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Do the Right Thing! (...But Beware of Greenwashing)

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Ned Fennie, Jr.

Ned Fennie, Jr.

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It seems like ever since Al Gore became a movie producer, you can’t turn around without hearing the terms “Green Building”, “LEED Certification”, and “sustainability” bandied about when discussing new construction projects. Everywhere you turn manufacturers are eager to tell how “green” their products are. There is definitely a groundswell building over developing projects that are environmentally responsible, given the dire state of the environment, especially when it comes to global warming. It has become clear to everyone that we all need to do something about reeling in this truly colossal environmental issue before it becomes a world-wide catastrophe.

If your company needs to make changes to your facilities, because of a growing staff or a need to relocate, you will be challenged to navigate the myriad of necessary choices and decisions when planning your facilities (such as identifying your space requirements, potential office location, negotiating lease terms, etc.). But at the same time many people are asking you to address the environmental impacts of the project, and its long-term contributions to global warming. How can you ensure that the environmental impact of your company is not only within the expectations of your customers, employees, and the public at large, but that you have addressed the global ethics of your firm’s impact on the natural resources of our planet? It isn’t easy, and cutting through the hype is a good first step. With advertisers putting a positive green spin on modern building materials and systems going into a construction project it is difficult, if not next to impossible, to wisely choose those that have the least impact while keeping your costs in check and the project on schedule.

Global warming is here and it will get worse

The worldwide scientific community has weighed in and global warming is a fact. There is little doubt among the scientists that humans (in particular, those in developed nations) contribute directly to this phenomenon. It has become increasingly clear to most enlightened people that the old ways of building our world, equipping and outfitting it, and living cannot continue unchanged without dire consequences. We know we need to change and most reasonable people want to do the right thing, both at home and in our workplaces.

Americans are among the biggest consumers of energy, and the production of most sources of energy contributes directly to the greenhouse gas emissions. According to the CIA World Factbook 2007 Americans consume 23% of the world’s production of electricity, although we comprise only 4.5% of the world’s population. So for every man, woman and child in the U.S. we consume 12.34 kWh of electricity, while the average world citizen consumes 2.47 kWh. In other words we consume FIVE TIMES as much electricity as most everyone else on the planet on a per capita basis!

We Americans also create a disproportionate amount of carbon dioxide, arguably the biggest culprit in global warming. The U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports, “The United States is the world’s largest single emitter of carbon dioxide, accounting for about 23 percent of energy-related carbon emissions worldwide.” Although they go on to report that growth in the production of carbon dioxide has been slowing in the U.S., “The worldwide growth in energy related carbon dioxide emissions has come from rapid growth in the developing world.” So off-shoring your staff and facilities needs may be controversial from both a labor and an environmental perspective, if a developing country is home to your remote operations, unless you make the environment your priority wherever you locate your facilities.

Greenwashing is a term describing a tactic of manufacturers and others who have found some green aspect or feature (however small) of their particular product or system and then tout this as the main reason to include it in your next project. Never mind that the green quality or feature may not be verifiable, or actually lessen your environmental impact, or in the big picture its contribution is so small it is not even worth studying its affect. In other words, it is today’s snake oil in the superheated green building products marketplace.

People are using the terms “green building” and “sustainability” interchangeably when referring to the environmental impacts of construction, but they are subtly different. The term sustainability means many things to many people. It is a fuzzy concept that roughly means meeting the needs of the present without jeopardizing future generations’ ability to meet their own needs. The yardsticks for judging relative sustainability scenarios are just as fuzzy. One persons “sustainable project” can be another’s “energy hog”, but the sustainable bottom line to most Americans means reducing our individual and collective impact on the environment.

How can we (both individually and collectively through our business) do that? It’s simple in concept and a little more difficult in practice. Mies van der Rohe was often quoted with saying, “Less is more.” and indeed this is an excellent tenet of any sustainable project. It really boils down to the tag line from years back “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle”. These days when discussing global warming, reduce is the key concept.

