Opportunities to run your facility in an environmentally conscious manner abound. Everything from product procurement, cleaning, and waste management to water efficiency, landscaping, and daylighting can and should be driven by sustainability.
But with tight budgets and competing interests, keeping green at the heart of your operations is challenging. And no matter how eco-friendly your building’s design is, there’s always room for continuous improvement on the O&M side.
We’ve found seven key areas that should be part of any green operations plan – have you let any of these fall through the cracks?
1. Set Sustainability Goals
Don’t let sustainability be a nebulous target – specify concrete objectives that your department is responsible for targeting.
“You need active policies that set goals and outline minimum performance criteria for sustainability,” says Rachel Sowards, practice area manager for Paladino and Company, a sustainability consulting firm. “Without requiring ownership over this area, it’s difficult to keep momentum going.”
It can also be difficult to have conversations about green initiatives with company leadership if you don’t have a clear focus. You want to have documented objectives on hand if you run into a budget crunch and need to make key decisions. If you’ve been tasked with particular projects but don’t have the resources to fulfill them, you’ll also want your organization to understand precisely what is being sacrificed.
Green goals shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of your FM department either. Shape them with an eye toward your company’s mission so your objectives are in line with everyone’s bottom line.
“If your sustainability program corresponds with your organization’s core values, green goals won’t be off the beaten path – they’ll be a fundamental part of who you are as a business,” Sowards explains.
Your objectives should also have clear outcomes. Stipulate reasonable but precise targets, such as a 10% reduction in water use, switching to 100% recycled paper products, or a 5% increase in recycling collection.
2. Benchmark for Success
Once you set goals, track them and quantify your progress. How will you prove that your team is making an impact?
“Benchmarking is one of the most important components to successfully greening any property – you need to measure,” stresses Sowards. “If you don’t know what’s happening in your building today, there’s no way you can implement a program that’s going to help you become better tomorrow.”
While simple benchmarking can be done in house with an Excel spreadsheet, you may want to use a dedicated tool or program to save time. If you want to improve waste reduction, for example, you may consider a program like the EPA’s WasteWise (see page 20 for more details). Or if you need to work on water conservation, the ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager can verify improvements by analyzing your utility bill data.
Whichever tool you use, review the data on a routine basis. Continually look for indications that your progress isn’t advancing as expected. Just like energy efficiency, sustainability can flourish with constant involvement.
“Check your baseline,” recommends Thomas Taylor, co-founder and principal of Vertegy, a sustainability consulting firm. “If it’s not what it’s supposed to be, find the root cause and make changes. It’s as simple as that.”
Not only should data be actionable, but at the end of your goal period, you should be able to document all of the headway you’ve made. This is particularly important if you need to justify any investments to make your green initiatives a reality.
3. Document or Die
As buildings become more complex to manage, it’s imperative that you receive the right training on your systems and document all of your operational procedures.
For major renovations or new construction, there can be a communication gap between the design firm and your FM team that results in lost information when the project is transferred.
“You need to fully understand the intention and strategies for operating the building,” stresses Barry Abramson, principal and LEED AP O+M with Servidyne, an energy and sustainability consulting firm. “The system design can enable optimum performance for energy efficiency, but if the operators haven’t had training or there isn’t a plan for dealing with unexpected problems, then controls are going to get defeated.”
Churn in your own FM department can be another source of inefficiency. From retirements to replacements, institutional knowledge is incredibly easy to lose if practices and procedures are left undocumented.
“Have as much information as possible about your standard operating procedures written down,” Sowards says.
“You need to set up your green policies like a playbook,” adds Taylor. “Anyone should be able to walk into an FM position and flip open to a detailed section on operations.”
Quick Hits for Sustainability
Need ideas to green your maintenance practices? Try one of these basic strategies they’re easy on the budget, need only a simple retrofit or operational change, and will generate quick returns.
- Conduct a waste audit. It will determine your current diversion rates, set benchmarking goals, and help you track your progress.
- Add electronics recycling, which includes computers and accessories, phones, fax machines, and printers. Also look for battery and lamp disposal.
- Combat food waste by composting leftovers or adding a pulper.
- Eliminate harsh products with bleach, dyes, fragrances, and harmful ingredients that can detract from indoor air quality.
- Use microfiber mops and rags – they trap dirt more effectively and are reusable with a quick wash.
- Perform as many quiet tasks during normal hours to avoid wasting electricity at night, such as emptying trash, surface cleaning, and refreshing restrooms.
- Beyond toilets and sinks, look for low-flow opportunities with pre-rinse spray valves, showerheads, laundry units, dishwashers, and ice machines.
- Use drip irrigation, zoning, or rain and soil moisture sensors to reduce water consumed by landscaping.
- Install flow meters in your cooling towers. These will detect leaks and monitor dissolved solids so you can replace water only as needed.
- For paper products, select options that are recycled, contain renewable content, and are free of bleach.
- Look for third-party labels that certify a product’s environmental claims. These include Green Seal, FSC or SFI (wood), ECOLOGO, GREENGUARD (low VOC), and BIFMA level (furniture).
- Where possible, source supplies from local vendors. This will lower carbon emissions derived from transportation.
4. Engage Occupants
One of the challenges with sustainability is getting your employees on board. For better or worse, many areas of green operations are influenced by occupants. For example, the success of your waste management program largely rests on individuals separating their trash and using the appropriate recycling bins. Automation, such as lighting sensors in offices or flushometers in restrooms, can only take your green efforts so far.
