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