50 Ways to improve sustainability

By addressing certain items head-on, your engineering firm can have an impact on its carbon emissions and operate more environmentally friendly.

By Clark C. Bisel, PE, LEED AP, WSP Flack+Kurtz, San Francisco January 1, 2009
Additional reading from the author:
* Where are we headed? At the moment, it’s the wrong way
* Sustainability resources and information sources

America is waking up to face its responsibility in addressing sustainability. Representing 5% of the world population and consuming approximately a quarter of the world’s energy, the United States is the dominant player in addressing the threat for our future. The current world economy and population cannot be sustained on this planet if we continue to follow current trends, and if America is to serve as an example for the world.

Building design professionals are aware of the central role they play professionally in reducing sustainability impacts. In addition to their individual roles, the businesses they are associated with also have a role in helping to facilitate change. Building designers have both a unique opportunity and a fundamental responsibility to address this issue—for clients and staff alike. Your business involves significant development of the built environment, and the result impacts the environment.

Your business also produces carbon directly as a result of operations, and your employees generate carbon at work and in their day-to-day lives. This impact is as important as offering sustainable products and services. Firms must tackle these impacts and should embrace sustainability as one of the dominant issues of today.

Viewing the big picture

The sustainability crisis demands a much higher level of awareness and action than currently exists. Business is the most powerful institution on the planet and can be a potent force for good. The sustainability crisis represents a threat to all living beings but also a unique business opportunity.

The key to taking action is getting started, and with leadership from the top of an organization. Much like obesity, this issue does not have a quick fix—it needs regular attention and effort. One needs to:

  • Have a plan—not a haphazard response

  • Continue development over an extended period; learn from your mistakes and don’t worry about making them

  • Publish your plan and also your results

  • Establish a baseline

  • Become educated, and seek tools and reliable information to make informed decisions on climate change.

What are the sustainability opportunities for your company? When you view the issue of sustainability, consider the opportunities this provides for your company:

  • Open new markets, and create new products and services

  • Recruit the best candidates

  • Retain existing employees

  • Business development: differentiate yourself and improve your image

  • Lower energy, material, and waste costs

  • Increase/maintain competitive advantage.

Accept responsibility

Sustainability is an issue clouded by uncertainty, made more uncertain by its long development time. However, this uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction. The scientific evidence is rapidly growing stronger, and most experts agree that the longer we wait before taking action—and sustained action—the more difficult and expensive the solutions become. Business leaders need to educate themselves on climate change and think systematically about its impact on strategy and value.

The business risks of only partially pursuing sustainability are real. Greenwashing (touting your sustainability without much real substance to back it up) and the unfulfilled raising of expectations are the very real risks of a partial response to sustainability.

The bottom line is that you have a business that produces carbon, and carbon is bad. You have a responsibility to help solve this problem.

Opportunities to improve sustainability are nearly endless. Below, we identify 50 concepts for an engineering firm to adopt in everyday operations. Environmental gains also can result in thousands of other smaller actions that collectively can result in major gains. Maximizing the collective effects of these gains requires unrelenting attention and almost ruthless behavior.

Sustainable operations start at the top

1 Commit the firm to take meaningful actions and set an overall goal. Make the goal very clear and strong.

2 Communicate your commitment and goal.

3 Appoint environmental operations champion(s) within a firm’s top management level/board to lead these environmental efforts, and clearly announce who this is.

4 Adopt a rating system to measure your carbon performance and a verification system to ensure accuracy.

5 Make carbon reporting an agenda item at each senior management/board meeting. Your attention to carbon performance should be as much a priority as attention to financial performance.

6 Actively participate in public policy discussions and push for action on the part of others.

7 Make an internal financial commitment (a budget line item) to support climate change efforts for the organization. Consider pegging it to firm revenues or salaries.

8 Make sustainability an integral part of your firm mission statement. Embed sustainability into the strategic and business planning of the organization.

9 Make your firm an example for all of your clients to see—to minimize the environmental impacts of your business.

10 Identify additional opportunities, problems, and solutions with specific, measurable action plans.

11 Incorporate a sustainable corporate real estate strategy.

Commit to goals and measure performance

The business cliche “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” establishes an imperative to function by:

12 Publish an annual sustainability report, with quarterly updates, on results and track your goals.

13 Prepare a narrative that lists your actions to reduce carbon along with measured results that can be used as a guide for others.

