"Greening" Hearts and Minds for Better Building Outcomes

Pitching sustainable construction elements – or entire sustainable projects – is becoming easier as property owners, project managers and investors recognize the benefits of sustainable buildings. That’s great news. However, despite the popularity boost eco-friendly construction has received in recent years, few people outside the industry understand exactly what is required to make a sustainable construction project succeed.

This knowledge gap can lead to unrealistic expectations about timelines and costs – and can turn well-meaning potential clients into frustrated ex-clients. The good news is that, by incorporating client education measures into your standard business practices, you can make the process of building sustainable better and more accessible to everyone.

Educating Clients about Sustainable Building Challenges

Popular culture mythology says that sustainable building is straightforward - slap on a few solar panels and you save energy and cash. Easy… in theory.

In reality, of course, things are more complicated. And unless you manage client expectations from the start, you’ll likely spend far too much time justifying the cost and timeline of everything you do.

Start the client education process by focusing on these four components:

  1. New material risks. Yes, the benefits of a vegetative roof are exciting. But in many cases, there’s no information available about how a green roof will perform in the long term. Even with simpler features such as energy-saving windows or light bulbs, it’s difficult to accurately estimate long-term performance and cost savings for building owners.
  2. Retrofitting challenges. While it’s neat to think that you could cut your electricity bill by installing a windmill or solar panels, the reality is that these features won’t work in all situations. Adding such features could threaten a building’s structural integrity or prove cost-prohibitive in ways clients don’t immediately understand.
  3. Qualified worker shortage. It’s no secret that there is more sustainable building work than there are qualified workers. In today’s fast-paced business environment, clients may be used to solving such problems by offering higher payouts. But nothing can replace knowledgeable, competent employees. In fact, without such workers, an entire project may fail. (See “3 Tips for Finding Green Builders”.)
  4. Challenges in measuring outcomes. It’s easy to say that non-toxic building materials will increase worker productivity by decreasing down time – but it’s an incredibly tricky claim to prove. While studies have sought to quantify the economic benefits of green building elements, the numbers of those studies are notoriously approximate.

How You Can Spark Change

What can you do to keep interest in sustainable building alive in the face of obstacles? Think of yourself as a consultant and ambassador in addition to whatever else you do in eco-construction. In addition to communicating with clients about the challenges listed above, offer them:

  • Alternatives to unworkable ideas: If a client is really excited about one particular sustainable element (like a windmill), but it’s not feasible for their project, offer alternatives. Many people excited about sustainable retrofitting projects are in it for the environmental benefits. By showing them workable ways to decrease their energy use, you are still helping them achieve their goals.
  • A long-term benefits estimate: Rather than claiming that any element will save them x in energy bills or reduce their carbon use by y, offer one-year, five-year and 10-year projected savings. This helps manage expectations and reinforce the long-term nature of sustainable building investments.
  • A satisfaction guarantee: If you’re short on workers and have to delay projects, offer something immediate to communicate that you only perform excellent work and can’t rush the process, given the complex nature of sustainable construction.

Staying Outcome-focused for a Stronger Business

One final note about keeping lines of client communication open: the better you communicate with clients, the lower your risk of all kinds of negative outcomes. Even when you’re busy and nothing has changed, a quick check-in makes a positive impression and says to clients that you are invested in their work. You can even draft a form email to send on a weekly or biweekly basis when everything is going well.

When communication falters, there’s a greater chance for misunderstandings and for small problems to grow out of control, which is exactly the kind of thing that leads to professional liability lawsuits. Thinking of your clients as a key part of your team can keep your entire business stronger.

Ted Devine is CEO of insureon (www.insureon.com), an online small business insurance broker.

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