People, not buildings, consume energy, depreciate property and create waste.
Despite all the environmental progress made through construction with better metals, designs, plastics and chemicals, building sustainably is still more behavioral than structural. Consider Marvin Klein, a sustainability leader in our industry. His reply when someone asked if he had installed eco-friendly LED lighting in his building was, “We were taught to turn the lights out to save electricity.”
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A People Problem
People — not buildings — consume energy, depreciate property and create waste. Yet most of today’s green-care themes, claims, presentations and awards focus on products not people. That’s not where real environmental change happens. It’s the little habit shifts made by large groups of people that can add up to real gains. I remember encountering a paper towel dispenser with a sign that read, “One is for need; two is for greed.” It really caught me off guard as I had always grabbed a handful of paper towels, not thinking of the long-term implications if everyone else did the same. If we all shook off our wet hands and used only one paper towel, as I do now, we’d probably save 10,000 trees a day and maybe about that much in fuel, which is used to make and deliver the extra towels.
When it comes to maintaining our buildings, no one wants to spend more time or money than is necessary to keep a building functioning. It’s all about short-range profit and loss numbers. This thinking is way anti-green. Caring for a building and its contents can add up to huge savings, both monetary and environmental. Getting a few extra years out of a carpet would create savings equal to, if not greater than, years of minor paper recycling programs. In this mindset, facility owners enjoy ten years of minimal investment, but on the eleventh year things disintegrate. That’s when all the green progress and savings evaporate because the replacement investment is typically substantial.
A Human Solution
Green’s friend is the TCO rule: Total Cost of Ownership. This approach helps owners calculate how simple repairs, better schedules or new organization systems can save a lot of money over time. For example, one of my company’s jobs was to regularly clean an eight-story complex. I employed an eight-person team for eight hours. When we started out, we’d assign one or two cleaning technicians to each of the different floors. By switching to gang cleaning, in which we put the entire eight-person crew on one floor per hour, we were able to leave the other seven floors dark for seven hours. Over time, this simple change lowered our client’s consumption of electricity and saved them more than $10,000 on their electric bill. That’s also a lot of saved money and resources.
The awards might go to the latest shiny green building products, but in reality it’s changing the behavior of the people who live and work in buildings that is the greenest move you can make.