14 Strengthen your firm’s commitment and confirm environmental performance through a recognized certification process.

15 Publish carbon estimates monthly in an unaudited version and annually in an audited version.

16 In every significant firm publication, document examples of work and efforts within the firm to reduce carbon emissions.

Your office, your staff, your suppliers

Broaden the effort: the more people who are involved in any process, the more committed the effort will be with greater results. In fact, the process can quickly begin to feed on itself, growing beyond its initial goal, and spreading to others like a virus. Working together, a company and its staff can raise awareness, change behavior, and make a significant contribution to environmentally and economically sound solutions to the climate crisis.

17 Appoint a sustainability coordinator in the office (each office, if a multiple office practice) to manage, coordinate, and lead various efforts.

18 Establish an operational group focused on carbon management.

19 Educate all staff members on their impact/contributions.

20 Ask your staff for more ideas and implement a process of soliciting employee suggestions.

21 Use 100% post-consumer recycled paper and soy-based ink.

22 Set goals for the procurement and use of recycled products.

23 Develop an evaluation/decision process in all office product purchases and set minimum selection criteria.

24 Talk to your building landlord about its operations—improve your participation and encourage new programs.

25 Establish a strategy for recycling efforts in your office and in your building.

26 Measure your energy use, set reduction targets, and work toward them.

27 Measure your water use—conduct a water audit and act on the results.

28 Require action (in the form of reporting) by office suppliers/vendors. Work with suppliers to reduce your supply chain carbon footprint.

29 Use carbon offsets to counter your carbon footprint related to project/internal firm travel and to counter the energy needs of your business operations.

Use technology to improve sustainability

Computers, copiers, and other network/IT systems are the third largest electrical use (after lighting and HVAC) in commercial buildings. One needs to focus on a variety of solutions to reduce this impact:

30 Automatically turn off unneeded office equipment.

31 Use less energy-intensive office equipment.

32 Automatically enable double-sided copies.

33 Improve use of technology for remote travel, in lieu of project travel.

34 Use your Web site as a publication resource; it can be a powerful tool.

35 Maximize your office network and make all aspects available remotely.

36 Make sustainability a decision factor in IT procurement.

37 Encourage your IT vendors to do more and offer you more sustainable options.

38 Rethink how technology can reduce paper flow in the office.

39 Look at maximizing the lifetime of technology systems and how systems are recycled at the end of their useful life.

Minimize carbon emissions in rethinking production

If you look at your business with a fresh set of eyes, there should be no limit on areas that are candidates for overhauling with a goal to reduce carbon emissions. A few ideas:

40 Measure paper use in the office and set reduction targets.

41 Use PDFs for final products of service.

42 Require all outside information to be provided in searchable digital format.

43 Make carbon a “reimbursable expense” to clients.

Encourage staff to gauge environmental impacts

44 Advise staff to act as agents of change, even when they are outside of the workplace.

45 Provide information to all staff members to encourage them to facilitate improvements in their personal lives.

46 Develop analysis and educational resources for employees to assess their individual carbon footprint.

47 Sponsor a staff “competition” for overall carbon use or home energy performance (a sort of limbo contest).

Look everywhere

48 Go beyond your operational sphere: An example is daily employee transportation energy use to and from the office. Transportation energy is a significantly larger energy use than energy use in buildings.

49 Always question performance claims: Many claims are made as to being “green” or “sustainable,” and at face value this is positive. However, these claims often are hollow and sometimes misleading. The overuse of these two words has made them rather trivial and meaningless.

50 Turn off the !@$%* lights: It sounds trivial and perhaps petty, but we need to make environmental performance an everyday matter of fact. Starting with turning off the lights when they are not needed is so obvious it hurts.

Author Information
Bisel is senior vice president with

Smart design never ages

Fifteen years ago, Consulting-Specifying Engineer published a feature article entitled “50 Ways to Save a Watt.” The earlier article introduced many major energy-efficiency ideas and the philosophy behind their use. This new article discusses the critical need for business response to sustainability. Now more than ever, the urgency and imperative to maximize energy efficiency and minimize environmental impact is being understood.

This article and the earlier article form “bookends” associated with sustainability:

• The original article focused on energy efficiency and steps to take in project design

• This latest article addresses steps a business can take to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations.