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How to plan and execute your next sustainable building design

Leveraging a sustainability charrette in early building sustainability planning maximizes the opportunities to conserve resources, enhance resiliency, and reduce operating costs while being mindful of the project’s overall timeline and budget.

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Biopharma and F&B manufacturers are taking concrete action to positively impact our planet and the health and well-being of those on it. Across these industries, manufacturers are reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, using water more efficiently, and developing facilities with the employee’s wellness in mind. In addition to satisfying corporate sustainability goals and shareholder demand, implementing sustainable strategies makes good business sense.

But how do you develop a sustainable manufacturing facility in an energy and resource-heavy plant with unique FDA requirements? The key is in your early-stage planning. A good way of ensuring the primacy of sustainability within your future manufacturing facility is to convene a sustainability charrette during a project’s early design phases. This collaborative process brings key stakeholders together to align on the project’s priorities and to budget for, clearly communicate, and develop a realistic path to meet sustainability goals.

How does sustainability impact your building’s design?

Sustainable design goals can influence every aspect of your facility’s development, from site selection and utility requirements to air change rates and the final coat of paint selected. This is especially true if you aim for ambitious sustainability goals, like saving millions of gallons of water per year, developing a net-zero carbon facility, or achieving LEED Gold.

Early-stage alignment opens the door to big-picture decisions that can make the biggest impact, from the building’s structure to the basis of utility generation, such as reducing natural gas and water by switching from a distillation-based water-for-injection (WFI) system to one that uses ambient WFI and membrane filtration or by installing onsite renewable energy. Your project may also look to the building’s architecture and interior design to incorporate WELL building concepts, such as amenity spaces that connect employees with nature or promote the use of stairs. Including these concepts at the start means they are incorporated into the budget and timeline of the project’s baseline scope, avoiding rework or missed opportunities down the road.

Benefits of a sustainability charrette and creating a project-specific sustainability plan

A successful sustainable building design does not just happen—it takes foresight, planning, and collaboration. At CRB, this begins with a sustainability charrette.

What is a charrette?

A charrette is an interactive workshop with key stakeholders that involves designing and planning a new or retrofitted building. It is a conversation between the project owners, their architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) partners, and trade partners. The charrette occurs at the beginning of an architectural or engineering project; the earlier it occurs, the more effective it will be.

What is a sustainability charrette?

A sustainability charrette is a collaborative identification of the project’s sustainability goals and exploration of what is necessary to meet them. This includes a review of local, industry, and policy trends, established corporate sustainability goals and guides, regional priorities and project-specific scope to inform the priorities and metrics appropriate to the project. The charrette can reinforce sustainability at subsequent stages of design, construction, and operation, including future expansion or retrofits. Our sustainability charrette process was developed by CRB’s Energy and Sustainability Fellow, Jeff Wegner, as a necessary first step to planning a sustainable building’s design.

Your building’s early-stage sustainability planning is critical to:

  • Align the project with corporate sustainability goals
  • Adhere to local environmental and GHG regulations
  • Ideate solutions to reduce GHG emissions, water, and waste
  • Set stakeholder expectations
  • Meet budget and timeline while achieving ambitious sustainability goals

Who should be involved in creating the building’s sustainability plan?

Having expertise from all areas of the project will broaden the discussion to ensure concerns are voiced, needs are met, rippling impacts are identified, and opportunities are captured. Key stakeholders in sustainability planning should always include representatives of the executive team since they will have insight into high-level initiatives and influence the project’s overarching direction. The conversation must also include project managers, facility and utility owners, and core engineering and architectural teams. Optional participants include people from maintenance, quality, or equipment suppliers.

Table heading for stakeholders to involve Table heading for stakeholders to involve




  • Executive sponsor
  • Site leadership
  • Project manager
  • Procurement
  • Construction
  • Facilities maintenance
  • Automation/IT
  • Quality
Sustainability design partner:

  • Project sponsor
  • Project director
  • Design & construction PMs
  • Sustainability specialists
  • Key design leads
  • Key technical leads
  • Equipment suppliers
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The structure of the charrette fosters a team atmosphere, ensuring it’s the project team as a whole indicating how to meet the project’s sustainability goals. It also serves to integrate the entire project team—project owners, AEC partners, and trade partners—to outline the ‘whys’ of the project and reach agreement on the drivers. The entire team gets the opportunity to contribute and take ownership of meeting goals.

