Integrating Sustainability into Every Phase: A Conversation with Eric Corey Freed

by | May 17, 2023

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Eric Freed C-Suite

Eric Corey Freed, the Director of Sustainability discusses CannonDesign‘s approach to sustainability, which is integrated into every phase of their projects and includes internal targets for achieving net-zero and reducing embodied carbon. He also discuss the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion and creating a collaborative work environment. Touching on the company’s ESG goals and initiatives, the benefits of establishing a corporate ESG strategy, and how to ensure transparency with stakeholders. 

What trends can we expect to see over the next 5-10 years? 

Define your leadership style 

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

How would you describe the climate and culture where you work?

Innovative, electric, eclectic

Define Sustainability in your own words. How does your definition of sustainability relate to the organization’s overall goals, values, and mission? 

This has evolved after 30+ years in sustainability, but currently, it’s about switching people from a Fixed Mindset, over to a Growth Mindset to see the abundance that a sustainability approach provides. Guilt has never been a great motivator, especially when it comes to how people live.

For example, we can achieve the following outcomes in our projects through sustainability:

  • Reduced Absenteeism (through the use of fresh air)
  • Higher Productivity (through the selection of healthy finishes)
  • Boost in Cognitive Performance (by designing an approach to daylight & views)
  • Higher Valuations (through certification & process)
  • Talent Retention (through wellness & air quality)
  • Lower Premiums (by planning for resilience)
  • Slash in Operating Costs (in energy performance)
  • Higher Profit per Square Foot (using post-occupancy evaluations)
  • Future Proofing (by planning for energy & carbon futures)

For us, sustainability is not tacked onto the design, but rather something we integrate into every phase of the project, from the kickoff meeting, through design, and after construction.

Our internal sustainability targets include:

  • Target Net Zero on every project (with pathways to all buildings achieving net zero by 2030)
  • Cut embodied carbon in half by 2022 (done); 80% by 2025; 100% by 2030
  • Conduct a Healthy Material Strategy on every project (ongoing)
  • Conduct a Resiliency Strategy on every project (ongoing)
  • Conduct a Circular Economy Strategy on every project (ongoing)

We follow an approach we call “Living-Centered Design” which is an empathic process toward meeting our client’s needs (even the ones they don’t know they have!)

How can upper management/executives create a collaborative, valued and shared climate that promotes diversity and inclusion?

Innovation and collaboration don’t just happen. You need to invite it in, give permission to explore it, and allow everyone a chance to participate in it. That takes practice.

We listen for the phrases that kill collaboration and innovation (such as, “We’ve never done it that way) and have strategies to shift everyone in the room into a growth mindset. This opens their minds to other possibilities.

When you talk openly about problems and challenges, it invites in new ways to solving them.

Take us through the steps your team took to create the initial ESG playbook.

Oh, the usual:

  • Exploration of Frameworks
  • Drivers and Trends Analysis
  • Carbon accounting for Scopes 1, 2, 3
  • Materiality Assessment
  • Alignment to Targets
  • Visioning and Strategy Sessions
  • Decarbonization Roadmap

We normally do this for our clients, so it’s weird and fun to do it for ourselves.

How have the company’s ESG goals and initiatives evolved since conception of the playbook? 

They are still evolving!

As Architects, we understand the process and how it can inform the solution. We used the goal setting to inform a few things:

  • what data do we need that is missing?
  • what data are we collecting that isn’t being utilized?
  • where are we pushing for “perfect” data, when “good enough” data will do?

From this we highlighted areas that we needed to start paying attention to. After all, at the core of sustainability work is the maxim, “If it gets measured, it gets managed.”

What are the commercial benefits of establishing a corporate ESG strategy? 

In one sense, it shows we’re “walking the talk.” More importantly however, it gives us a picture into our impacts as a company and our ability to take responsibility for those impacts. This process is vital for us to understand how to address them, especially the areas (like Scope 3 emissions) that we do not really control.

What steps do you personally take to ensure transparency with all stakeholders?

Our facilitation and communication process covers this well, but also the distribution and sharing of our process on our internal intranet make it available to everyone here.

How have you, personally, worked to align ESG goals and initiatives with your company’s value system?

As Director of Sustainability, the buck stops here, so my team and I are continually engaging the entire staff in a change management process. All 1200+ CannonDesigners must be engaged to participate and contribute to our sustainability goals. This includes changing how we design and deliver our buildings to our clients, how we talk about our designs, and ultimately the life they will have after construction.

What major industry changes do you anticipate seeing in the next 5-10 years?

We’re following a series of trends and drivers very closely, but specifically:

  • Carbon Pricing: We expect most of our clients will be putting a price on their carbon emissions, especially as they budget for methods to reduce and offset it.
  • Transparency: The SEC proposals to require all publicly traded companies to disclose their carbon emissions (using the TCFD framework) will eventually cause virtually all companies to do the same.
  • Regulatory: we’ve already seen an array of bold carbon policies enacted in cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, and all of California and expect additional similar carbon regulations to emerge.
  • Electrification: in order to achieve our emissions reductions targets, will need to stop putting fossil fuel infrastructure into buildings, which will require all systems be fully electric. This assumes that the electrical grids will continue to decarbonize through 2050.
  • Stakeholder Engagement and Demand: the expectations from all of the stakeholders and shareholders are only going to increase over the next decade, especially as they demand to see progress made towards these ESG and decarbonization goals.

Eric Corey Freed is an award-winning architect, author, and global speaker. As Principal and Director of Sustainability for CannonDesign, he leads the healthcare, education, and commercial teams toward low-carbon, healthy, regenerative buildings for over 30 million square feet a year. For two decades, he was Founding Principal of organicARCHITECT, a visionary design leader in biophilic and regenerative design.

His past roles include Vice President of the International Living Future Institute and Chief Community Officer of EcoDistricts, both nonprofits pushing innovative new paradigms for deep green buildings and communities. He serves on the board of Design Museum Everywhere, whose mission is to “bring the transformative power of design to all.”

Eric is the author of 12 books, including “Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies” and “Circular Economy for Dummies.” In 2012, he was named one of the 25 “Best Green Architecture Firms” in the US, and one of the “Top 10 Most Influential Green Architects.” In 2017, he was named one of Build’s American Architecture Top 25. He holds a prestigious LEED Fellow award from the US Green Building Council.

Connect with Corey

Eric Corey Freed Twitter

CannonDesign Twitter


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