Certifications raise the bar for sustainable building

Henning Larsen Architects works systematically with certification requirements when designing buildings which need a sustainable seal of approval.

Read the interview with the architect Martha Lewis, who is the firm’s Head of Materials. She explains what’s required when working with certifications – and what the firm gains by doing so.

Building certifications such as DGNB, LEED, BREEAM, Sweden Green Building Council and WELL make it so much easier to develop sustainable buildings that stand out. The certifications are therefore a huge bonus for the people who will be using the buildings, for the environment and for all the various stakeholders, according to Martha Lewis, architect and Head of Materials at Henning Larsen Architects:

“Many people in the construction industry are beginning to realise that we need to build more sustainably. And the building certifications are a fantastic opportunity to take concrete action. They promote carbon savings, increase transparency and traceability, and they reduce the use of hazardous substances,” she says, adding:

“As architects, we get the chance to create buildings or neighbourhoods that will provide optimum environments for the people who will be using them, because as part of a certification we have to consider a number of parameters very closely. This can be everything from access to details such as grouting materials that don’t release harmful substances. The certification of buildings involves a broad focus on all manner of sustainable measures.”

Positive for design and function

Martha Lewis is a DGNB auditor, a WELL Accredited Professional (WELL AP) and a LEED Green Associate. Her desk is therefore piled high with projects which developers want to have certified under a specific sustainable certification scheme or other – possibly even at a specific level.

“With such projects, the bar is set considerably higher from the outset than for buildings which are not going to be certified. There’s no opting out of particular solutions or getting away with less, for example because the original ideas are too costly. The work simply has to be done. This is very positive for the design and function of the building, for the choice of materials, and for the documentation and knowledge about the building which the developer can bring to the operational phase,” explains Martha Lewis.

As a natural consequence of the very thorough process, she finds that it is important to decide on a realistic time-frame and make a reasonable agreement with the developer. Projects also have to be financially sustainable for the architect.

“We need to negotiate a reasonable fee, because there’s no denying that the whole process is more time-consuming when a building has to be certified. Additional time is needed for surveys, selecting the right materials and for preparing environmental and economic life-cycle analyses. In general, we have to look at things in greater depth than when we’re working with buildings which aren’t going to be certified. We need to produce more documentation, take more photos and write more reports,” says Martha Lewis.

Honest manufacturers save architects time

She mentions that it is a big plus in the documentation process if the manufacturers of building materials make detailed product information available. This might, for example, take the form of environmental product declarations and content declarations.

“It makes choosing the right materials much easier if suppliers make a point of ensuring full transparency – even if they’re saying that they don’t quite comply with a certain recommendation. Transparency is a keyword within sustainable building. It makes life much easier for us as consultants, but it’s also important for developers, so they know what their buildings are made of,” says Martha Lewis.

She recalls a project which involved designing a new building for the civic service in Minneapolis, USA. The new building needed to be LEED-certified, and Martha Lewis’s Danish team was therefore working with local architects to find the right products for the building.

“We had to choose products which supported the architectural concept, but which also met the LEED criteria. And we had to offer three possible options for each product, because the project had to meet public procurement criteria. The LEED criteria are very strict when it comes to product information, transparency and traceability, so we obviously found ourselves selecting manufacturers which published easily accessible documentation packages. Otherwise, our fees simply wouldn’t have covered our time,” says Martha Lewis. 

Sustainability is broadly anchored

Martha Lewis’s CV also lists Middelfart Town Hall, which was the first building in Denmark to be DGNB-certified at platinum level, in addition to which it received diamond certification for its outstanding architectural qualities and functionality. As with most other projects, the task of constructing the building was a protracted process, where Martha Lewis used DGNB as a management tool. 

“It’s important for us to have in-depth knowledge about the certification scheme we’re working with. I need to know exactly when in the process I need to address the various criteria. The volumes of information involved are staggering, so it takes good process management and overview to know when is the best time for the building technicians, project planners, architects or designers to be given the necessary information. I see my role as that of a translator, who makes the criteria understandable for the rest of the team,” explains Martha Lewis, adding:

“That said, we try to let responsibility for the sustainability in our projects trickle down through the whole organisation. Knowledge should not reside with individuals, and at Henning Larsen Architects there is now a large bunch of standard-bearers who are very familiar with the certification work. Fortunately, we can see that demand for sustainability in building projects is growing steadily,” she adds.

>> Read about Troldtekt’s documentation for the leading certification schemes

Martha Lewis, architect and Head of Materials at Henning Larsen Architects.