HKS Research Accelerator Program Explores How Advancing ESG in Design Adds Client Value
We’re no longer interested in the simple exercise of acknowledging problems. We’re taking action. We’re moving beyond mere awareness by driving progress, alongside our clients, by enriching interactions and promoting environmental, social, and governance (ESG) measures. We’ve joined the United Nations Global Compact, embracing Sustainable Development Goals under the world’s shared plan to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet by 2030. But we also have ongoing research to support the bleeding-edge innovation on how to get there.
HKS supports multiple paths to innovation through research. We offer our talent opportunities to learn and grow by instilling research and providing opportunities to explore, investigate, and evaluate. The Incubator track emphasizes the development of research capabilities, expanding our firm’s knowledge and exploring novel concepts, ultimately enhancing our innovation potential. Building upon incubated work, the Accelerator track aims to generate applicable research and insights, transforming this innovation potential into practical integration and impact for our projects and practices.
Each year we encourage diverse, inquisitive teams to think, synthesize and translate insights into impact, with a focus on new design ideas. Over the past three years, the Incubator/Accelerator research program has supported 29 projects, including 150 HKS employees from various regions. Our firm is differentiated by the scope and breadth of our evidence-based practice areas. And while we aren’t the only AED firm to support research grants, the projects we support are designed to create tools and methods that make an actionable difference in design.
Here we’ll focus on our 2022 accelerator projects which are exemplary in showing how ESG is foundational in design. The research questions and methodologies of each project varied greatly, including how to engage with diverse stakeholders and cultivate a sense of belonging, how to improve energy savings and align carbon impacts with client goals, and what to consider in mitigating climate risks and developing a framework for materials transparency. Over the last year of research, here are three key pathways that transcend each effort.
Key Pathways #1: Sustainable practices find cost savings through best practices.
From a bird-eye perspective, the construction and design industry contributes 30% of total global waste and 38% of global carbon dioxide. However, by adopting sustainable construction practices, building operations , and optimizing material selection and transportation, the industry can not only reduce waste and carbon dioxide emissions but also achieve substantial cost savings.
Construction methods vary based on location, affecting both the materials used and their transportation distances. The architecture and engineering (A/E) industry must adapt to the global shift towards carbon neutrality by designing and maintaining carbon-neutral buildings that align with client goals. To achieve this, Miguel Lopez and his team provided design teams with low-embodied-carbon material recommendations and engaged in project-specific building systems and assemblies during the early stages of design. Their assessment tool allows teams to work proactively during the design process to identify and implement carbon reduction strategies and effectively reduce embodied carbon footprints with cost savings in mind.
Adaptive reuse stands out as the most cost-effective approach to sustainable building construction, primarily because it allows for the repurposing of existing structures. This method minimizes the requirement for new materials and reduces construction expenses. By adopting principles of the circular economy, Lisa Adams suggests solutions that are not only sustainable but cost effective. Her team collected data on material usage and sustainable upgrades, utilizing Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), which when applied to design, informs decision-making and more efficient resource allocation.
By creatively transforming and retrofitting buildings, adaptive reuse preserves the embodied energy within the existing structure, minimizes waste, and conserves resources. Compared to constructing entirely new buildings, this sustainable practice not only benefits the environment but also generates substantial cost savings for project developers and owners.
Adams’ team developed five key strategies to adopt in the design process—prioritizing adaptive reuse, specifying carbon sinks, designing for reuse, eliminating waste, and carefully selecting materials —to not only reduce embodied carbon but also create cost-saving opportunities and long-term value for clients.—to not only reduce embodied carbon but also create cost-saving opportunities and long-term value for clients.
Amber Wirth led a team that met with experts on MEP systems, collaborating closely to assess data related to various façade strategies employed to optimize greenhouse gas emissions reductions for all-electric buildings. The team delivered strategies that focused on financial benefits by optimizing window-to-wall ratios, improving insulation, using high-performance glazing, designing with solar panels, and combining these elements in an all-electric approach. Leveraging software that assesses the triple bottom line of these design strategies, the team quantified and attributed dollar values to their projects’ social and environmental impacts, a crucial step for clients in their decision-making process.
Key Pathways #2: Client engagements are enriched by research that address equity and sustainability.
Sammy Shams and his team applied the Resilience Design Toolkit that was developed in partnership with the AIA during the Incubator program for designing more resilient buildings that reduce risk from climate change. The team studied the project work data of a large hospitality client in Marco Island, Florida, involving a renovation and expansion. Despite the area’s risk of 30-foot storm surges, site visits and design workshops helped the team comprehend and implement resilient design solutions to reduce risks and further refine the toolkit.
Building on our expertise in health design, Hannah Schultz and team created a design validation tool that combines evidence-based design and Safety Risk Assessments (SRA) to enhance existing processes. The tool aligns with client goals and selects suitable design options. When applied to mental and behavioral health projects, it will establish benchmarks, enable data-driven improvements, and leverage an evidence-based approach.
In pursuit of a more inclusive approach to design, Renae Mantooth’s team developed a guide focusing on equity in design, inspiring HKS collaborations for more equitable industry standards. The guide contains activities for project teams, stakeholder engagement, and analysis protocols, all contributing to HKS’ commitment to inclusive and equitable design.
Key Pathways #3: across all industries, incorporating ESG throughout the design process is crucial for achieving the greatest impact.
ESG goals transcend the design process, and by embracing them, design solutions strengthen partnerships with clients, ensuring their needs are considered within the context of industry trends and conversations.
Over $40 trillion in global assets under management (AUM) followed ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) criteria, demonstrating a substantial rise in sustainable investment approaches in recent years. This figure underscores the increasing significance of ESG factors in business and investment choices. The topics we’ve addressed through last years’ Accelerators projects—from energy savings, carbon impact alignment, climate risk mitigation, and material transparency to inclusive design for health and well-being—seek to strengthen client partnerships and emphasizes equitable, client-centric projects. These projects contribute to greater social goals by promoting sustainable practices, reducing environmental impact, and fostering healthier spaces.
HKS Guide for Centering Equity in the Design Process
Design + Safety Risk Assessment Tool Interface Development
Resilience Design Feedback Loop Implementation
Designing Interiors for a Circular Economy
Embodied Carbon Case Study
Lopez, Miguel Angel
Building Decarbonization through Electrification & Envelope Thermal Performance