Green Buildings Need More Than Sustainable Construction Practices

What does it take to successfully develop and run a sustainable multifamily community? Charlie Saville at FitzGerald weighs in.

Charlie Saville

Charlie Saville believes precedents and examples play an important role in how sustainability evolves. Image courtesy of FitzGerald

Everybody has probably seen one of those videos on social media in which ordinary drivers get behind the wheel of some supercar like Ferrari or Lamborghini, and after a few quick seconds, the video ends with them crashing just a few feet away from the starting point. Why? The car is too much for them to handle, the raw power and the amazing technology in the mechanics of these cars is too much for someone who has never driven a supercar.

What’s this got to do with sustainability in real estate? Quite a lot. These days, the number of buildings with green building certifications has increased considerably. Yet, operating a green building is a different story than managing a conventional building. It requires knowledge, experience and dedication and some of these need to be taught. This is something Charlie Saville is great at. He is the principal & director of sustainability at FitzGerald, an architecture, interior design and sustainability firm with offices in Chicago and Denver, founded more than 100 years ago.

Specifically, Saville helps clients navigate the regulatory requirements, assess the financial viability of the development, and select the best possible building certification programs, all while making practical decisions needed to design buildings for current and future performance. Within the company, he advises project teams and provides firm-wide training to improve the sustainable design knowledge of the staff so that they can drive that supercar without crashing it. In addition, he oversees the development of the company’s standards for Energy and Green Code design documents and evaluates project design concepts to identify opportunities for sustainable design innovation, new product types and new design approaches. Here’s more about Saville’s holistic approach to sustainability. 

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Tell us about sustainability throughout your more than two-decades-long career. What milestones can you pinpoint for green building and sustainability from a design perspective?

Saville: It is difficult to tie milestones to a specific date. Twenty years ago, thinking about sustainability was primarily the role of academics and specialists. Now, we see members of the general public joining community meetings and voicing perspectives on sustainability. Everybody has become a piece of the conversation.

When I first began helping architects and engineers answer the question, ‘What does sustainability mean in the built environment?’ nobody was quite sure how to measure or define the term. In trying to answer this question, the U.S. Green Building Council developed the Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design program, and the Green Building Institute developed the Green Globe certification system.

As time went on, sustainability began to center on having one of these certifications. They provided a launching point for understanding green building. Now, green building is no longer a single entity’s program but a set of principles. Within the umbrella of ‘green building’ are many factors such as energy, health and wellness. A couple of years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, human health was the biggest concern. Today, the discussion has shifted to focus on achieving net-zero and trying to define terms like net-zero carbon, net-zero energy and carbon neutral.


Artisan is the first multifamily high-rise project in Cleveland to achieve Green Globe certification. Image courtesy of FitzGerald 

Which are the most popular green features clients ask of you when you begin your collaboration?

Saville: If you ask eight people for the definition of sustainability, you’ll get back at least eight different answers. Sustainability means something different to everybody, so it’s hard to pinpoint the most popular green features. You must find a holistic package that works for a specific building.

The most popular green features will vary over time. Today the sustainability conversation centers on carbon emissions. Everyone is talking about the need to get to a carbon-free environment. Just three years ago the question was about human health, and how we can create working environments that support wellbeing physically, mentally and socially.

In the multifamily market, clients want to talk about spaces that support healthy lifestyles. Multifamily buildings, such as our project The Artisan in Cleveland, are incorporating amenities that allow residents to check out a skateboard or a bicycle. These are simple planning decisions that support a healthy lifestyle and link the building to the neighboring community.

Which facets of a green project have you discovered to have the most impact on the community and which resonate the most with project stakeholders?

Saville: In the multifamily market, we think about how we can create a healthy community that people want to live in. As one example, several studies place the proportion of multifamily households who have pets at or above 70 percent, which is a staggering number. It’s safe to assume these pets play a very important part in the occupants’ lives. How do they interact with that animal? How do we ensure that animal has a healthy environment? Can we link that to the community on the outside of the building?

Sustainability is about a holistic approach to the building. There aren’t specific features we find clients asking for. The single most impactful aspect of a green building project is having a client who, for whatever motivation, comes to the table truly caring about sustainability. Those are the projects that will have the most impact.

Having invested stakeholders is important because all their objectives will be different. To us, community members are stakeholders, because so often we need community approvals to get things built. Sustainability is an integrated journey and all stakeholders, with their diverse perspectives, need to be involved. We need to figure out what is important about each particular building.


Artisan includes a rooftop pool and terrace with private dining. Image courtesy of FitzGerald

What is the biggest misconception about owning and operating a sustainable building?