You probably have heard a lot about the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification program sponsored by the independent trade group, US Green Building Council (USGBC). This program is to quantify green building practices and score the relative green accomplishments by individual projects. Their consensus developed scoring system is weighted towards more general environmental issues and not necessarily global warming. This has recently proven somewhat controversial and many people are concerned that the documentation requirements are laborious (read costly), so that only the larger projects can justify this endorsement.

But you and your company can make major differences in your green footprint when it comes to global warming. According to the EIA we produce about 20 tons per capita per year of carbon dioxide! Twenty tons for every man woman and child in this country, and that is a lot of carbon dioxide! The two main sources of carbon dioxide are electricity production (e.g. power plants) and petroleum based fuel consuming vehicles. So it follows that if one wants to make a real impact on greenhouse gas production you have to focus on these biggest culprits. Our priorities should be, quite simply, use less electricity and drive less —a lot less. If we can make significant reductions in these areas we stand a chance of mitigating the global warming trend. So a disproportionately large effort should be made by companies on these two fronts. Other sustainable efforts are also important, but due to the very planet-wide scale of global warming, these should be our top priorities.

What can your firm do to contribute to reducing global warming?

  1. Reduce your electrical energy consumption by upgrading old HVAC and lighting systems.
    Electrical power is at the top of the list for carbon dioxide sources and we need to cut back drastically in this area. Tenants are not typically in direct control of the HVAC systems in a building, but they can put pressure on landlords to modernize Base Building heating and equipment and controls to conserve energy. And while this is important, the lighting systems within the tenant’s space are typically considered part of your Tenant Improvements and can be upgraded by the tenant.

    You can make major reductions in electrical consumption when you install energy efficient lights and controls. Incandescents lamps are notoriously energy inefficient; compact fluorescents lamps can replace incandescent downlight lamps and the main lighting should employ high-output T5 linear fluorescent with electronic ballasts. Start with the majority of your lights, if they utilize the old T12 fluorescents, retrofit them to take T5 lamps with electronic ballasts. Install the latest dimming and controls systems that employ occupancy sensors and photocells to reduce light when appropriate. Select indirect/direct linear fluorescent fixtures that utilize the ceiling to diffuse and reflect the light from the fixtures. They will give your space a more even glare-less light, while consuming significantly less energy that the common 2x4 T12 parabolic or prismatic downlights. It’s best to work with an architect on these systems to make sure you get adequate lighting while keeping energy consumption to a minimum.

    Work with your architect to find for opportunities to capture more daylight such as adding skylights if your space is near the building roof, or adding windows to exterior walls.

    If you are metered and pay your own utilities, buy your electrical power from a green energy provider, one that specializes in wind or hydro-generated power.

  2. Get out of our cars.
    Let me repeat this one, get out of our cars. Transportation is right behind electricity production on the list of greenhouse gas sources and although hybrids are a good alternative to gasoline burning cars, they still only represent roughly a 20-30% reduction in greenhouse gases over gas powered cars . Considering that we produce five times the average amount of greenhouse gases our goal should be to reduce much further. So encourage everyone at your firm to use alternative transportation methods, with bicycles being one of the best ways to commute to work (zero greenhouse gases!). Or alternatively we should use alternative transportation methods such as carpools (especially using hybrids), mass-transit, etc. One way is to give your employees cash incentives or subsidies to those who use alternative transportation methods to commute.

    Consider buying company vehicles to be shared by employees for work related travel, thereby reducing the need for them to commute in their own cars. If you do make sure that they are hybrids that can burn ethanol, as it was shown in a recent study by GM that these ethanol fueled hybrids are best for the reduction of greenhouse gases.

  3. Don’t build new offices
    Have your broker renegotiate your lease and stay in place. Not only does this keep from consuming more materials, but will probably also save you money by keeping your relocation expenses at zero. Just make sure you negotiate for some Tenant Improvement dollars from the landlord to retrofit your lighting systems.