How to conduct a sustainability charrette: 5 steps to planning your sustainable building design

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Step 1. Set the tone

At CRB, we follow a template with topics, questions, and open dialog to guide the charrette process. It allows the team to see the global, regional, local and corporate sustainability goals and factors influencing their project. The group of stakeholders is encouraged to engage and think collectively about the importance of sustainability to the project, community, and to your organization.

The process begins by defining key sustainability terms to ensure everyone has the same baseline of understanding. What is sustainability? And what are net zero carbon emissions?

We discuss industry trends, including carbon pricing and the move toward carbon neutrality and carbon zero; renewable energy standards and options for onsite renewable energy use; and potential onsite energy storage for resiliency. If a site is already selected, we may also look to that region’s natural resource sensitivities.

Carbon neutral vs. net-zero carbon: sustainability definitions, goals and building certifications

These are groupings of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions based on their source:

  • Scope 1 emissions: Carbon emissions a company has direct control over, which include facility emissions from onsite combustion (e.g., natural gas) and fugitive emissions from GHG leaks (e.g., refrigerants, fire suppression).
  • Scope 2 emissions: GHG emissions from the offsite production of purchased energy (e.g., electricity, heating, cooling).
  • Scope 3 emissions: Carbon emissions from the offsite production of supplies (e.g., construction materials, business travel, employee commuting) or services used in buildings. This is the most difficult to identify and often excluded from current reporting standards.

Annual carbon emissions (Scope 1 and 2) are equal to purchased carbon offsets and/or energy attribute credits. Companies are using power purchase agreements (PPAs) to achieve carbon neutrality.

The carbon emissions associated with building construction materials (typically excludes MEP equipment).

Zero carbon emissions (scope 1 and 2), without offsets.

Net-zero carbon, water neutral, and zero-waste.

Annual onsite water captured and reused (e.g., rainwater, AHU condensate) is equal to potable water consumed.

Diverting all solid waste from landfill or incinerators through reducing, reusing, and recycling.

Certifications demonstrate a commitment to healthy, energy-efficient green buildings. There are multiple tiers of LEED building certifications.

Fitwel certification promotes health and well-being in building design and construction.

WELL ratings and certification are used to design in ways that prioritize health and safety of those who use a building.

Additional sustainability definitions and goals can be found in our guide to building sustainability planning pdf.

green icon for global sustainability

Step 2. Identify and prioritize sustainability goals

The group collectively assesses the importance of natural resources as the foundation of your building’s sustainability goals. At times, industry-standard building certifications (e.g., LEED or WELL) may guide the conversation.

Stakeholders assess sustainability priorities and resources such as:

  • Building certifications
  • Carbon emissions
  • Energy resiliency
  • Water use
  • Waste reduction
  • Health and wellness
  • Refrigerant use

Discussing sustainability priorities can lead to unexpected results. For one project without any overarching corporate goals, participants were surprised to realize that reducing carbon emissions was the top priority of the entire project team. This led to a discussion of how far to reduce emissions; there was clear agreement that they wanted to achieve carbon zero.

Goal prioritization has the added benefit of resolving conflicting design strategies, pitting, for example, carbon emissions against water use. The team can reference the list of priorities set by the stakeholders and more easily reach a consensus based on what they collectively agreed was most important to the project.

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Step 3. Consider project-specific factors

Each project is uniquely guided by your company’s sustainability goals, industry best practices, and challenges and opportunities specific to your project.

Design guides and best practices

We assess your company’s design guidelines, general construction practices, and corporate sustainability goals. The local project teams may already be aware of global company guidelines that can significantly impact the project design. For example, it’s common for larger companies to have existing design guides that mandate a certain percentage of renewable energy, greywater reuse, or criteria for using natural refrigerants. Expectations for external certifications, such as LEED or WELL, may also affect the project.

