The pandemic has increased the importance of ESG and the need for smart growth, diversity and sustainable building and construction management to serve all stakeholder interests.

Doing Right in the Built Environment: Why ESG is No Longer Optional in AEC

The pandemic has increased the importance of ESG and the need for smart growth, diversity and sustainable building and construction management to serve all stakeholder interests.
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At McKissack, we’ve been doing architecture, engineering and construction projects the “right way” since our inception. We’ve always used resources economically and effectively; made client satisfaction, diversity, employee engagement and job satisfaction top priorities; and exceeded best practices in operations, HR and management. Now there’s a new name for it—environmental, social and governance practice, or ESG.

Owners and developers are finding it profitable, and sleep easier at night, when the companies they work with consider the wants, needs and rights of all of their stakeholders—clients, employees, suppliers, vendors and local communities. But that’s the approach I took when I founded McKissack & McKissack in 1990, and it’s how our company has always operated.

ESG ensures sustainability for all aspects of our environment—from the physical world to the people we work with to our company standards. People sustain themselves in their jobs, in the economic growth of their communities, in the health of their surroundings. Smart growth moves sustainable design and construction beyond green infrastructure to embrace all these social interests.

This is not news to me as a minority entrepreneur intent on exceeding expectations in everything we do at McKissack, but it holds new sway in corporate America. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of ESG and accelerated the transition to a stakeholder capitalism, EY notes.

Companies that perform well on ESG measures are better positioned for long-term success. Stakeholder capitalism holds that companies should serve the interests of all their stakeholders—those same ones I mentioned above—and be mindful of, and responsive to, their impact on society and the environment.

A Simple ESG Framework

ESG factors are what drive investors to divest from unsustainable companies and insist on diverse corporate boards. They propel what once were nice-to-have features into requirements. This makes ESG an increasingly important lens for companies to look at what it means to do things the right way. To me it boils down to running the kind of mission-driven company where people want to work and clients are proud to do business with us.

In the architecture, engineering and construction industry, ESG’s functional benefits play out in superior AEC practices. Owners and developers often struggle with an ESG framework, and our sustainable building discussions with clients can get quite specific. But in general, here are some goals that guide our approach:

Save clients money. McKissack’s project management expertise is in controlling costs and optimizing resources. We work with clients to think through the long-term functionality of their facilities planning, create sustainable building and landscape plans that can produce corporate and community assets, hire diverse contractors that turn in thoughtfully developed bids, and build partnerships that resolve problems quickly.

Be more productive. Our humble, hungry and smart teams look for ways to do things better. They hire people (both staff positions and contractors) with diverse experiences and ideas and give them authority and support.

Be team players. It’s up to us to make sure professionals can deliver their best work on the drawing boards, for contractors to feel safe on the jobsite and for everyone to contribute in meetings. People need to bring their whole selves to work and contribute fearlessly, without feeling intimidated by racism or confined by narrow job roles.

Act like you live here. Neighbors to a development are allies who know problems with the site and how to work around them. They want to improve the area and be proud of it, and so do we. We work in cities like Washington, D.C. and Chicago where public engagement involves local hearings, and we approach them as ways to be good citizens and pay attention to what matters. Public safety and community benefit are important to our design process.

Turn obstacles into assets. When we tear up roads (or at O’Hare, runways) we don’t have to haul debris away if we’re grinding it up for aggregate. Call it recycling, but a crusher can get into even tight spaces and make construction debris easier to handle.

Make it last. We bid on public projects, infrastructure and major facilities because we want to do meaningful work that will have long-term impact, not just as a physical asset but a community anchor and economic driver. Our work produces resilient assets that withstand changes in strategy or style. Both clients and communities prosper.

Done thoughtlessly, projects—whether stand-alone structures or entire built environments—can harm communities by exposing them to poor quality construction, pollution, resource shortages and more. This applies to not only the underserved but all who interact with a project. Another common issue is that minority workers can get shut out of the skilled jobs that build stability and wealth in their communities. But smart growth can turn around all those outcomes.

McKissack’s design and construction management teams intend not only to improve the built environment, but also create vibrant neighborhoods with thriving economies. Call it environmental justice. Call it ESG. I call it planning done right.

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