Four best practices leading companies can implement to improve their sustainable construction strategy.
By Marta Chmielowicz
In a society that is increasingly aware of the importance of sustainability, “green” building is quickly becoming a top priority. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings are the largest consumers of energy worldwide, accounting for nearly 40 percent of total U.S. energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. Given this vast impact, it is no surprise that responsible building practices have seen such rapid growth, with a 2016 Dodge Data & Analytics study reporting that demand for green buildings continues to double every three years.
“Green building is evolving to become the new normal,” says Curt Radkin, senior vice president and sustainability strategist at Wells Fargo Corporate Properties Group. “It is becoming a part of consumers’ baseline expectations and will eventually not be seen as a differentiator, but a requirement.”
While building sustainably may initially seem like a financial burden rather than a benefit, CR professionals agree that adopting environmentally friendly construction and building management practices is good for business.
Implementing sustainable building practices ultimately saves organizations money by increasing value and reducing day-to-day building operating costs. “Upfront investment in green building makes properties more valuable, with an average expected increase in value of 4 percent,” says Mahesh Ramanujam, president and CEO of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). “By virtue of lowered maintenance and energy costs, the return on investment from green building is rapid—green retrofit projects are generally expected to pay for themselves in just seven years.”
Although eco-conscious building strategies produce considerable cost savings, their main goal is to promote employee and community wellness. By leveraging green building techniques to improve health, organizations can enhance both workforce productivity and brand reputation. Keith Lawless, senior director of business sustainability and improvement at Air Transat, can attest to both of these positive effects. As a result of Air Transat’s building initiatives, “We have a pleasant work environment, we have a very low absenteeism rate, people are almost never sick, and people show up to work,” he says.
At the community level, George Kimmerle, founder and president of Kimmerle Group, believes that organizations can improve their employees’ quality of life by providing them with amenities that make them more connected to their communities. “It has become an accepted norm that if we can create communities that are inherently sustainable, the corporation is going to benefit,” he says. “If you don’t have transit, if you don’t have walkable communities, if you don’t have bikeable communities, there’s a whole issue of health that’s being ignored.”
While green strategies can be implemented in any building with good results, the most significant benefits come when organizations adopt a holistic approach from the earliest stages of a project, starting with corporate site selection. However, brand-new buildings aren’t the only ones that can be eco-friendly. Older constructions can be retrofitted to meet modern environmental standards and, as a result, obtain many of these social, economic, and environmental benefits.
For organizations developing a comprehensive green building policy, there are four best practices to consider:
1. Evaluate areas of improvement. The first step to creating an effective and cost-efficient sustainable building strategy is conducting an audit of base operations. “First you need to take a focused look at the operations of the building and fix the very simple operational issues that can be addressed without investing any money or upgrading any systems,” says Kevin Dollhopf, vice president of worldwide real estate at Hanesbrands. Such easy fixes include ensuring computers are powered down at night, turning off lights at night, and readjusting heating and cooling temperature conditions.
This strategy was particularly effective when Wells Fargo was looking to reduce its water use. By evaluating base operations, Radkin says they “identified that a large percentage (as high as 90 percent) of water usage at many of our retail locations was for landscaping. As a result, we have implemented smart irrigation technology where it makes sense to be more sustainable and efficient.” By taking simple and logical steps, Wells Fargo was able to save one billion gallons of water in only four years from its landscaping function alone.
2. Set goals and utilize data. “Today, more than ever before, the green building movement relies on technology and data, and the future of green buildings and the next evolution of the marketplace will be focused on performance,” Ramanujam says. In order to substantially decrease a building’s footprint, it’s necessary to set sustainability goals and benchmarks and track performance metrics across the organization.
One way Washington Gas (WGL) does this is by incorporating building performance metrics into its corporate scorecard. Melissa E. Adams, chief corporate social responsibility officer at WGL, explains that “reducing environmental impact from our facilities is one of the sustainability metrics we track quarterly. Each year, we track projects such as energy-efficient HVAC systems and solar panel installations.” This system allows WGL to utilize solid data to monitor its progress toward sustainability goals and shape future green building initiatives.
So far, the results have been impressive. “In 2011, we announced our goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our facilities and fleet 70 percent by the year 2020,” says Adams. “Thanks to the culture we have instilled and the efforts of employees in all departments, we were able to not only meet, but exceed, that goal; reaching a reduction of 74 percent in 2015.”
For companies trying to develop their own goals and benchmarks, the LEED certification program may provide useful guidance. This was the case for Air Transat when developing its first environmental sustainability program. “LEED gave us a very structured approach to environmental improvement,” Lawless says. “We were able to go through and evaluate each LEED initiative to see if there was a return on investment and to determine the net effect on our employees.”
3. Choose solutions strategically. By leveraging their performance data, organizations can make informed and strategic decisions about which initiatives they can implement for the largest returns. According to Adams, the best strategy involves adopting a long-term approach that combines both short and long payback windows.
Bob O’Brien, strategic lead for sustainable building practices at Lockheed Martin, firmly believes that “going green doesn’t have to cost us green,” and that making small, logical investments to improve building operations is key. Inexpensive changes like updating lighting and HVAC systems generate quick returns while decreasing environmental impact, he says.
Furthermore, when replacing equipment in the course of normal operations, O’Brien believes it is important to buy energy-efficient alternatives. “Going green and doing the right things environmentally are aligned with proper operations and maintenance of your building,” he says. “When you install energy-efficient equipment, you solve maintenance issues while getting the benefit of energy savings.”
Other energy-efficient strategies recommended by Cindy Cui, LEED-accredited professional and senior project manager at Kimmerle Group, include the increased use of natural lighting, installation of low-flow and lowflush fixtures, usage of local recycled products and green cleaning supplies, and monitoring of waste production. Longer-term green building initiatives include the installation of alternative energy sources such as solar, geothermal, and wind power, or the growth of green roofs—roofs covered with vegetation to help improve air quality and reduce stormwater runoff—among other benefits.
In order to ensure that these strategies are implemented, O’Brien suggests that organizations commit to a reserving a certain amount of capital for sustainability. “A lot of facilities engineers across multiple businesses are fighting for the same money, so we’ve set aside a capital fund to implement energy efficiency projects,” he says.
4. Be committed. To maximize the benefits of building sustainably, organizations must fully commit to their environmentally responsible strategies and integrate them into company culture.
“Sustainable building is not only about facilities—it’s also about the entire product cycle, the way we run our supply chain, the way we run our facilities, and the way we treat our employees,” Dollhopf says. “It’s a very top-level-driven strategy that is bought in by all the employees and complied with around the world.”
The key to this integration is employee engagement. WGL has a unique strategy for advancing sustainability among team members. “We refresh our [sustainability] programs periodically so our employees are reminded of the impact that their efforts are having, and we implement new elements to make it easier, memorable, and rewarding—like the ‘drive up’ trash and recycling lids we are installing to make it easier for our drivers to participate in our sustainability program,” Adams says.
Finally, community engagement and partnership with responsible, local suppliers is also important in maintaining a commitment to an effective sustainable building strategy.
“We encourage our suppliers to join us in implementing systems designed to minimize their impact on the environment, and we are actively developing a number programs and policies to build social and environmental sustainability more deeply into our supply chain,” Radkin says.
For organizations that are able to effectively integrate these best practices into their green building strategies, sustainability will no longer feel like a regulatory burden, but a natural part of the business process.