Project-specific challenges

Since every project—regardless of location or scope—has limitations, it’s important to identify these as early as possible to allow for more efficient decision-making and design. Specialized sectors, like biopharma and food and beverage manufacturing, possess unique design challenges. These can include:

  • Less flexibility in terms of what materials can be used, including the use of sustainable materials (e.g., renewable, natural, organic), which needs to be balanced with the increased risk of microbial contamination and GMP/GLP integrity
  • Cleanliness requirements sometimes necessitate the use of so-called ‘red list’ materials and those containing VOCs or high-embodied carbon
  • Excessive energy and water use may prompt additional considerations for steam-based systems

Project-specific opportunities

Including all project owners, AEC stakeholders, and key trade partners in the goal-setting and early discussion allows multi-disciplinary identification of integrative strategies. Ideation sessions spur innovative thinking and early planning to incorporate synergies between teams. This process enables multiple goals at minimal cost compared to projects that attempt to incorporate sustainability during later design and construction phases. Concepts may include:

  • Onsite renewable energy, allowing grid resiliency and carbon reduction
  • Passive ventilation to improve health and wellness while reducing energy costs
  • Programmatic planning to enable flexibility with in-person work to encourage health and wellness while reducing footprint and required energy costs
  • Water reclamation from purified water generation systems to offset potable water used for non-potable needs
  • Green walls that encourage higher air quality and contribute to biodiversity gains
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Step 4. Define and agree upon expectations

Once priorities are established, the team can start to make strategic sustainable design decisions. Expectations can then be set and agreed upon—here at CRB, we call those expectations our conditions of satisfaction. Many of the sustainability-specific conditions of satisfaction will overlap with those in the project charter. Conditions of satisfaction for sustainability may include:

  • Budget
  • Scheduling
  • Building (LEED or WELL) certifications
  • Zero carbon considerations
  • Renewable energy
  • Electric grid independence
  • Potable water targets
  • Construction waste diversion rate
  • Embodied carbon targets
  • Biodiversity needs

Including conditions of satisfaction with a hierarchy of priorities provides a common destination for the entire cross-discipline team to work toward. Each team can then leverage its technical expertise to incorporate the right equipment, systems, and materials to meet the project’s sustainability goal.

icon - planning for goals

Step 5. Consider future sustainability goals

It’s important to identify additional goals, whether they be lofty corporate sustainability goals or just beyond the scope of the current project. These long-term or big-picture plans may suggest a need for utility or energy master planning to align future goals with the current project’s infrastructure. For example, if you want your building to achieve carbon zero by 2030, you may need to run conduit and allocate switchgear space for future photovoltaic (PV) panels. In the case of a renovation, the next step may include equipment and utility data collection.

Early sustainability planning promotes this forward-thinking problem-solving and proactive cost-savings to meet near-term facility goals and long-term corporate goals.

simplified green building project timeline simplified green building project timeline

When is the best time to start planning for a sustainable building’s design?

At CRB, we like to address client corporate sustainability goals as early as possible. Ideally, the sustainability charrette occurs prior to site selection or the completion of a feasibility study. This allows project owners and their partners to align the goals in the most beneficial way.

Even when the makeup of the project team is in flux or there’s a lack of time or scope before the proposal starts, it is valuable to include an evaluation of sustainability within the proposal phase, even if it has to be on a smaller scale than a full charrette.

When introduced late in the project timeline, sustainability efforts may be seen as a cost or schedule adder. Even worse, if the conversation begins at the construction phase, you may discover that the certifications or desired standards are far more difficult or expensive to attain.

Do all new construction projects need a sustainability analysis?

If the project is beyond just equipment procurement or involves more than one space, the project will benefit from a sustainability charrette. Any large construction, renovation, or project with a multi-disciplinary design scope should incorporate a sustainability charrette as soon as possible.

Retrofits also benefit from sustainability charrettes

Retrofitting an existing building is almost always beneficial to meeting sustainability goals, as it minimizes new land development, reuses existing infrastructure, and reduces waste and the use of new materials. A sustainability charrette identifies the goals for the facility, the existing building, and the key stakeholders before jumping into the project. This provides an idea of how development will impact the existing infrastructure so the team can begin to establish a roadmap toward future sustainability targets.

Constraints around utilities and infrastructure during a retrofit can impact goals. As such, getting to carbon neutral on day one of operations may be difficult. Understanding the baseline use of existing utilities and when and how those are going to be phased out allows a plan to be developed for the next few years. As equipment is replaced, the facility’s sustainability goals can be achieved.

Choose experts in sustainability planning

Getting your sustainability goals right from the outset goes a long way to reducing cost, smoothing the path to market, and meeting corporate goals. Download our sustainability charrette template to get started or integrate sustainability planning into our project charter phase allows us to work with you to bring creative and innovative solutions to your projects.

Ready to achieve your building’s sustainability goals? Let’s talk.

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