What Is a Sustainability Consultant and Do I Need One?

By Jessyca Henderson, Esq., AIA, CSI, NOMA

March 18, 2022

If you’re considering a sustainable building project or have serious plans to improve your business’ overall environmental footprint, you might be considering whether to call upon a specialized consultant to assist you in your endeavors.

Broadly defined, a sustainability consultant is a professional who provides advice and assistance in setting and meeting project or corporate goals related to environmental impacts. What a sustainability consultant does depends very much on the context in which they are performing services, but as a general matter, their duties will fall into two areas: corporate responsibility and sustainable projects.

Corporate Responsibility

A sustainability consultant can assist with identifying and meeting broad corporate environmental objectives.   This might include identifying goals for recycling waste, reducing energy and water consumption, avoiding or offsetting travel-related carbon emissions, among others. Corporate responsibility programs are rapidly evolving, and sustainability consultants assist businesses with meeting the increased demand for their design and application.

Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) programs are gaining in popularity among entities that aim to demonstrate their dedication to environmental protection, social justice and transparency, but may also soon be required by law. In 2021, The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began exploring a mandatory ESG framework.

Voluntary corporate certification programs like B Corp, managed by B Lab, a nonprofit network, are highly selective. B Corp status is difficult to achieve, requiring “verified performance, accountability, and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials” according to B Lab’s website. Applicants must submit to ongoing review and make a legal commitment by modifying their corporate structure to ensure accountability.

Sustainable Projects

At the project level, sustainability consultants may manage an application for LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), WELL, or other rating system certifications. Specialized consultants may join forces with traditional design team members to deliver sustainable and high-performance projects. Their areas of expertise may include energy, envelope design, materials, health and wellness, among others.

A sustainability consultant will often also be an architect or engineer or have another related professional license or degree focusing specifically on sustainable design, building science, or energy.

You may find that full-service commercial architecture firms have a global or national head of sustainability who manages the implementation of firm-wide sustainable design practices. This trend, especially over the past two decades, tracks with the increase in complexity and depth of knowledge required to deliver buildings that not only save energy and water but strive to improve communities, restore ecosystems, and improve the health and wellness of their end-users.

Owners should look for above-entry-level credentials in evaluating sustainability consultants. For example, while LEED Green Associate is a basic credential demonstrating knowledge of broad principles, a more advanced credential with a specialty such as LEED-BD+C with (Building Design and Construction) denote a professional with project expertise and/or experience.   The CPHC (Certified Passive House Consultant) credential offered by PHIUS (Passive House Institute US) is achieved following a training program in building science and sustainable design principles, and typically requires a prior degree in architecture or engineering. Consultants practicing in this area work alongside design teams to deliver ultra-tight, energy efficient buildings to achieve PHIUS+ certification.

Credentials don’t tell the whole story, however, and owners should pay particular attention to a consultant’s actual experience with projects. A competent and experienced consultant will be able to walk you through the environmental issues on a project and explain the challenges and opportunities inherent to setting and achieving realistic sustainability-related goals.

No matter what your needs might be — a single project, management of a real estate portfolio, compliance with state or federal environmental measures, or anything in between, an experienced sustainability consultant can assist you in mapping out the right steps for success. As with any business endeavor, consultants can work on a project basis, in a longer-term arrangement, or even in-house, especially when environmental goals are part of the corporate identity.

If you are contemplating having a sustainability consultant join your project team, consider AIA Document C204™–2020, Standard Form of Consultant’s Services: Sustainable Project Services, which may be seamlessly attached to another agreement, such as C103™-2015 Standard Form of Agreement between Owner and Consultant.

Jessyca Henderson is an attorney and architect based in Maryland, providing legal services and consulting to design professionals, corporations and government related to sustainable design, building science, and environment. www.jlhlawoffice.com

AIA Contract Documents has provided this article for general informational purposes only. The information provided is not legal opinion or legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship of any kind. This article is also not intended to provide guidance as to how project parties should interpret their specific contracts or resolve contract disputes, as those decisions will need to be made in consultation with legal counsel, insurance counsel, and other professionals, and based upon a multitude of factors.