Texan by Nature’s network of business members is essential to achieving our mission of advancing conservation, and the sustainability professionals in these organizations are important allies in connecting industry with conservation. Professionals such as Sandra Montalbo, Design Performance Manager at Overland Partners, are transforming communities and organizations from within through raising Environmental, Social, and Government (ESG) actions. Overland Partners was a 2022 TxN 20 honoree for their leadership in sustainable architectural design.
1. How would you explain the importance of ESG strategy to someone who wasn’t familiar with it?
ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance. It’s a way for the public, i.e., investors, stakeholders, and employees, to evaluate an organization. The term ESG is similar to the concept of sustainability in that it prioritizes environmental and social impacts. However, ESG prioritizes governance over economics. Governance is an essential component of ESG which covers corporate structure, management, responsibility, accountability, data protection, etc.
ESG serves as a gut check for organizations to evaluate whether their actions are aligned with their values. In addition, ESG can help investors and can be viewed as an indicator of an organization’s long-term success. While ESG is a helpful evaluation framework, financial considerations and profitability ultimately track higher with investors.
2. When planning environmental sustainability targets, what do you use as a guide to set these goals and commitments? (i.e. successful industry models, stakeholder concern, natural resource use?)
At Overland Partners, we are guided and inspired by our mission to positively influence the world through the practice of architecture. We are committed to being good stewards of the Earth. It’s a core value and an important part of our firm culture. Stewardship is one of the main reasons we signed on to the 2030 Commitment in 2014. The 2030 Commitment is a carbon-reduction framework led by The American Institute of Architects (AIA) to reduce the carbon emissions associated with buildings. It sets incremental goals toward carbon neutrality for all new construction by 2030 and a 20% reduction in carbon emissions for major renovations.
Our 2030 strategy is integrating low-carbon design strategies and analysis. Our designers understand the environmental impact and carbon emissions associated with the material production, construction, operation, and, ultimately, deconstruction of buildings. Reducing the embodied carbon in our designs requires that we conduct Life-Cycle Analyses (LCA) and energy analyses on projects. LCAs help us evaluate design options and require our designers to research lower-carbon intensive and low VOC materials, right-sizing buildings, and pushing function to outdoor unairconditioned, shaded spaces. Energy analyses help us optimize our buildings’ performance by evaluating optimal massing, orientation, wall assemblies, window-to-wall ratio, etc.
The 2030 Commitment also requires that firms develop and maintain a Sustainability Action Plan, which has helped us establish incremental goals toward carbon-neutral operations.
3. What is the first step for implementing ESG strategy for a company looking to engage in environmental sustainability for the first time?
In my opinion, sustainability and ESG have gained momentum with the Inflation Reduction Act which is encouraging to me as a sustainability professional.
Thinking globally, I’d start with the United Nations Sustainable Develop Goals (SDG). This can help organizations identify the themes that align with their goals and values. I’d then research third-party certifications/reporting that can help your organization identify focus areas and metrics by which to track and evaluate progress. On a national level, there are resources and organizations that advocate for transparency and accountability, depending on your industry, such as ISO Standards for Environmental Management, Green Business Bureau, and B Corp to name a few.
On a state level, I’d align myself with organizations with similar values, for example, the work Texan by Nature is doing to develop initiatives around education, advocacy, and certifications help advance collaboration between businesses and conservation. Diving into the “Texan by Nature 20” is a great place to start for Texas-based companies and organizations interested in taking actionable steps towards positive, holistic, sustainable impact.
For Overland, it starts with our mission, vision, and values and putting them into action for positive, measurable outcomes for the people, places, projects, and communities we serve. Our pledge to The 2030 Commitment, is a great framework for sustainable design and operation, and the JUST label, which promotes organizational transparency through the lens of Diversity & Inclusion, Equity, Employee Health, Employee Benefits, Stewardship, and Purchasing & Supply Chain. These two tools require intensive metric-based evaluations of our project designs and our organization. Every year, we get a snapshot of our performance at a moment of time. The rigor of tracking and evaluating helps ensure we are making progress toward our organizational goals. They force accountability and offer us a path to better performance.
We literally pin our progress/shortcomings on the wall and use this as motivation for continuous improvement and performance moving forward.
4. In 2022, what was your most interesting lesson learned in your work as a sustainability professional?
I was super fortunate to begin my architectural career as a research fellow for the AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE). I traveled all over the United States from San Antonio to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Emeryville, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Philadelphia. I interviewed 100 architectural professionals at ten high-performance firms that had won the most COTE Top Ten Awards. I then spent a year writing The Habits of High-Performance Firms with the late and forever inspiring Lance Hosey. We evaluated high-performance firms’ design approach, sustainability goals, hiring practices, analysis software, organizational structure, firm culture, and driving ethos.
The biggest takeaway, for me, was that they cared. These architects, designers, and interns cared so much about doing right by the planet that it carried them through all the challenges of budget, schedules, building code requirements, and deadlines. It’s the reason I chose Overland Partners. I’m so blessed to work with such amazingly talented, hard-working, and dedicated professionals committed to the cause, from our interns to our principals.
5. What component of working in environmental sustainability is your favorite and why? (i.e. water, wildlife, biodiversity, operational innovation, waste diversion, land, energy etc.)