“Sustainability often involves change management, which is challenging no matter the context,” Sowards explains. “We know people like things easy – they don’t want to think too hard about something. They also don’t want to be forced or pushed into acting a certain way. Ask yourself, how am I encouraging and motivating people to behave sustainably?”
If you don’t have one already, form a green team. Large organizations may have a director of sustainability and key FM members lead the charge, whereas others may tap volunteers who don’t mind twisting the arms of colleagues to make sustainability part of the work or educational culture.
Another way to engage occupants is to conduct satisfaction surveys, reminds Taylor. Prepare yourself for a few bristly comments, but take concerns seriously and make a real effort to address them. Workers will notice if they fill out a questionnaire but don’t see any follow-through, he adds.
Green O&M is also a key strategy to bolster occupant health. Numerous studies show that a healthy building can greatly improve worker satisfaction and well-being. From better test scores for students to more productivity from employees, a green building contributes to your bottom line.
“I think the next evolution in green thinking will focus on how healthy a building is for occupants,” Sowards observes. “Look at the impact your facility has on workers every day. Are they breathing fresh air? Are there ways for them to view or walk out and enjoy the outdoors easily? Are they being exposed to chemicals that might negatively impact them?”
5. Reduce Carbon Emissions
You may think energy efficiency and sustainability are separate objectives, but these two areas have a common factor: your carbon footprint.
“Remember that energy performance directly translates into greenhouse gas emissions,” notes Abramson.
The best way to lower your carbon footprint is to reduce your energy profile. Before looking at retrofits, confirm your consumption is at expected or designed levels, says Taylor. It’s common for efficiency to drift as the building ages or energy demands change. Use retrocommissioning to investigate your current energy use, which typically involves an ASHRAE Level I energy audit, Abramson recommends.
“We often see that FMs have overridden automatic controls and gone to manual mode so they can respond to complaints or a specific issue. The problem is that no one goes back and resets the building the way it was supposed to run,” Taylor notes.
For example, Abramson recently investigated a roof on a LEED-EB Gold building. The region had experienced ongoing fires the previous summer and the outdoor air dampers were closed to avoid smoke infiltration. But nine months later, they found the dampers had never been reopened. This meant the facility was suffering from IAQ issues because fresh air wasn’t being pulled. Energy performance was also compromised as a significant period of free cooling was missed.
Retrocomissioning is also a budget-friendly option as it focuses on improving existing systems with low- or no-cost changes rather than replacements. These typically include repairs and maintenance, adjusting set points and control sequences, and minor retrofits like lighting sensors or additional monitoring capabilities. You can also review the impact of plug loads.
“There comes a point where you can’t squeeze any more efficiency out of your building without major upgrades. You have to look at the ways occupants affect your energy load,” Taylor says. “Who’s got fans, space heaters, and radios plugged in? How many computers are left on each night? Can the number of printers be reduced?”
Changes to these areas are best rolled out with the input of department managers. Don’t make assumptions about what workers do or do not need – work together to find the best solution for all involved.
6. Follow Through with Preventive Maintenance
Maintenance is more than fixing repairs – it can be a strategy to keep systems running efficiently for as long as possible. Fewer equipment replacements over the building’s life will conserve resources and prevent excess materials from ending up in the landfill. Preventive maintenance will also help you stay ahead of costly fixes while keeping efficiencies in check.
“Too many building owners run their facilities like some people handle car maintenance – they only respond to something if the light goes on. If you do that, you’re only responding to system failures rather than preventing them,” Taylor cautions.
When it’s time to replace equipment, make sure you have purchasing policies that require you to update to a more efficient model, he recommends.
7 Get on the Phone with Your Vendors
Your service providers may be an untapped area for sustainability – when was the last time you had a conversation with them about your green O&M? These external partners can help take your sustainable practices to the next level. Janitorial, pest control, recycling, waste management, landscaping, and even laundry services all offer opportunities to improve your environmental impact, says Abramson.
“Review the current scope of all vendors. You may be surprised that specifications in your contract have been forgotten,” Sowards recommends. “Ensuring existing requirements are honored allows you to upgrade your sustainability program without spending a dollar because those mandates are already in place.”
There could also be additional services you didn’t know were available that can expand your sustainable efforts, she adds. If you work with a recycling vendor, for example, ask what else they offer. You may be able to add composting, battery recycling, or light bulb disposal for a reasonable fee.
New Day, New Opportunity
If green-minded O&M is new to your facility, it’s best to start with small goals and progress to larger initiatives. Get a few successes under your belt that will serve as a strong foundation – don’t feel like you have to overhaul your operations in a single day.
“The green work that went into the building design is already setting you up for success – the catch is that you have to propel that work moving forward,” notes Sowards.
For owners with certified buildings, such as Living Building Challenge or LEED for Existing Buildings, there’s more accountability or incentives to prove operational practices are sustainable, notes Taylor. Your organization will also have a tangible road map for environmental targets rather than specifying them haphazardly.
“I would encourage more people to go through the certification process,” Taylor says. “You can chose any certification as long as it holds your team accountable for meeting green goals. It’s one thing to say you’re doing something, it’s another thing to prove it.”
Jennie Morton firstname.lastname@example.org is senior editor of BUILDINGS.