Skip to main content

Greening Buildings, One Step at a Time

The Doubletree Hotel in Portland, Ore., reduced its water usage last year by 308,000 gallons. And since July, the University of Maine has cut its water consumption by 20,000 gallons each day.

These organizations didn't achieve these results from dramatic architectural improvements or expensive new plumbing systems. The savings are instead the result of small changes in the ways the facilities are managed, such as the university composting more food instead of washing it through a garbage disposal. The hotel slashed water usage by replacing 300 toilets with 1.6 gallon-per-flush models.

Small moves toward daily sustainability are a part of a growing trend toward sustainable facilities management that goes beyond high-profile green initiatives, such as installing a solar power system or achieving LEED certification. This trend instead focuses on the daily minutiae of how a building is operated.

"Most of the savings we've achieved came from a change in attitude and a more sustainable approach to daily operations," says Gordon Nelson, director of property management for the University of Maine. "Our CFO wanted us to be at the forefront of green, and for us, that means looking at small changes that make sense and taking the minor successes."

Green facilities management addresses how a building is used, cleaned, heated and controlled, says Linda Chipperfield, vice president of marketing for Green Seal, a Washington D.C.-based green standardization organization. It offers a series of green standards for facilities interested in using less energy and chemicals to run a building, including Green Facilities and Operation Maintenance standard (GS39).

Sustainable management may include changes in landscape, snow and ice removal, roof maintenance, air handling systems, cleaning products and strategies, lighting and maintenance.

"Each building is unique," Chipperfield says. "The standards give organizations an overview of what they can do to improve."

Chipperfield notes that in many cases, particularly custodial efforts, changes in the frequency or approach can have a significant impact. For example, using mats in entryways can reduce how often chemicals are used to clean floors. Regular gutter maintenance can eliminate the need to use chemicals to clear clogged drains, she says.

"The overall tactic is to 'keep it clean so you don't get build up,'" Chipperfield says. "You don't need to use strong chemicals as frequently or at all if maintenance is done the right way. It's a preventive approach."

Doubletree Has Green Appeal

These small daily efforts may get less attention and press, but they deliver impressive results that extend well beyond the environmental impact and usually require little or no up-front investment.

The Portland Doubletree has seen substantial financial savings from its green facilities management program, along with more than $1 million in new business from organizations that choose the hotel primarily because of its sustainable practices, says General Manager Steve Faulstick.

"Our values are aligned with their values," he says of the new clientele. "They all want to do business with like-minded organizations."

The Portland Doubletree began seriously pursuing Green Seal certification for facilities management in 2002 in response to increasing requests from customers for information about its sustainable program.

"We had initiatives in place, like a recycling program, but they weren't part of a larger plan," Faulstick says.

The organization began working with Green Seal to define an integrated approach to sustainability in its operations that would reduce environmental impact without impeding the customer experience. Today it has exceeded the Green Seal certification requirements, and in most cases, it has achieved a return on investment in these programs in less than a year.

Some of its noteworthy efforts include replacing toilets and shower heads with low-flow models during scheduled upgrades, adding water diverters to existing toilets, and shutting off energy in hotel wings not in use. It works with employees and customers to recycle 16 items it has identified for its recycling program. Its composting program diverts 17 tons of food waste from landfills each month while its cleaning products contain little or no volatile organic compounds and toxins.

"We didn't have to spend $100,000 on new boilers and cooling units, yet we've seen tremendous results," Faulstick says of the hotel's sustainability programs. "That's the lesson. There's an assumption out there that you have to spend a lot of money to do this."

He also notes that businesses don't have to go it alone. "There are resources out there and groups you can turn to for help," he said.

In one of its first initiatives to reduce water consumption, the City of Portland partnered with the hotel and donated water diverters for toilets and helped it find inexpensive aerators for sinks.

The local energy utility also gave the hotel a $15,000 grant to offset a $22,000 program to install compact fluorescent light bulbs. "There are many grants, subsidies, and tax referral programs out there," he says. "You just have to do the research."

