Special Report: The State Of Sustainability

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By Scott Lesnet, Heidi Schwartz, and Kelly Sterk
Published in the April 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Over the past few years, facility managers have shown an increasing awareness of the connection between commercial buildings and their impact on the environment, particularly as it relates to reducing costs and making their facilities healthy for the people who work there. These are the central goals for facility managers, because they make good business sense. It’s also apparent that pursuing sustainable activities is not being driven by the desire to make their organization look better in the public eye, though that may be a result.

The examination of any controversial topic should begin with a definition. What is sustainability and what does it mean to key professionals involved in the pursuit of this goal?

To architects, designers, and engineers, the emphasis may be on “the ability to make development sustainable–to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” [G.H. Brundtland, “Our Common Future,” World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987; available online at www.canadianarchitect.com.]

But according to a recent survey conducted by Allsteel and Today’s Facility Manager, facility managers have a different interpretation. In fact, they may have several ways to define the concepts associated with sustainability.

For those people who manage buildings (rather than those who design and develop them), it is clearly appealing to reduce the environmental impact of the facilities they operate. But for these professionals essential to the success or failure of sustainable initiatives, economics is the primary concern, not necessarily concerns over development without compromise for the future.

Key Drivers 

Energy consumption in buildings is the largest single contributor of most major pollutants in this country. However, it’s not the buildings themselves causing the pollution; it’s the generation of electricity and the transportation of materials to and from those buildings. So by striving to cut energy and the associated costs, facility managers are reducing the environmental impact created by their buildings.

Survey results indicate that building operations (62%) and systems (57%) are the areas where sustainable design has the most significant impact on decisions. In other words, facility managers are proactively examining energy efficiency–particularly in systems like HVAC–in their efforts to cut costs.

Providing an environment that fosters productivity (68%) came in slightly behind cost savings/avoidance (81% and 70%) in its importance as an aspect of green design. Unfortunately, providing empirical data on productivity increases is not as easy as showing cost savings resulting from sustainable activities.

However, some areas of sustainability, such as indoor air quality and natural lighting, foster working conditions that are more favorable for productivity improvements and cost savings.

Most Popular Initiatives 

For respondents, the most important aspects of green design are energy conservation (81%) and cost savings (81%). In keeping with economic efforts, survey results indicate that nearly 70% of respondents are using zoned or fully integrated computer based systems to control temperature and humidity. An overwhelming number are also using controls for lighting. Occupancy sensors (49%) and timers (40%) are the most popular adjustment measures. A small portion (5%) has installed work station based lighting controls. Lighting, temperature, and humidity controls save on energy, which can be measured through electrical costs and usage.

Recycling is another environmental approach that’s popular with survey respondents. More than 70% currently have centralized paper and corrugated collection programs, while another 16% ask individual occupants to establish their own recycling programs. Only 13% currently have no recycling programs in place.

While worker productivity was cited as an important aspect of green design, indoor air quality and change rates did not necessarily reflect that concern. When looking at these rates, nearly half (46%) of respondents reported rates of 1/2 to 1 air change per hour, which meets the basic standard put forth by ASHRAE. Twenty-one percent report an air change rate of 1/4 to 1/2 air change per hour, and 34% do not regulate air change rates at all.

This indicates that the majority of respondents may not be managing indoor air quality to its best advantage. Once again, it’s a matter of cost. If the improvements promised by increased air change rates had a concrete dollar value attached to productivity and health, these rates would more than likely improve. In the mind of the facility manager, there isn’t a concrete connection between sustainable actions and productivity measures, such as absentee rates or output.

To get to the core of the matter, facility managers should measure the concentration of germs and air quality. Then they should investigate any connection between absenteeism, productivity, and quality of work. When measured in these terms, these rates may inspire action.

Energy Star, Not LEED 

Because of their concentration on economics and the relative newness of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System® (www.usgbc.org), facility managers are more familiar with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star® Program (www.energystar.gov).

Defined as “a government backed program helping businesses protect the environment through superior energy efficiency,” Energy Star most easily translates into cost reduction and productivity improvements for facility managers. Approximately 42% of respondents know about EPA Energy Star, while 23% are familiar with LEED.

Despite efforts made by various parties, facility managers are somewhat slow to embrace LEED concepts. While created with the input of facility managers, many feel the standard just isn’t written in their language or in terms that address their primary concerns.


Consequently, facility managers tend not to understand (or embrace) the rigid process, certifications, and recognition programs of the USGBC’s LEED initiative. They will do everything they can to achieve the best for their facilities, but LEED certification in and of itself isn’t enough reason to go through the process.

The perception of prohibitive cost is the biggest barrier between facility managers and the concept of sustainable design.

Part of this comes from the fact that there are two budgets in terms of buildings: there’s one to put the building on line and another to operate the building over time.

