By Scott Walker
Earlier this month a very important person in our industry asked me a very straightforward question: Have we (the AV/IT industry) proven that there is a market for sustainable technology? In other words, do we believe there is a sizable group of buyers out there willing to pay a little more to have their projects undergo the STEP process? I answered honestly that I wasn’t sure how big that pool was, nor was I sure where the pain threshold lay in terms of additional fees to deliver a more sustainable system. Since then, I’ve been thinking long and hard about this question.
From my own experience I can certainly point to enterprise clients my firm has engaged and projects we have won based, in part, on our leadership in sustainability. I have pitched STEP on many occasions and seen the “aha moment” in peoples’ eyes as they understand the imminent logic of having not only a sustainable core building, but also that same sustainability mindset applied to the technology coursing throughout their building. It’s just an obvious follow through that aligns with what many clients are already doing in terms of their building programs.
However, we also have been living through four years of a pretty tough economy in the construction industry, and while our industry has fared better than most, our partners in the architectural and construction community have not been having a lot of fun. Thus, fees have been reduced all throughout the design and construction process, and “sustainability” has morphed into a gallows-humor term about simply staying in business another year as opposed to doing something good for future generations.
We also live in an era, I believe, of post-recession, green-rating-system fatigue. LEED doesn’t have the luster it had a few years ago. In many architecture firms it’s almost become a commodity. I’ve heard several architects say that LEED has become so second nature to them that it’s hard for them to not deliver a LEED-Silver building anymore. Their specs are just set up that way. I’ve also been in more and more project kickoff meetings where owners say they want the design team to follow LEED principles, but they (the owner) will not be paying tens of thousands of dollars just to get a pretty LEED plaque for the lobby of their building. It is against this backdrop that we are trying to introduce these same owners to STEP.
However, there are also some clients who want to push way beyond LEED. They are ready for something more. They want a smart, sustainable building, and some even want to go net-zero if they can only find the partners who can take them there.
We seem to be at a crossroad of sorts.
Over the past five and half years I’ve written 41 articles—more than 44,000 words—on this little topic of green AV. That’s almost the length of an average non-fiction book. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
Back in the summer of 2007 when I wrote my first article, everything about sustainability was new—at least to our industry. We were busy learning strange acronyms like VOC (volatile organic compounds) and RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances); new terms like heat-island effect, load shedding and carbon credits; and exploring new associations like the U.S. Green Building Council to see if this was a place to learn and network with like-minded people.
The modern environmental movement, which had begun in earnest with the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962 and had grown in the 1970s with cultural signposts like the No Nukes concert, the beginning of the annual Earth Day celebrations and the ubiquitous Keep America Beautiful commercials with the iconic image if a crying Iron Eyes Cody, came into sharp relief in 2006 with the release of “An Inconvenient Truth.” This film, combined with reading “Cradle to Cradle,” is what made environmental awareness jump from like 50th on my list of things I thought and cared about to somewhere up in my top 10 list. It changed me, both personally and professionally. The cars my wife and I drove in 2006 averaged under 20 miles per gallon. Today, my family owns only hybrids that average well over 40 miles per gallon. My company, which had nothing to say about sustainability prior to 2007, is now winning business because we are known for our thought leadership on this issue. And along the way I have had the pleasure of building relationships with people who inspire me with their passion for this topic.
However, the questions still remain: How big of a market is there for sustainable technology and how much will people be willing to pay for it? How can we best make the ROI argument to justify the cost, or is that the wrong paradigm altogether?
Perhaps we should focus on the real special sauce we bring to the party: making a building smart and the owners who occupy it even smarter. Think about a smart phone or a smart car. If you’ve bought new car recently, did you create an ROI spreadsheet on what the Bluetooth, navigation, rear-view camera, etc, payback period was, or did you just say, “I want a car that has all that smart stuff in it. It will make me more efficient and safer in my travels.” The same goes for a smart phone. I’m starting to think we need to pivot our pitch toward the benefits of smart without losing sight of the positive aspects of sustainability.
So that’s what I intend to do, and with that declaration I have a little announcement to make: This will be my last monthly EcoSystems article. While it has been a great joy to be able to express myself each month in this column, I want to spend some time with my head down figuring out where this movement is going and see what I can learn. I hope to pop up a few times a year with updates on that quest, but I will be handing over this column space to my good buddy, Raymond Kent, one of this year’s recipients of the InfoComm Green AV Award. You guys are in good hands with Ray. We all have lots to learn from him. And Midori, keep marching on, sister. I’m rooting for you.
Before I close I have three thank yous: First and foremost, I want to thank Gary Kayye for this opportunity. I had only two conditions when Gary asked me to write for rAVe: I wanted to be able to say whatever I wanted to say, and I essentially wanted to be left alone and remain an independent voice in this cause. Gary, to his credit, gave me the freedom to say everything I wanted to say and allowed me to keep my voice independent in these columns. To Gary, Sara and everyone at rAVe, I appreciate you keeping your word and working with me for the past two and half years, even as I pushed my deadlines to the bitter end each month.
Second, I have to thank my faithful editor and monthly nag, Julie Benz. Julie, it’s been a wonderful ride trying to write an article each month that you would find better than the last one. You were always my target audience, and if I could make you laugh or inspire you, then I knew I had something. And thank you for teaching me grammar all along the way. You make it look like I was paying attention in college English class.
Lastly, I want to thank all the readers and friends out there who have inspired me over these past years. For all of you who forwarded one of my articles to your associates, tweeted about my column, or simply sent me a nice email, I greatly appreciate it. It can be a lonely place sitting in front of a flashing cursor every month wondering if I really had anything to say, but you guys kept me going when I doubted myself.
Always be closing. Walker out. (Drops mic.)
Scott Walker, CTS-D, LEED® AP, is president and CEO of Waveguide Consulting, a leading AV, IT and acoustical consulting firm. He is also a past president of InfoComm International. Scott is recognized as being one of the primary forces behind the founding of the Sustainable Technology Environments Program (STEP) rating system and currently is a member of the STEP Foundation board, which is responsible for managing the STEP program. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org