Along with getting help from external organizations, Faulstick believes green initiatives have to be a group effort led from the top. "Sustainability doesn't happen because of one person," he said. "It has to be a culture in which everyone is involved."

At the Doubletree, that message comes from the executive team and filters down to all employees through training courses, value statements and conversations with teams about the importance of being a responsible business.

"We quickly found that we had an excited core group who got behind the programs and drove the message to other departments," Faulstick says.

Waste Reduction on Campus

At Green Seal, Chipperfield helps new clients begin their sustainable efforts by educating them on their options and establishing an energy consumption baseline.

"Any green program begins with getting an idea of the impact you currently have," Chipperfield says. "That gives you a place to start."

For Nelson that meant reviewing the University of Maine's daily waste stream, which included recycling programs, composting efforts, and hard trash that goes into landfills.

"That's the low hanging fruit," he says. "It's where you can target key changes that result in quick savings."

Nelson quickly discovered that most green management strategies cost little money to implement. "They are more often about changing habits and educating users," he says.

For example, one of his first programs involved residential hall trash pick-up. Residents previously put small bags of garbage into larger bag-lined cans taken to the curb twice a week. Replacing the bag-lined cans with dumpsters reduced trash bag use by 10,000 pounds a year, or the equivalent of half a tractor-trailer filled with plastic.

He turned trash rooms into recycle rooms while a student-led initiative to coordinate the recycling effort boosted the amount of materials recycled by 11 percent in 2007. "It's a constant awareness process and education campaign," he says.

Nelson is also implementing small technological changes that have produced big results, such as installing $20 timers on infrequently used closet and basement lights and giving employees and residents independent thermostats to control temperature. These changes allowed Nelson to reduce his energy budget by 8 percent despite energy costs increasing.

"Every time we see a savings we reinvest it back into the next green project," he says.

The lesson that these and other organizations have learned is that facilities management is an easy, inexpensive way to begin sustainability projects. You can start small and develop momentum through early successes, says Faulstick of the Doubletree.

"It's not as expensive or difficult as you might think," he said, "and once you get (the) buy-in, the program takes off."

Getting Started: Six Tips for Launching a Green Management Program
  1. Conduct an audit of your current impact. This includes an energy audit, an evaluation of cleaning products, and annual water usage. "This gives you a place to start, and identifies your biggest areas for improvement," says Green Seal's Chipperfield. It also gives you a baseline against which you can measure improvements. Your local utility companies or Environmental Protection Agency office can suggest auditors to help you get started.
  2. Begin with low-cost, high-visibility projects that can quickly show results. Simple steps such as recycling or replacing burnt-out bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs are easy to do and quantify.
  3. Replace bleach and high-VOC cleaning chemicals with more earth-friendly products. Green Seal certifies dozens of cleaning supplies that have been verified to produce the same results without the use of toxic chemicals.
  4. Educate the population about how and why sustainability is the right choice. Whether it's formal maintenance training programs on the proper use of green chemicals, or cafeteria table tents reminding patrons to recycle, you have to constantly get the message out, says Nelson of the University of Maine, who regularly posts signs and messages about his latest sustainability effort around campus. In a recent education campaign to get students to reduce single-serving packaging waste, Nelson posted signs on all the snack machines showing buyers the true cost of the product they were choosing. "With single servings, you are spending $24 a pound for Fritos," he says. "It's the most expensive and wasteful way to buy a product."
  5. Look for obvious inefficiencies. For example, at the University of Maine, Nelson found that many used mini-refrigerators for water even though each office building had a break room, and that some offices had an average of 15 printers for every 11 employees. "There are lots of ways offices can be more sustainable if you just become more aware of what you are doing," Nelson said.
  6. Promote it from the top. The leadership team must vocally show its support for these programs, says Faulstick of the Portland Doubletree hotel. "They have to lead the change and make it a part of the organizational culture to ensure buy-in from the rest of the staff," Faulstick said.
Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance journalist based in Chicago.

More on this topic