features a simple barn-like exterior and light-filled interior spaces recall urban loft living. (Photo: Liz Glasgow)

The clients who need the least amount of persuading are the ones who are already environmental advocates. Because our firm has been recognized for designing my home built to Passive House standards and other sustainability and wellness-oriented projects, we have clients who come to us looking for expertise on building an energy-efficient home, or to add energy-efficient elements to their existing homes. In these cases, the best route is to explain and expand upon the design decisions that are being made, as these people are already conscientious about green building science and enjoy learning about the process. These clients tend to be making sustainable design choices with the environmental benefit first, and their personal benefit as a close second.

Of course, there are many more residential clients who either do not take a stance on climate change or do not recognize the need for environmentally-positive design choices, whether for personal or political reasons. Some may even be opposed to the suggestion. What I have found to be helpful in such scenarios is to emphasize the personal wellness and comfort benefits of a sustainable lifestyle, rather than talking about climate change. From improved air quality to monthly bill savings, there are compelling, concrete benefits to living in an energy-efficient house that you can introduce to them. Another, and perhaps even more effective way of strengthening your discussion with these clients, is to put them in touch with previous clients who are living in and enjoying their own environmentally conscious homes. Hearing testimony from a fellow resident as opposed to an architect can be more effective and reassuring.

A recent Home Energy Rating System (HERS) analysis of the 2,400+ square foot Greenport house confirms an estimated annual heating and cooling costs of just over $1,700 a year. To put this into perspective, a 900 square foot NYC apartment costs about $1,400 a year just to cool and use the lights. (Photo: Liz Glasgow)

Working with developers can be both beneficial and challenging. While I cannot fault them for this, most developers, even those with the best intentions, must make decisions based on net profits. The challenge that presents itself is that, while energy-efficient buildings do have a notable return on investment (in the form of lower energy bills or the downsizing of an HVAC system, for example), these savings can prove difficult to calculate until the structure is built and inhabited. What I find to be helpful early-on in the partnership is to tell developers about the savings I experience in my home built to Passive House standards and share the stories of other clients who have had similar experiences. Sometimes, a real-life anecdote is effective, even if it only starts to warm developers up to the idea; as the design process continues, so can the potential of more sustainable practices.

With both private clients and business-minded developers, money is often a topic of conversation, and rightfully so. Energy-efficiency can be abstract and hard to understand, and some people are not convinced that benefiting the earth is worth a potential financial risk. For example, if you are electing to put solar panels on a roof, the upfront cost of the panels is going to be steep, but will easily be paid off after subsequent years of lower electric bills. Still, the idea of paying your electric bills “in advance” is daunting. If upfront costs are an unwavering concern, there is still room to implement green practices into the project. For one, government building codes are only getting stronger. This means that a home that just barely meets code built in 2025 may not be up to code in 2030. It makes more sense to build the house a bit beyond the code requirements, which will save construction costs when codes change in the future and ensure the building does include some green qualities.

The house also has a motorized dampered exhaust duct in the kitchen, triple-glazed tilt and turn
windows, and energy-recovery-ventilation (ERV) which brings in outside air to the bedrooms
and living rooms and exhausts stale air from the bathrooms and kitchen while conserving most
of the embodied energy. (Photo: Liz Glasgow)

Another practice I encourage is working with a construction waste recycling company, at an additional cost, to recycle the leftover materials from your job site, even if it is just the wood. Most people recycle at home and can understand that letting material go to waste should be avoided, so they are amenable to the recycling fees.

While it can be intimidating and sometimes onerous to have these discussions with clients, it is undoubtedly worthwhile, for both your clients’ long-term satisfaction with the project, and for the world around us.

Wayne Turett is founder and principal of The Turett Collaborative, a multidisciplinary architecture and interior design practice founded in 1991 and based in New York City. His frame of work spans from original
construction to renovation and additions, to interior modernizations of historic properties.




How Anyone Can Adapt the Passive House Lifestyle for Optimal Health & Well-being

  • Invest in larger windows for enhanced natural light and heating or replace current windows that optimize insulation and stop air leakages;
  • Complete an energy audit – including a blower door test – which measures the amount of air leakage in a home;
  • Seal doors and windows and tightly as possible to promote insulation;
  • Install awnings to direct heat off the house and provide shade in hot months;
  • Assess which elements of the home may be “off-gassing” (release of airborne particulates or chemicals—dubbed volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—from common household products);
  • Add an ERV into the attic (energy recovery ventilation) which treats incoming ventilation from the outside.
The exterior is ship-lapped grey cedar and cement panels, and the roof is aluminum standing seam. (Photo: Liz Glasgow)