For the facility manager who sees the building as an asset that will be occupied for 10 years or longer, it’s worth the investment. But if a facility manager inherits a spec building that somebody else will pay for, there’s no way to get that money back. Life cycle benefits become a more difficult sell in the latter case unless the project is cost neutral.

A Personal Matter 

For an overwhelming number of facility managers (70%), the motivation to pursue sustainable initiatives is personal–it’s not driven by organizational structure, outside certifications, public awareness, or other factors. Furthermore, top management (27%) and customers (18%) aren’t demanding the pursuit of sustainable initiatives, so there is little outside motivation for these professionals.

In fact, this lack of support from top management (19%) is the primary concern of respondents regarding LEED certification, along with the initial costs of certification (17%) and doubt over life cycle savings (11%). Only 6% are worried about the time factor.

Perhaps more constituencies would push for sustainable actions if they understood the potential cost savings, productivity improvements, or public relations value that could be realized as a result of sustainable actions. Interestingly, no survey respondents saw LEED certification as a way of promoting their organization. However, the majority saw it as a way to make the organization more attractive within the community (44%). Are organizations missing a method of enhancing their image by communicating their sustainable activities to the public?

Individual facility managers have choices they can make. In different organizations, there are champions who pull people along with them. Since facility managers are often so busy just keeping their heads above water, some may see this as the chance to gain a deeper sense of satisfaction about what they do.

Most companies have been achieving solid environmental goals over the years; it’s just become a more popular thing to talk about now. Facility managers will do everything they can to achieve the best for their facilities, but they are reluctant to increase costs in order to attain LEED certification.

Consider the example of the facility manager with a broken chair. There are many take back programs and recycling efforts, but most facility managers simply hate the idea of throwing away a chair, especially if only one piece or component is broken. Facility managers want to save everything–not necessarily for environmental reasons, but for the potential that they may be able to salvage that chair (or parts of it) for some other purpose.

Facility managers should realize that their inherent salvage nature is the highest form of conservation, even though it’s not part of the formal language of LEED.

Present And Future Efforts 

Although 62% of survey respondents are not currently planning to pursue LEED, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are ignoring their environmental responsibilities; they may just elect not to pursue certification. A small percentage (6%) has already achieved LEED certification for at least one facility, and 12% are currently pursuing it. Another 22% see it as something they may do in the future.

Basic LEED certification is the goal of the majority of those who have or are going to pursue it (64%). Somewhat fewer are pursuing Silver (17%), Gold (14%), or Platinum (5%). However, recent studies indicate that certification is unlikely to achieve payback on the investment unless at least Gold status is obtained.

New construction is the most popular area for LEED certification–current (64%) and future (58%)–although the relatively new LEED EB (existing building) is becoming more popular. Among those with certification, only 36% have achieved it for LEED EB while 47% plan to pursue it in the future.

There are many facility managers who incorporate sustainable concepts, but when faced with the LEED process, they balk at demonstrating something that has already been executed successfully. They question whether there is really any value in spending time to restate something that was already functioning in an efficient way. Ultimately, their conservation mindedness may be keeping them from using resources to recreate documentation demonstrating what they already know and are doing.

Survey Conclusions 

This survey has revealed several important issues:

  • The largest impact areas for green design are in building operations and systems, primarily because these are the areas where the most significant cost savings can be realized.
  • Most facility managers use integrated computer based thermal/humidity control methods.
  • The most popular lighting control strategy with respondents is timers.
  • Nearly half of participants have instituted an air change rate of 1/2 to 1 per hour.
  • Most facility managers have a centralized paper and corrugated collection program for recycling.
  • Cost savings and productivity improvements are the most compelling drivers for facility managers with interest in pursuing green initiatives.
  • There is an opportunity to increase the level of knowledge of facility managers in green design, particularly around LEED certification and the registration process.
  • While cost savings is an opportunity, the pay back period is a barrier for facility managers who wish to implement sustainable activities.
  • There appears to be relatively low outside influence on facility managers to encourage sustainable activities. Overall, they are behaving in an independent manner.
  • Facility managers did identify opportunities for their organizations to be more attractive to outside parties–particularly within the community–by earning LEED certification for their facilities.
  • A substantial number (18%) of organizations have either obtained or are in the process of obtaining LEED certification, primarily in new construction; although it appears that existing building certification will increase in the future.
  • The goal of most facility managers that have obtained or are in the process of pursuing certification is to achieve basic LEED certification.

Final Thoughts 

Can the pursuit of sustainable initiatives be made more appealing to facility managers? Perhaps something as simple as a common language can make a difference. If this language can be translated into economic terms that are tangible and desirable to facility managers, the sustainability movement will benefit from a fresh influx of enthusiastic champions.

Analysis was provided by Lesnet, Allsteel’s safety and environmental manager, Sterk, Allsteel’s manager of Workplace Research, and Schwartz, editor/co-publisher of TFM.

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