Making the Case

Making the Case

A new software program helps users see the
holistic value of sustainable design.


By Jeff Harder

To John Williams, it’s simple: Convincing investors, owners, and other stakeholders that green buildings are worthwhile propositions means going beyond high-minded virtues and instead, letting the dollars do the talking. “I’m a pragmatist,” says Williams, chairman, CEO, and co-founder of software developer Impact Infrastructure, a Silver level member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). “I believe in doing things that are good for the environment and in making more resilient cities and buildings, but I know from a practical point of view that I won’t achieve those goals without showing people what’s in it for them in an objective way.”

Objectivity is the organizing principle behind Autocase for Sustainable Buildings, a platform developed by Impact Infrastructure and Bay Area software developer Autodesk, a Platinum level member of USGBC. Unveiled last October at Greenbuild 2016 in Los Angeles, Autocase for Sustainable Buildings is a little like Turbo Tax for green building: an affordable, browser-based platform (complete with a ticker updated in real time) that harnesses mountains of peer-reviewed studies and empirical metrics, automates and simplifies cost-benefit analysis, and conveys financial, social, and environmental returns on investment—providing a triple bottom line cost-benefit analysis that conveys a project’s holistic value in real dollars.

John Williams is the chairman, chief executive officer, and co-founder of software developer Impact Infrastructure. Photo: Jonathan Auch

For sustainability professionals, those triple bottom line returns help make the case—to investors, owners, tenants, and communities—that Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications have a value you can take to the bank, and it helps audit the particulars of a building design to maximize its sustainability. And for skeptics, Autocase for Sustainable Buildings reveals the worth of green building projects beyond their day-one price tag. “In survey after survey of the real estate industry, the number-one reason owners say they don’t upgrade or retrofit their buildings beyond code is upfront capital costs,” says Emma Stewart, chief business development officer for Impact Infrastructure. “We’ve become obsessed with first cost, but we forget these buildings can last 100 years. By using Autocase, you can see the comprehensive value—financial, environmental, and social—across the entirety of the [building’s] life cycle, you can see what benefits you’re accruing as an owner, and what benefits you’re passing along to tenants and even the local community.”

Autocase also enables project teams to earn an extra LEED point just by logging in and filling in the blanks. The software is the point of embarkation for “Informing Design Using Triple Bottom Line Analysis,” a new pilot credit also unveiled at Greenbuild 2016. The credit, developed in conjunction with Impact Infrastructure and Autodesk, awards one point toward certification for projects that conduct triple bottom line analyses on six or more LEED credits. While projects aren’t obligated to use Autocase to earn the pilot credit, it’s likely the cheapest and most straightforward path available to date. “We’ve always received a lot of questions about returns on investment when it comes to green building strategies and sustainability, and we’ve been looking for a way to analyze and capture that information,” says Theresa Backhus, sites technical specialist at USGBC. “There’s a huge need for software like this—tools that can simplify that analysis.”

At his old firm, Williams helped develop a sustainable return on investment framework that was used on $50 billion worth of real projects; each single assessment required specialized teams of economists and could run between $50,000 and $250,000. But a personal crisis instilled in Williams a newfound sense of purpose: While recovering from a 2010 cancer diagnosis, he cashed out and aimed to start a new company devoted to making simpler and more affordable solutions to quantify the economic value of the social and environmental benefits of sustainable building designs. Along with three partners, Williams founded Impact Infrastructure in 2012, and Autodesk soon invested millions in an equity partnership. (Before joining Impact Infrastructure in January 2017, Stewart was head of sustainability solutions at Autodesk.)

Autocase for Sustainable Buildings performs high-quality triple bottom line analyses for roughly 1 percent of the cost of commissioning a conventional assessment. “The capacity to run those analyses affordably has not existed before,” Williams says. “That’s what we’ve done: We’ve created technology that allows us to disrupt pricing for economic assessments, placing that capacity in the hands of project engineers, LEED professionals, and planners so they can run the analysis themselves.”

