Be Smart about Going Green: Tips to Optimize Your Sustainable Building Practices

Oct. 31, 2007
With incremental improvements to building performance, organizations can make their current facilities greener, reducing the environmental impact of building operations while promoting a healthier work environment

By Lisa Raffin

Today, much of the buzz around green buildings centers on new construction. But, in fact, there is a far greater opportunity for achieving environmental benefits – and operational cost savings – by promoting more sustainable operations among existing commercial buildings. By making incremental improvements to building performance in areas ranging from lighting and HVAC systems to water conservation and substitutions of green materials, organizations can make their current facilities “greener,” reducing the environmental impact of building operations while promoting a healthier work environment.

This incremental approach to sustainability is embraced by many proponents of green buildings who recognize that organizations must see the return on their sustainability initiatives for greening programs to gain mainstream adoption. Sheila Sheridan, vice chair for the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Committee on LEED for Existing Buildings, notes that sustainability “means doing a little at a time and, eventually, making a difference. That’s really what Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) is about.”

Originally, the USGBC’s LEED guidelines addressed new construction; however, recognizing the vast potential for promoting more sustainable operations in existing facilities, the organization added LEED guidelines for existing buildings (also known as “LEED-EB”). While organizations can pursue LEED-EB certification for a facility, simply adopting some of the building operations and maintenance practices outlined in the guidelines can promote significant returns in operational efficiency and reduced environment impact by using less energy, water, and natural resources. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that if every office building in the country reduced its energy use by 30 percent, the resulting savings would total $30 billion a year.

Sustainability, however, has many dimensions. Energy usage is just one piece of a complex puzzle. Waste management, water conservation, recycling, and site transportation are a few of the many other considerations. How can an organization effectively evaluate its options and focus its green dollars where they will have the greatest impact?

Five Focus Areas for Assessing Greening Opportunities
The first step in identifying the best investment strategy for sustainability is an objective evaluation of an organization’s current options, including estimated costs and benefits. Such an assessment should address key categories consistent with guidelines for LEED-EB: Energy Efficiency, Materials and Construction, Water Conservation, Indoor Air Quality and Environment, and Site Sustainability.

Examining all these areas holistically – ideally together with other facility improvement needs – can enable organizations to realize economies of scale and most cost-efficiently bundle resulting projects. For organizations looking to roll out green programs incrementally, however, the initial focus is often energy efficiency, since more efficient energy use can deliver the greatest cost savings for many organizations.

Specifics on the key areas follow:

  • Energy Performance. An analysis of energy performance, including electrical and mechanical systems, and renewable energy sources, should target recommended actions to reduce operating and consumption costs and decrease emissions. Such actions typically take a progressive approach, reviewing opportunities for savings, beginning with operations and occupant behavior, for lighting, controls, equipment, and systems. A typical office building’s electrical usage for lighting and plug load is 60 percent of its total electric bill and offers substantial opportunities for savings before even addressing the equipment. Buildings without the proper amounts of insulation or energy-efficient windows and doors end up compensating for these deficiencies with over-designed HVAC systems requiring much more energy than is actually needed. Existing buildings, particularly ones that have been repurposed or extensively remodeled, need a much closer look at optimal thermostat placement and HVAC system operations. All of these demand-side energy-savings measures should be complemented with a plan for supply-side energy management. Supply-side energy management ranges from companies generating their own power with solar and wind energy to minimizing peak demands through equipment sequencing and shifting, where possible, the peak energy requirements to off-peak utility supply periods.
  • Materials and Construction. Materials and construction is another area where organizations may find short-term saving opportunities from green investments. Such savings can often be realized by reducing waste associated with building operations and maintenance, for example, through recycling and conservation programs and enhanced waste management practices. An analysis of cleaning products can also reveal options for more environmentally friendly options that promote greater environmental safety.
  • Water Conservation. With water costs rising in many municipalities, water treatment, consumption, and discharge systems and practices should also be assessed to identify opportunities to increase efficiency, reduce waste, and support enhanced water conservation.
  • Indoor Air Quality and Environment. Indoor air quality, lighting quality, and thermal comfort are also important elements of building sustainability. Greening opportunities in this area often center on enhancing use of low-emission materials and reducing or eliminating ozone-depleting gases from HVAC, refrigeration, and fire-suppression systems. Enhanced daylighting can also provide the joint benefits of decreased energy use and enhanced productivity for those who work in the affected area.
  • Site Sustainability. Organizations can identify opportunities for promoting a more sustainable building site by assessing ways to employ exterior lighting more effectively, alter landscaping to reduce erosion, and make better use of runoff water. Transportation alternatives to and from the site can also provide opportunities for reducing energy usage and pollution related to the site.

Integrating Sustainability Programs into the Capital Planning Process
With detailed information about the costs and benefits of potential green investments, organizations can effectively evaluate which initiatives will ultimately provide the greatest results over the short and long term. Based on its overall business goals, each organization will have different values and, therefore, different strategies. For example, an organization may focus on investments that will deliver the greatest improvements to the quality of the work environment, while another may make its top priority those investments that provide operational cost savings or, most significantly, reduce environmental impact.

The many potential greening initiatives an organization can undertake compete with a myriad of other capital and operational investments – for systems renewal, building renovation, and new construction. Therefore, while organizations may single out opportunities to improve building sustainability for analysis, ultimately those investments will need to be assessed in the context of other building requirements.

Organizations that are early in the process of integrating green programs into their capital plans may choose to focus initially on relatively low-cost initiatives that deliver short-term paybacks by reducing energy and natural resource consumption, prioritized based on cost savings and other desired benefits. Some examples include upgrades of lighting controls, water-saving controls, or mechanical system tune-ups.

As they make progress – and see results – they may go on to evaluate greening opportunities that can provide both short- and long-term environmental, social, and economic benefits. Such assessments may be conducted, for example, in support of major building renovations, large-scale master planning programs, or the acquisition of a long-term property holding.

By combining this information with detailed data about overall requirements across a building portfolio, organizations can get a holistic view of facility needs, allowing them to maximize operational efficiency while promoting a sustainable built environment.

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