A Green Action Plan for Existing Buildings

A Green Action Plan for Existing Buildings

The beginning of 2009 mandates an increased focus on mankind's impact on the environment. Organizations are increasingly being deluged with new green products and technologies, NGOs are promoting new greenhouse gas reduction targets, and governments are beginning to pass new legislative standards. And we find that creating, operating and traveling between our built environments impact the Earth more than any other set of activities. The imperative to address our existing environments is upon us.

Architects need to become leaders of a broad, systemic transformation that addresses environmental imperatives in built environments at all levels of society. While organizations are usually focused on "greening" one or a few buildings at a time, the rest of their infrastructure is typically beyond the architect's scope of work, and in most cases, continues contributing to climate change and other environmental impacts at rates far greater than the new facilities. Architects can substantively help clients reduce the impacts that their entire existing infrastructure has on the planet.

By implementing a Green Action Plan, an organization can:
  1. Be more comfortable in evaluating proposed green initiatives and deciding whether to take action on them;
  2. Proceed with more confidence in meeting current and prospective legal requirements for green operations;
  3. Integrate short- and long-term savings from, and investments in, green initiatives in the organization's annual financial planning;
  4. Confidently and purposefully begin to renovate its existing built environment and change its operations to be more green; and
  5. Proactively and productively involve its stakeholders in a process that promotes community rather than confusion and discord.

A Green Action Plan Framework allows architects to work with their clients to develop and implement a comprehensive program to address an entire organization's footprint. The framework allows the architects and their clients to create the most appropriate plan. Businesses can more effectively and comfortably evaluate individual green initiatives and proposals within a comprehensive GAP decision-making framework, rather than attempting to make these evaluations on a piecemeal basis. The framework is divided into two areas of focus: greenhouse gas emissions and impacts upon other areas.

It is urgent that organizations identify their sources of GHG emissions and reduce them quickly, because of the long duration their impacts have on climate change (e.g., several centuries). The second area of focus in the framework is a collection of data about key impact areas: water, local ecosystem and purchased goods and materials.

There are two basic strategies for addressing the two areas of focus: reduce the impacts of both by using the same or similar means to an end (e.g., conservation); and/or substitute different means or technologies to accomplish similar ends, which also serves to lower impacts.

An architect uses eight planning steps to develop a Green Action Plan:
  1. Organizational Context: Review the client's values, strategic plan and resources to establish an organizational context for the plan.
  2. Boundaries: Set boundaries for those areas within the plan's scope over which the client organization has control and/or substantial influence to affect outcomes.
  3. Inventories: Take inventory of the GHG emission sources and other areas of impact within the boundaries.
  4. Alternatives: Create alternative means for accomplishing the targets within the timeframes.
  5. Evaluate and Select Preferred Alternatives: Test within client's organizational context and select preferred alternatives.
  6. Targets and Timeframes: Set realistic targets and timeframes based on selected alternatives to reduce the impacts of items listed in the inventories.
  7. Implementation: Implement and monitor the plan throughout the organization and its ecosystem, involving all the organization's stakeholders.
  8. Update the Plan: Institute an ongoing process of learning and renewal of the Green Action Plan to make sure it keeps in step with new Earth science and our responsibilities to achieve and maintain a sustainable environment for flora and fauna.

Remember that a Green Action Plan is never complete. As new information, improved measurement tools and technological solutions continually evolve, an organization's plan will respond accordingly. The organization will then be able to keep up with the emerging process of creating a sustainable footprint.

While architects and their clients have considerable technical challenges in front of them, the largest hurdle they face in achieving a sustainable living pattern is cultural and social: how to inform and engage an organization's people to work and live with a lighter impact on our Earth. Let us hope the winds of change that are sweeping our nation will compel all citizens to set new work and lifestyle precedents that result in lasting positive outcomes for the environment.

Christopher (Kit) Ratcliff is the third-generation leader of Ratcliff, the century-old, award-winning architectural firm in Emeryville, Calif. In May, he introduces the moderator of the panel "Building a Sustainable Future: How Architects and Designers connect with Politics, Practice, and Action" at the American Institute of Architects National Convention in San Francisco. In support of the presentation, a complete version of the Green Action Plan Framework will be available for download in April at http://www.aiasf.org.

The Ratcliff team in the field for a project tour. Kit Ratcliff is the sixth from the right. Image courtesy of Ratcliff architecture.