Emma Stewart is the chief business development officer for Impact Infrastructure. Photo: Emily Hagopian

Emma Stewart is the chief business development officer for Impact Infrastructure. Photo: Emily Hagopian

The platform, available for LEED BD+C v4 projects in the United States and Canada, requires no specialized software: just Safari, Chrome, or any other web browser, and multiple contributors can work on a project under the same software license. It’s simple to use, says Ryan Meyers, chief technology officer at Impact Infrastructure. “We know our users aren’t trained economists, so you input information you already have, click a button, view the results, click another button, and export the results in a PDF document.”

Project teams enter the basics of the project, like building type, square footage, number of employees, and the location, the last of which enables Autocase to make region-specific analyses. From there, users enter select different LEED credits and enter a suite of relevant information, like kilowatt hours of electricity and natural gas usage, the percentage of floor space that has natural daylight, or whether the project features a stand of trees or a green roof. The design data feeds into the ticker that updates in real time, allowing project teams to tweak their projects to maximize sustainability. “Don’t just design in a way where you’ll score a point,” Williams says. “Design because it’s going to give you the best possible financial, social, and environmental outcomes.”

The software breaks down the costs and benefits associated with the project to owners, building occupants, and the surrounding community and environment. In a hypothetical case study, a 43,560-sq-ft, single-story, LEED Gold–seeking office building in San Antonio, Texas, outfitted with solar panels and a green roof, 200-gallon rain barrels, ENERGY STAR appliances, advanced energy metering, and other sustainable attributes had a social and environmental value of $104,234. After factoring in financial returns, the total return on investment of the building was $32,234 greater than its comparable gray counterpart (the baseline).

Beneath the interface, a library of peer-reviewed studies and objective metrics—updated every six months—are used to calculate those returns. None of the metrics are generated by Impact Infrastructure, and users can click through to see the source studies to arrive at a given number: Flood risk mitigation calculations, for example, are based on localized rainfall data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, flood damage data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and so forth. “We find methodologies and studies that have clearly defined approaches around how this monetization should work and that’s what we build our methodology out of,” Meyers says.

Autocase for Buildings results for LEED project. Results shown are examples. Courtesy Autocase

Autocase for Buildings results for LEED project. Results shown are examples. Courtesy Autocase

In October 2015, Impact Infrastructure and Autodesk drafted language for a LEED pilot credit based on triple bottom line analyses. “We’ve had lots of clients—cities, private developers—hire us to determine whether LEED, or if a higher level of LEED, is worth it,” Williams says. “And we realized there was a real need to be able to plug economic-based decision making into these processes.”

The credit requires triple bottom line analyses across six credits, such as indoor and outdoor water use reduction and optimizing energy performance, as well as an appropriate baseline derived from empirical data. Projects registering for the credit can commission conventional cost-benefit analyses instead of using Autocase, but teams must supply the data they used to corroborate their findings. “We’ve been looking for a way to analyze and capture that information,” says Backhus. “Impact Infrastructure’s proposal did a great job at making a great start.”

The pilot credit is still in its nascent stage: Dewberry, a Virginia-based engineering firm, is auditing its new headquarters and expected to be the first project to register for the credit. Backhus is optimistic about the credit’s potential impact, particularly with regard to driving more studies and data pertaining to social and environmental benefits. “It’s not just a benefit for the projects themselves, it’s a benefit for the collective knowledge of the industry,” she says. “As we get more information on not only the initial costs but savings over time, it increases the body of knowledge for green building designers, owners, and professionals in general.”

Across the $9 trillion global marketplace of buildings and infrastructure, Williams has high hopes. He says USGBC counterparts in the United Kingdom, Singapore, and Hong Kong have approached Impact Infrastructure to develop pilot credits. And stateside, Autocase’s empiricism makes the case for organizations that already mandate certain levels of LEED design—municipal governments and federal agencies, for example—to go beyond the minimum. “There’s more concern about how much it’s really worth before you use tax dollars and capital to deliver a higher rated building,” he says. “What we’re doing is stepping in and saying, ‘Here are the keys to unlock the door to either designing for LEED or for higher levels of LEED.’”

Stewart says she expects cost-benefit analysis that includes environmental and social components to become standard practice. More important, communicating the benefits of green building in ways that resonate with the money-minded is key to going mainstream. “I’ve long felt that you can’t just appeal to branding or PR or a do-gooder instinct, because that’s only going to work for a small sliver of the market,” Stewart says. “You have to make your case in economic terms.” And when dollars make sense, so does sustainable building.