Healthcare Sustainability in Technicolor

Posted on September 10, 2013


“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

This statement is recognizable to many as a Henry Ford quote describing the options around his Model T, introduced in 1909.  Its creative framing of a lack of choice was a relevant analog for sustainable design programs in healthcare.

At the American Society of Healthcare Engineers (ASHE) Annual Conference last month, I noticed a subtle change in discussions about sustainability in healthcare.

In the past, sustainable design for healthcare was very black-and-white:  clients went through the USGBC for their project, or nothing green happened.  Federal building requirements helped drive demand for LEED certification.

However, most health systems approached LEED a little more slowly or cautiously, even after LEED for Healthcare was developed (which attempted to work with the existing Green Guide for Healthcare, to be more comprehensive and industry-relevant).  In my experience, the majority of healthcare systems want the benefits of green design without the administrative headaches (costs, documentation requirements) associated with a formal LEED investment.  The premium may be insignificant-to-nil today as a project percentage, but legacy costs can be hard to adjust in the memories of building owners.

What ASHE shed light on is the relevance of diversity in the sustainability arena:  other green models are now in play, even in healthcare.  Former fringe design approaches like Green Globes, IgCC, Passivhaus, Living Building Challenge, and net zero are more recognized and intriguing to owners.

Your integrated A/E/C team will be prepared to deliver healthcare projects to whatever standards hospitals demand, yet formal certification—in whatever structured program—will clearly be a mission-driven effort from the health system.  Shoving ‘green’ down a client’s throat has never worked well, regardless of argument validity.  Likewise, going green to check a box and keep up with the Joneses rings hollow as well.

The healthcare sustainability world is not a black-and-white, LEED-or-bust place anymore.  Hospitals can be a little more strategic in their pursuit of sustainability.

It is refreshing to see the ‘me, too’ aspect of sustainability go away because it signifies a more mature, critical approach to sustainability.  Hospital leadership now has the freedom to think about what they want to achieve through sustainability, consider the scope and dedication they are willing to commit, and then pick the approach most appropriate.  For some that means sitting out (at least until a better sustainability program is hatched) and being comfortable enough to do so.