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Sustainability Planning

I am often asked for advice by companies and other entities beginning to move down the road towards “Sustainability”.  I put the word in quotes, because it means something different to everyone.  Whatever the definition, the corny (but true) statement, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” is particularly true when it comes to sustainability issues.  Setting clearly articulated goals and targets, and implementing the tracking systems necessary to mark progress are essential.

Most people are eager to jump right in and install efficient lighting, or implement that long-overdue recycling program.  I advise resisting the urge to get into the weeds too fast.  It’s easy to “burn out” (and run out of money) by drilling down before having a broader plan, institutional buy-in, and overarching principals to help navigate towards goals and help set priorities.  Sustainability reporting (annual, at least) is also an invaluable tool for keeping the big picture in view, as it keeps everyone focused on asking good questions and celebrating successes.

Here are some top-level things to ponder when charting a course.


  • Articulate Principals - Establish a working definition of “sustainability” and tightly associated economic perspective to be followed, e.g., invest up to what point? (5-year payback, minimum lifecycle cost, etc.) 
  • Articulate Targets - e.g., just squeak by and meet the codes, EnergyStar, LEED (which category; which level?), Top 5% compared to peers, Carbon-neutral, Net-zero energy use, etc..
  • Empower - give implementers the responsibility and authority to implement
  • Green the Corporate Governance process - institute an Annual Sustainability Reporting process.  Use for management, verification tool, and communication tool.  Celebrate successes; acknowledge everyone's hard work.
  • Incentivize - reward attainment of goals

Capacity & Awareness Building

  • Train in-house staff - via one-off workshops or complete certification programs
  • Obtain measurement tools and skills - this can range from good software for resource management and benchmarking to specialized diagnostic tools for assessing facility performance

Baselining & Trend Analysis

  • Develop complete historical profile of resource use - collect information (not once, but continuously) - understand where energy/water/resource use and costs are currently going and trends over time.  Master metering usually obscures important info, so implement sub-metering or other forms of short-term monitoring
  • Maintain trend analysis - reports for different levels of management
  • Obtain more granular data - e.g., short-term data logging
  • Benchmarking against other similar institutions
  • Feedback to employees; occupants

Opportunity Assessment

  • Resource audits - energy, water, supplies, materials, food ....
  • Specialist audits - e.g., for IT systems
  • Commissioning (quality assurance) - auditors and installers won't properly do quality control.  Bring in independent commissioning agents to do this.  High ROI….  Recommission often.
  • New construction - beware entrenched rules-of-thumb, uninformed architects/engineers, and risk aversion that results in systems being oversized, under-efficient, and uncomfortable. Set high standards and expectations for design and building teams.  Require an integrated “systems view” on the opportunities (e.g., integrating electric vehicle and green-building infrastructure; minimizing HVAC size=capital investment by maximizing operating efficiency). Have new-construction commissioning agents involved from project inception to represent owner/occupant interests.  


  • Listen to maintenance staff - they have unique and concrete knowledge of physical issues as well as institutional barriers
  • Ensure adequate holiday shut-down procedures
  • Create proactive "standards" for purchasing - windows, equipment paper, appliances, etc…. 
  • Provide incentives for performance
  • Leased properties - don’t allow this to be a rationale for inaction - much can be influenced even by tenants

Administration & Finance

  • Institute an energy & resources management culture within the finance department - tracking, trending, looking for high-use alarms
  • Review asset management policies and opportunities to “green” investment portfolios
  • Ensure that you have the best utility rates possible; there are often negotiable and/or better tariffs to switch to - update yearly
  • Identify and tap available financial incentives (national, state, local levels) as well as in-kind support (e.g., advisory services provided by utilities)