Designs for Life projects deliver triple bottom line: people, planet, prosperity
With an eye for creating the healthiest places possible while also taking care of the Earth, architect Jason Kliwinski knew he wanted to design the most sustainable projects for his clients. With that in mind, he founded Designs for Life, LLC, 15 years ago.
Since then, he has expanded his architectural practice beyond residential and into the broader commercial world, creating green designs for higher education, institutional users and hospitality.
“What we do goes beyond simply creating the most sustainable projects, but also delivering on time and within budget for our clients,” says the Designs for Life principal. “Our approach is integrative and brings all stakeholders to the table as early as possible to help ensure the highest level of performance, healthiest spaces and most cost-effective approach. We focus on optimizing what we call the ‘triple bottom line’ (people, planet, prosperity) on every project no matter the size or scope.”
Origins of Green
Jason says he worked for other firms for 18 years before venturing out to focus on his company full time. The catalyst, he says, came from some of the clients at bigger institutions approaching him about designing homes for them. His employer’s company didn’t handle residential projects, so he asked his boss if he could create a side business to cater to those higher-end residential clients. He started that in 2003.
“When I began my own practice, it was because the existing clients who were asking for residential projects wanted green homes, and no one else was really catering to that market,” Jason says. “I have been doing LEED-certified projects since 2000 and I am a LEED Fellow with Accredited Professional designations in both new and existing buildings. The demand has steadily grown in the marketplace.”
LEED is the acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which is a green certification program initiated by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Jason’s LEED credentials denote his proficiency and expertise in sustainable design, construction and operations standards, according to the USGBC. To become a LEED Fellow, he has demonstrated significant technical knowledge and skills. The USGBC states that Fellows also have a history of exemplary leadership, impactful commitment, service and advocacy in green building and sustainability. LEED Fellows are nominated by their peers, undergo an extensive portfolio review, must have at least 10 years of experience in the green building industry and hold a LEED AP with specialty credential, among other requirements. In 2013, Jason took his expertise and went fully out on his own to focus on growing Designs for Life, now a team of five.
Being Green Doesn’t Cost More
“My mantra is that it doesn’t really cost more to build green,” Jason says. “We’ve designed many LEED-certified projects and, for most of our projects, we find grants and incentives for using high-efficiency lighting or HVAC units to offset any potential soft costs often associated with getting a certification. We can usually deliver a project at the same cost as a non-LEED project.”
Jason says he’s carved out a niche in the green-design industry. “What makes a project cost more is that big learning curve for those who don’t do it all the time. If it is something you have to do differently, it will add time and expense,” he says. “For us, we design to LEED standards whether you are going for certification or not. It is not heavy lifting for us to design this way.”
“We do it this way every time, and we identify and optimize those grants and incentives. While there aren’t incentives directly for a LEED certification typically, there are many for the high-performance design for mechanical systems, air conditioning, heating, lighting—the things that you would be doing for a LEED project—and they often offset any additional costs,” Jason says.
The categories of the LEED rating system and actions within each of those categories embody this triple bottom-line concept, he explains. “Balancing construction and operating costs, health and wellness impacts, and climate action is the art of sustainability. Achieving a high-performance project that significantly reduces energy, water use and waste production while it also improves occupant comfort and health can often be achieved without additional construction costs in our experience. Even if there are some additional upfront costs for things like certification fees, these are largely offset within the first year of operational savings,” Jason says.
Green Project Profiles
Two of the projects designed by Designs for Life that are currently under construction include a 3,000-square-foot, off-grid, net zero energy residence in Pennsylvania and a LEED Silver-designed 80,000-square-foot hotel.
“The off-grid residential project has been challenging to design,” Jason says. “Additionally, one of the owners has an extreme sensitivity to electromagnetic fields (EMF), which are emitted from your television, phone, computer, and even your wall outlets to some degree. So, we are designing a house that runs primarily on solar electric, and we have to shield the homeowner from the EMF emissions.”