Saville: The biggest misconception is what it takes to be sustainable after the building is designed. Most people focus on how to get to that first step—the green certification—and not what happens after. There is a recertification process. For example, a LEED certification is only valid for three years and then needs to be recertified. The burden is on the building owners and operators to assemble and track all the necessary info about the performance of their building to keep the certification.

What tools are there available for property owners and managers to learn how to maintain the health of their green assets throughout their lifecycle?

Saville: It’s a little bit like the Wild West in the sustainability world right now, with the questions being: Whose standard do we follow? How do we measure efficiency, water use, etc.?

The EPA Energy Star Program is a neutral tool, not tied to any specific green building certification. It helps building owners and facilities track performance metrics such as energy and water usage. Similarly, the GBI is launching a Net Zero Energy Emissions program, which is all about certifying and measuring data.

We are on the cusp of understanding how to take all this data, get it into the right tools and implement it. The EPA and other organizations are beginning to create these standards, but ultimately, they need to be universally adopted, so a building in California can be measured against the same set of standards as one in Florida or Utah.

Tools like this require users to input consumption or performance data on a monthly basis. This can be done manually by a human, or electronically through computer systems and monitors or meters. Typically, commercial office buildings tend to be ‘smarter’ than apartment buildings, but this is part of what is changing in the multifamily industry. Municipalities are changing policies, and everyone must start figuring out how to collect energy usage.

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What project jumps to mind when you think about green building and flawless management? What is different about that particular property owner/operator?

Saville: A big part of green building is strong leadership. Whether it’s a university that keeps the building for 100 years or a developer who puts it on the market, it all comes back to strong direction from leadership.

One project I’d like to call out is 110 North Carpenter. It’s an address with a prominent history in Chicago and was redeveloped by a developer with a strong perspective on sustainability in collaboration with a major tenant who also brought leadership and ambition toward sustainability. The building was certified in 2018 as LEED Platinum and sold to an organization that now manages the building and maintains its certification. Everyone worked together to make this project work.

It’s important to note that this project didn’t just ‘happen.’ Twenty years prior, a group of us worked with the City of Chicago to develop the Chicago Center for Green Technology. The city had strong leaders who decided that sustainability was going to be important and paved the way for us to bring USGBC to the city. At the time, nobody knew how to implement green building. Chicago led the way and showed people how it could be done. Providing buildings as examples for other people to build upon in the future is so important.

  • 3Eleven in Chicago
  • Pinnacle XXIV

Tell us about green projects you’re most proud of. What makes these special?

Saville: 3Eleven is a multifamily building in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. The client was looking to make a statement and wanted to explore what that could mean from a sustainability standpoint. Ultimately, this project became the first Fitwel-certified multifamily project west of the Appalachian Mountains. Why is a ‘first’ so important? Because we are developing examples that people can repeat and learn from.

The Austin Gardens Environmental Center for the city of Oak Park, Ill., is important to me because it’s in my neighborhood. The client was looking to develop a sustainable project for a 100-year-old trust-controlled park. The environmental center is all about providing examples of environmental strategies that people can repeat—water reclamation, geothermal renewable energy, etc.

The project achieved LEED Platinum, but what was more important was what came out of the project. There are now seven more buildings in the area with renewable energy systems. The principles we studied in the environmental system show up in these buildings. Precedents and examples play such an important role in how sustainability evolves. These seven new buildings all came out of what we did at Austin Gardens Environmental Center, which itself evolved from what we did for the Chicago Center for Green Tech. It’s all about moving the needle further forward each time.

I recently led sustainability consulting for Pinnacle XXIV, a net positive carbon and energy project that features one of the Midwest’s largest non-utility photovoltaic systems, designed to offset 100 percent of the building’s operational energy and 120 percent of the annual carbon emissions. Our recent multifamily project in Cleveland, Artisan, is the first multifamily high-rise project in Cleveland to achieve Green Globe certification.

To what extent is green building impacted by economic strength?

Saville: Twenty years ago, green building was a privilege. There were no codes or policies in place. Over time it became more of a negotiation, as cities began offering incentives for incorporating green strategies. Now, with building codes and policies accelerating so rapidly, it’s become a standard. Green building is no longer open for suggestion, and its place in codes and policies means that it isn’t as dependent on market forces and the economy anymore. If the building is going to get built, the project is required to meet certain performance and green building standards that are now inherent in many building and energy codes.

What do you envision for the green building movement in the following three years?

Saville: Whether the ‘question of the hour’ is carbon emissions, health and wellness, or renewable energy, my hope as we move forward, is that we don’t forget about each and every one of these pieces. True sustainability is when it all comes together.

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