    Consider installing more hoteling spaces (shared cubicles) for employees who are highly mobile and utilize the latest mobile technologies to support them. Or better yet, transition to an interior workspace model which eliminates permanent individually assigned workplaces and replaces the office environment with a variety of unassigned spaces, where each employee (with their IP enabled laptop and VOIP phone) chooses their place each day. This is what Cisco Corporation has deployed worldwide with significant reductions in square footage per person, which translates directly into savings in real estate expenses and of course, reductions in their environmental footprint.

If you have to move the office

On the other hand, if it is imperative that the firm move its offices, the relocation team should at a minimum make the following their priorities:

  1. Locate the office close to your people
    Move your office location to a building that is closest to the homes of a majority of your employees (current as well as future hires). Use your Human Resources department to develop a list of employees and their addresses and then plot the locations on a map. You’ll quickly see where the best office location should be to reduce everyone’s commute distance. This will translate into shorter commutes and increase the viability of carpooling and public transit options.

  2. Keep your density up
    This means keeping your office area square footage per person to a minimum. Plan for fewer people in private offices, standardize on smaller cubicle sizes, utilize more shared cubicles (hoteling) for those staff who are frequently out of the office, and build fewer and smaller file rooms (deploy electronic records systems instead).

  3. Look for opportunities for re-use
    Work with your broker and architect to find second generation building spaces with existing in-place Tenant Improvements similar to your needs. Sometimes it may be possible to find spaces that are offered with the furniture systems, which can be reconfigured to suit your particular needs.

  4. Install ultra-efficient lighting fixtures and controls
    As noted earlier, this can provide a huge improvement in your energy consumption. Also, work with your architect to organize the space to maximize the available daylight, so that when coupled with daylight sensing controls, artificial sources can be dimmed or switched off automatically when there is sufficient available daylight

  5. Acquire systems furniture that you will keep
    If you have to buy systems furniture consider buying refabricated used product. If that is not a viable option, then select a system that is not only “green” based on the materials employed and the green manufacturing process utilized, but select a system that is ultra-flexible and rugged, so it can be moved and redeployed often as you grow or move to new locations. Make sure you choose colors and finishes that will look attractive over a long life.

When changing or relocating your office, it is easy to get caught up in all the green hype that is sweeping the construction industry. It can be a real challenge to not be swayed to purchase new green products. Indeed on the surface this sounds like the very thing you should do when completing your build-out, but one should be cautious. If you demolish existing in-place improvements (that may be quite serviceable) and replace them with new green products your net environmental impact may well be much higher than if you reused those improvements! Remember the focus should be on making real reductions not consuming more (even if they are green products).

Don’t be distracted by all the “green” noise out there. There is a lot of greenwashing going on in the construction industry and many of the products and systems are very good. But don’t be deceived; the biggest gains in the battle against global warming can be had by cutting our use of fossil fuels. This means quite simply cut consumption of electricity and automobile fuels. If your company is successful in significantly cutting these two areas, we will all benefit. So keep your focus on reducing your dependence on cars, cut the amount of power you use, and don’t sweat the small stuff. And, as Al Gore says, “Plant trees…lots of trees.”


About the Author

Ned Fennie, Jr.

J. Edgar “Ned” Fennie Jr. is co founder of FENNIE+MEHL Architects located in San Francisco. FENNIE+MEHL Architects specialize in office development with expertise in space planning, interior architecture and ADA and code compliance consulting.

Ned is also Chair of the Code Advisory Committee to the San Francisco Building Inspection Commission. The Code Advisory Committee (CAC) consists of 17 members who are qualified by training and experience to deliberate and make recommendations on matters pertaining to the development and improvement of the content of the San Francisco Building Code, Mechanical Code, Electrical Code. Plumbing Code, Green Building Code and Housing Code as well as related rules and regulations or proposed ordinances that the Director of the Building Inspection Department determines may have an impact on construction permits. Specific recommendations of this Committee are directed to the Building Inspection Commission for their further action.


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