At Overland, we are very fortunate to collaborate with aspirational clients who challenge and inspire us. For me, every day is an opportunity to be a force for good in the world and help deliver on our brand promise of “Unlocking the Embedded Potential™” for our clients by sharing knowledge, finding innovative solutions to complex problems, and working closely with my talented colleagues to push our solutions beyond code requirements and what’s immediately apparent… a chance to design healthy spaces that care for the Earth and elevate the well-being for all who experience the places we create. It is so incredibly fun and rewarding to bring our clients and stakeholders into the design process and see the original thinking that evolves. These ideas, when integrated into the design of buildings, have contributed to transformational architecture with far-reaching influence from setting the standards for USGBC’s LEED and Sustainable SITES rating systems to “first-of-their-kind” projects such as the first net-positive restaurant in the world; first hydroponic gardens in a wildlife park; first Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) pillows that serve as the roof for a historic renovation; and first children’s nature center for the prevention and treatment of child abuse to name a few.
We are able to bring these amazing projects to fruition by staying true to our purpose and promise, and leaning into The Human HandprintTM, the methodology we developed to guide our approach to intentional design and deliver on our promise of holistic, sustainable design with measurable human transformation.
6. From the eyes of an environmental sustainability professional, what makes a conservation project stand out? What can conservation projects do to make it easier to partner with them?
At this point, all conservation efforts should be a standout. We are at a critical time where every effort to care for the Earth, with all its resources and diverse species, helps move the needle towards a healthier, more sustainable world. We are in the beginning of the sixth mass extinction. While that may sound dire to some, humans can also positively influence the trajectory of the climate crisis. Sustainability, stewardship and conservation seem overwhelming, but making positive changes within one’s own sphere of influence can generate positive momentum and outcomes.
That being said, Overland’s work, in collaboration with Able City, on the Binational River Conservation Project is hugely inspiring to me. This project is an excellent example of community-informed design. This conservation project focuses on the critical role of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, a shared resource that sustains life for approximately 6 million people. Cleaning up the river and restoring the riparian ecosystem on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border is essential to the region’s future and serves as a prototype project for border communities worldwide. With conservation as the driver, this project is an opportunity to reimagine the symbiotic relationship between the two Laredos – Nuevo Laredo, Mexico and Laredo, Texas, connecting people, connecting people to nature, preserving the natural environment, promoting cultural bonds, celebrating our shared history, and all of this while addressing immigration issues, national security, and catalyzing economic growth.
Conservation organizations can leverage social media and YouTube and create meaningful content that brings awareness to conservation issues. Asking for donations and time is important, but it starts with awareness and connection. Conservation messaging should be provocative and compelling while leaving space for the audience to connect and contribute.
7. What sustainability goal are you most looking forward to working on in 2023?
I’m most excited to see Overland’s full adoption of The Human Handprint™ App. The Human Handprint™ as a design methodology is not new to the firm. Aspects of The Human Handprint™ have been integral to how we work with clients, engage stakeholders, think about place, and approach sustainable design over decades of experience. While there are many sustainability certifications across the architecture, engineering, and construction industry for measuring building performance and occupant comfort, we design for people and communities. To address this need, we took the initiative to develop our own system that puts people at the center of design and formalized The Human Handprint™ methodology in 2015. The methodology has evolved since then and we are now on The Human Handprint version 3. The Human Handprint™ has created a continuous cycle of strategic problem-solving, learnings, and best practices to inform better design decision-making across all market sectors. Since we’re always striving to innovate and work smarter, we built an app to collect project data which feeds into a data visualization dashboard, integrating sustainability, design performance, and measurable human outcomes into one singular, powerful platform. Our Overland design teams are already seeing results when it comes to serving our clients and to elevating design decision-making. It has significantly streamlined our internal project performance tracking and reporting and is building fidelity into our process. The Human Handprint™ App is our firm commitment to people and the planet, creating positive, measurable human transformations.
Texan by Nature’s vision is for every business, every Texan to participate in conservation and for Texas to be a model of collaborative conservation for the world.
We’re grateful to Sandra, Overland Partners, and the many sustainability professionals and companies who are future-proofing their businesses and our state with operational innovations and conservation investments that advance environmental sustainability in their sectors and provide successful models for the globe to follow. Learn more about the annual TxN 20 program, which recognizes leadership in environmental sustainability in industry, by visiting the TxN 20 website, and keep an eye out for more insight from other sustainability professionals to come.
More About Sandra Montalbo
Sandra Montalbo, LEED AP BD+C, LFA, WELL AP
Sandra Montalbo is passionate about sustainability. Architecture has provided her the platform to create positive change in the natural and built environment. In 2015, she received the Architectural Research Consortium Center’s (ARCC) King Student Medal for her research, “Architectural Design and Behavioral Effects in the Context of Sustainability.” In 2016, she was selected as the COTE Scholar with AIA National in Washington, D.C. In 2017, Sandra was the lead researcher and primary author of “The Habits of High-Performance Firms.” In 2018, she was awarded the AIA San Antonio’s Rising Star Award and served on the NCARB Experience and Advisory Committee.
Sandra represented the AIA San Antonio on the City of San Antonio’s Energy & Building’s Technical Working Group to develop The City of San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP) and served on the USGBC South Texas Regional Council. In 2019, she was awarded the Texas Society of Architects Associate Member of the Year Award, UTSA’s CACP – Distinguished Alumni Award, and a recipient of the AIA National’s 2019 Jason Pettigrew Scholarship. In 2020, she was recognized by the Design Future’s Council as 2022 Emerging Leader at the Annual Leadership Summit “The Future of Environmental Responsibility.” Sandra is currently Overland’s Design Performance Manager and is also a PhD student in the Land Use Planning Management and Design (LPMD) program at Texas Tech University.