Sustainability Planning

No-nonsense advice on "going green" for non-specialist managers and decision makers

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 the word means different things to different people. 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. That said, it's also true that some of the most important things are un-measurable (or at least harder to measure), a relevant example for buildings being a productive indoor work environment.

When it comes to existing facilities, most people are eager to jump right in and attack the problem on a piecemeal bases, e.g., 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. Trust but verify performance.

Different risks and cautions apply when it comes to new construction. Without clear direction from the client as to broad sustainability goals, architects and engineers are bound to run off in the wrong direction, either underdelivering or advancing an overly ambitious or quirky design that is dead on arrival. The owner must proactively articulate their goals and targets for sustainability and building performance. There is no "right" answer, but goals need to be set up-front and they need to be clear. Beware blind faith in labels such as "LEED Gold", as actual performance may be more mediocre than the hypothetical label implies.

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


    • Resource management should be an integral part of routine management. Record-keeping and accounting should include energy and other resources and not take them as an immutable fixed costs that are unquestioningly accepted at face value.

    • Articulate principals - Establish a working definition of “sustainability” and a 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 comply with prevailing 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 the report as a tool for management, verification, and communication. Celebrate successes; acknowledge everyone's hard work.

    • Risk management - consider that resource efficiency reduces vulnerability to future energy, water, and waste-management cost spikes.

    • Disaster resilience - consider that co-benefits of certain sustainability design practices enhance disaster resilience.

    • Incentivize - reward attainment of goals.

Capacity & Awareness Building

    • Train in-house staff (physical and finance) via one-off workshops or complete certification programs. Dirty solar panels don't generate energy.

    • 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

    • Maintain a 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) - installers often don't properly do quality control. Bring in independent commissioning agents to do this. 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 and thus capital cost 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…. Panic purchases usually involve long-term energy and water waste.

    • 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. Wasted resources are wasted money.

    • 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).