Jason says the designs include placing the solar panels in areas that won’t impact the homeowner, like the garage. All of the electrical wiring is placed in conduits rather than bare wires. Solar inverters, batteries and electrical equipment are located in a concrete room with a concrete roof that is all shielded from the main house. The master bedroom has a cutoff switch to turn off all the electricity at night while the homeowners are sleeping. The materials used in the house also feature healthy finishes that won’t impact the owner’s hypersensitivity to some chemicals.
Designs for Life is licensed to practice in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Texas. Jason designed the renovation of The Four Points by Sheraton, a Marriott-branded hotel, to LEED standards in Austin, Texas, near the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Projects can be designed to LEED standards without paying the associated fees to obtain LEED certification, Jason explains.
“We designed the building envelope and all of its systems above standard building codes to ultimately get the performance without getting the plaque. The project entailed gutting three floors and adding a fourth floor. There was also the addition of a new entrance, patio and pool area. It was a little tricky to add the fourth floor,” he explains.
“The green finishes throughout the hotel are designed to enhance health and wellness,” Jason says. Some examples include avoiding chlorine, formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), he says. “Those chemicals are in a lot of common building products, but a lot of people are sensitive to them, so we try to avoid them when we can,” Jason explains.
He’s working on a similar project for a hotelier in Alaska Lake on one of the Finger Lakes in New York.
“Our focus is on good architecture and the sustainability aspects of it,” Jason says. Designs for Life uses a design-build approach, working with contractors during the design process to get accurate cost estimates from the get-go. “When the architect and design team work with an owner in isolation to finish construction documents, then go out to bid and prices are not in line, the architect has to redesign and has an unhappy owner,” Jason says.
Jason has also worked with universities and institutions to develop comprehensive climate action plans affecting millions of square feet across portfolios of buildings, assisted in getting new and major renovation projects LEED certified at no additional first cost, and developed curriculum to use the buildings as teaching tools. Most recently, he assisted Montclair State University in getting its School of Communication and Media LEED Silver certified.
As an adjunct professor, LEED faculty, GPRO and Ecode instructor, Jason regularly teaches workshops and seminars on green building for a variety of organizations, both public and private.
LEED and GPRO are comprehensive national training and certificate programs developed by USGBC and the Urban Green Council in which Jason teaches the principles of sustainability and shares trade-specific green construction knowledge for people who build, renovate and maintain buildings. As Energy Codes (Ecodes) continue to get stricter, Jason believes it is important to also teach design and construction teams how to best comply in order to expedite permits while cost effectively meeting the increased performance required.
Jason also delivered a two-hour presentation at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo last year on net zero energy, water and waste to more than 300 attendees. He co-founded the USGBC-New Jersey chapter and serves as a master instructor with them as well as working with the Urban Green Council in New York.
“I spend a lot of time with the USGBC and the American Institute of Architects,” Jason says. “Giving back and educating others on green architecture, from high school students to professionals in the construction and real estate industries, is important. I spent a week teaching at a high school green architecture academy at The Watershed Institute in New Jersey recently. There are two reasons this is crucial. First, young people are the leaders of the future. We need to make them aware of the issues, like climate change or health/wellness. I didn’t have that benefit. No one was teaching this when I was in college or in my early career. Second, it is important to me to share what I have learned with future generations of designers, builders and owners.”
Doing What Comes Naturally
Every day at Designs for Life brings new challenges. “From the off-the-grid house under construction, which is very modern and contemporary, to another house that is a classic Queen Anne Victorian, to the hotel under construction with a modern international feel, our work is diverse and challenging,” Jason says.
“My philosophy is that every client is unique, and every project is therefore unique,” he adds. “None of our work looks alike. There is no big ego here where I have to put my stamp on what a building looks like. It is important to me to meet the client’s needs. We understand that aesthetic can take all different kinds of forms; but what makes us different is delivering the most sustainable projects on time and on budget. We strive to do that with nurturing each client’s vision, aesthetic and dream.”