by Melissa Marsh
The Professional Practice series “Transforming Architectural Practice” presented the second of five lectures on 03.31.14, addressing the topics of transparency, engagement and sustainability through a discussion of B Corps. Put simply, “B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk,” or, in architecture, what Living Building Challenge certification is to the built world. B Corps are certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
Sophie Faris, who leads Community Development at B Labs, the nonprofit organization that certifies B Corps, began with an explanation of B Corp and Benefit Corporations. Benefit Corporations are the legal designation recognized by an increasing number of states, the structure and bylaws of which enable social and environmentally responsible decision-making by officers of a company. Faris also shared a recent video that demonstrates the emerging importance of being a socially and environmentally responsible organization.
To further demonstrate the power of both being a B Corp and pursuing the self-assessment process, Faris presented several compelling examples, including the Yonkers-based bakery Grayston, which is the primary supplier of brownies to Ben & Jerry’s. The list of prominent New York area B Corps includes Warby Parker, Honest Buildings, and Cooperative Home Care Associates. Each one demonstrates the powerful relationship between a business ethos and overall success. Many business leaders explain that becoming a B Corp made their business better. You can review your own organization at B Impact Assessment.
To further illustrate these points, Franz Wisner, founder of Story-Driven Ink, told the story of EcoLogic, a Brooklyn-based sustainable cleaning products company founded by Anselm Doering. Beyond the amazing products and technology that came from the simple desire to not continue doing things in the same old destructive way; there is also a wide range of committed customers with shared values – from Whole Foods to Chipotle. Wisner also described the way in which the sustainable commitment touches everything the organization does, including standing out from the crowd at trade shows with a movable green wall that goes to conferences then returns to the office.
Tying the pieces together, from sustainable business models to real client stories, was Jennifer Preston, sustainable design director at BKSK Architecture. She began with an overview of the Living Building Challenge, which she sees as the built-world corollary to B Corps.
Preston thoughtfully combined the story of her own arrival at BKSK Architects with the firm’s evolution as a design consultancy to demonstrate the ways that a program with such a deep sustainability commitment can be both informative and transformative. Preston confessed to some accidental interventions, one of which included worms escaping from an office composting project.
Some key take-aways from Preston’s honest, amusing, and memorable explanation of her leadership journey included:
1. Enough with the (vendor-led) lunch and learns – good food and mediocre information is not a good deal. BKSK began by initiating several teaching models, from Materials Mondays to Transparency Thursdays, when staff researches a topic and shares it with peers.
2. To get it done right, do it yourself. Between frustration with absence-of or conflicting information, BKSK has been giving specifications research an internal focus. It is close to assembling enough information to create a sharable database on a number of topics.
3. Walking the talk is more than transparent, it is transformative. Preston saw real engagement by staff, who came from research, practicing living building features in the office and getting hands on experience. After these experiences, young team members were both more involved and more confident speaking with clients about their approach.
Where organizations often struggle with a change leader, it seems that Preston has been a catalyst for both sustainability services and a committed learning culture within her organization.
During the Q&A, several comments focused on ways to move away from the perceptions that you need to have spare (financial) resources in order to consider these kinds of programs – or do the right thing. In fact, more and more often we see the socially and environmentally sustainable solution also being the best long-term financial solution. The panelists made the point in both their words and their work.
Melissa Marsh is founder and CEO of Plastarc, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm serving tenants, owner-occupiers and collaborating with architecture and design firms. Plastarc is a portmanteau of Plastic and Architecture representing a focus on engaging architecture to be more flexible, dynamic and fun through social research and analytics. Melissa is a regular contributor to e-Oculus, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Event: Transforming Architectural Practice Series: B Corp: Transparency, Engagement, Sustainability
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.31.2014
Speakers: Sophie Faris, Community Development, B Labs; Franz Wisner, Founder, Story-Driven Ink; Jennifer Preston, LEED AP BD+C Associate, Sustainable Design Director, BKSK Architecture; and Melissa Marsh, Founder and CEO, Plastarc (moderator)
Organizers: AIANY Chapter Professional Practice Committee and AIANY Committee on the Environment (COTE)