FM Frequency: Green Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

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By Charles Carpenter
Published in the October 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

When considering what it means to be sustainable, or green, in the built environment, there are many different attitudes, interpretations, or shades. These might be rooted in fact, fear, finances, culture, values, education, or “what my boss thinks.” Or, as Walter Filho, senior professor and head of the Applications of Life Sciences Research and Transfer Center at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, puts it: “One’s own definition will be influenced by one’s training, one’s working experience, and one’s political and economic setting.”

Take a look at the different designations in the LEED building rating system. It started out that a facility could be certified as LEED Platinum, Gold, Silver, or Bronze. These have expanded to include LEED for Commercial Interiors, Neighborhood Development, Homes, Schools, Healthcare, Submarines (ok, that last one is a prediction), and more. Each in itself could be considered a different shade of green.

Taipei 101 is a 106 floor (five underground) LEED Platinum building in Taiwan’s Xinyi financial district that once was the world’s tallest. McDonald’s received LEED for Existing Buildings (EB) Platinum for enhancements to its 20 year old Campus Office Building in Oak Brook, IL. The Rivers Casino near Chicago was the first casino in the world to achieve LEED Gold certification. Some might see these accomplishments as darker shades of green while others might see them as lighter (or even hypocritical given their corporate impact on the global commons).

Many times, shades of green have little to do with doing good. In the business world, the wishes of the shareholders may be the biggest influence. The decision is often about money. Even though there is plenty of evidence of the financial benefits of being green, the jury is still out for many.

While many still lack knowledge about being green, there are still other hurdles that get in the way for even those who have obtained enlightenment. With the prevalence of sustainability, eco-friendly products may be in shorter supply. Market forces may drive prices above what an organization is willing to pay to be green. Lead times may also be longer than an organization is willing to wait for eco-friendly products. Since jobs often go to the lowest bid, contractors may not think green because they do not have knowledge or the time to hone their green acumen as they speed from one job to the next. 

Given the rate that commercial buildings are repurposed, one person’s green is another person’s red. Facilities are remodeled all the time in response to the changing needs of occupants and organizations. Some products are rushed to the market as eco-friendly without consideration of their life cycle analysis. Some manufacturers tend to look at the length of time their product should last (and the profits) and not the reality of its actual use. Products are placed into the market (and can get a LEED certification) without a way to recycle them, possibly because the manufacturer plans to discover a recycling solution before the product’s end of life.

For instance, while newer batteries are designed to last 10 years, an accident might place that product in the waste stream in 10 months (well ahead of the timeline that the manufacturer thought it would have to formulate a recycling process). LEDs are wonderful products; however, because they have eco-friendly characteristics, people may assume they can be disposed of like regular trash. The waste stream starts at the point of use from scrap, damage, change orders, or months after installation from a departmental reconfiguration. Unfortunately, just because something is eco-friendly, people assume that it can be disposed in the same way as a traditional counterpart.

The way to determine the true shade of green of anything may be in evaluating the amount of embodied energy that a product contains. Simply put, the embodied energy is the amount of energy put into the life cycle of a product from its inception to its use. For a plank of wood, this should include the energy used in planting, growing, harvesting, transporting, finishing, transporting to market, selling, transporting to site, and installing. Embodied energy is not something to be taken lightly. Some assert that the amount of embodied energy that goes into some recycled products to be more than their virgin ones.

Meanwhile, facilities can reflect shades of green without that being the primary goal. For instance, some facilities are equipped with systems that freeze water overnight to make ice that will be used to cool the space during the day. While the motivation is financial (from the lower energy rate overnight), these facility practices take it one step further by reducing electricity used from inefficient fossil fueled power plants during peak daytime hours.

Meanwhile, others may think their practices are greener than they actually are. They purchase products with a reduced content of harmful components and treat them as if there are none. For example, bulbs can be touted for reduced mercury content but that does not give the end user license to pitch them in any trash can. Or, some people think that purchasing carbon offsets gives them a green edge, when the immediate ecological impact of their operations is located far from the place where the offsets are created.

One may ultimately discover that there are seven billion shades of green—about one for every person on earth. A person can try to make the right decision individually, but the larger the impact the larger the role that shareholders, supply and demands, and/or the antipathy of others impacts how light or dark that shade of green really is.

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One Response

  1. I found you article to be an excellent overview of some of the thoughts that should be considered by property managers, politicians and lawmakers. The unfortunate truth is that too many of the well intentioned efforts to save the environment have the opposite result. And yet – there are so many great combinations of practice an technology that can reduce energy use and harmful waste streams, but it takes effort to learn about them.

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