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Too frequently I hear sustainability certifications dismissed by startups as too difficult, too involved, or too costly to invest in at their current funding phase. It’s one of the greatest myths related to sustainability: that only the established corporations can afford to pursue a sustainability certification. Sustainability is not limited to large corporations, nor is it limited to master planning and new construction projects.
As the CEO of a global agency with headquarters in San Francisco, I was especially interested in our city’s new move toward green buildings, which requires new structures 10 stories and under to install solar panels on the roof. This is the first mandate of its kind in the United States, echoing France’s plan for plant or solar panel-covered rooftops from earlier this year. These new models are exciting evidence of continued shifts towards sustainability, but opportunities for green buildings are far from limited to new structures. We shouldn’t overlook the potential we have to reduce the environmental impact of existing buildings – an opportunity that presents itself to businesses of any size.
Buildings make up 40% of the nation’s total energy consumption according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. With all that we’ve learned about energy efficiency and ways to curb our consumption, there is so much we can do to upgrade current buildings to reduce usage. In fact, a study by the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation shows that building reuse is more environmentally friendly overall than new construction, as working with existing structures is inherently more sustainable. “Recycling” the structure rather than starting over from scratch, if you will.
When the Empire State Building underwent a major retrofit, it became a model for promoting sustainability at a high level. The project proved that even a historic building could be retrofitted to greatly reduce energy use and carbon emissions without compromising its status. By integrating sustainability initiatives with already planned renovation, this upgrade reduced the skyscraper’s energy consumption by 38%, saving $4.4 million per year.
There are nearly limitless ways to begin the process of becoming more sustainable. For small businesses that aren’t ready to make big commitments yet, there is the U.S. Small Business Association’s guide to Green Business Practices, where the SBA points out that “adding sustainability and green marketing to your business strategy can enhance your brand image and secure your market share among the growing number of environmentally concerned consumers.” Local sustainability programs work with businesses of all sizes, supporting them through a customized certification process, often letting the business set the pace according to what works best for them.
And there’s no need for an entire sustainability department or even a whole task force once you decide to explore your potential to become a greener business. All you need is someone within your organization to be the primary contact for your business’ green progress project, and let the experts work with you to make a difference.
The first step towards sustainability is to assess the efficiency of current systems to determine if they are operating at optimum levels. An energy audit will measure the performance of the building’s water, air, and electric systems, checking for leaks or pressure inconsistencies, fixing stuck dampers or disabled sensors, and looking for faulty wiring. A careful assessment will examine seals around the building envelope for leaky windows, gaps around vents and pipe penetrations, and moisture intrusion. Systems may need to be upgraded later on, but addressing problems with the building envelope first will ensure new systems won’t lose efficiency after installation.
Whole Building Design Guide, a program of the National Institute of Building Science, created a comprehensive set of Guiding Principles to refer to when moving existing buildings toward sustainability. Rather than taking each issue piece by piece, businesses should employ an integrated assessment, operation, and management approach to solve for multiple issues as completely as possible. This broad design approach can solve issues with sustainability and the working environment simultaneously. For instance, decreasing moisture penetration and reducing mold can improve occupant health and productivity, all while eliminating water waste.
Officially classifying your business with a green certification offers your clients proof that you are invested in sustainability at every level, and provides a way to measure it for your internal records as well.
Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) is the world’s longest established method of assessing, rating, and certifying the sustainability of buildings. BREEAM USA now offers a certification process to all existing commercial buildings to assess the environmental performance, operations, and client activities of a building.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a nationally accepted third-party certification program, highly regarded for its design, operation, and construction of high performance green buildings.
Many local certification programs offer support to businesses looking to become more sustainable, walking them through the process step-by-step.
For startups especially, it can be important to think in terms of where you are going and who you want to be when you get there. Sometimes the most powerful part of your story will be what was important to you in the beginning, before you “made it.” Think of the impact you want your business to have as well as the message you want to send to your customers.
There is huge potential for any business to reduce the environmental impact of its buildings around the country, in every industry and of every size. Start as small as you need and continue to progress toward a wholly sustainable future. Join ARTÉMIA and thousands of other green businesses around the globe in our continued quest for sustainability.
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