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How facility managers can make their buildings more environmentally friendly

To all those who scroll through the headlines every morning, or open up their daily paper, it can feel as if there’s no end to the bad news regarding our environment. Plastic waste, water shortages, widespread pollution and the ever-looming threat of climate change hang over us all; the sheer scale of the problem is often overwhelming.

However, we aren’t completely powerless. We can all enact individual changes to help stem the tide, and facility managers are in a particularly advantageous position for influencing a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and general waste – the buildings in which we work.

Carbon dioxide, waste and non-domestic buildings

According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), buildings account for an average of 41% of the world’s energy use – an astonishing proportion that outstrips both transport and the industrial sector. Non-domestic and commercial buildings alone are responsible for some 18% of UK carbon emissions. It was also estimated that the waste produced by the commercial and industrial sectors in 2014 was 32.8 million tonnes – a significant proportion of which, we can presume, can be sourced back to our working spaces.

It’s possible to argue that facilities managers have both a responsibility and opportunity to take action within the buildings they oversee, doing their part to improve these statistics. Making their spaces more efficient, less wasteful and more environmentally friendly could significantly reduce the collective impact non-domestic buildings have on the world around us – resulting in reduced running costs for companies and institutions.

Taking pre-emptive action

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the masses of plastic waste being released into our environment (subsequently clogging our seas, damaging wildlife and even ending up in our food) has increasingly become the focus of environmental legislation, as well as corporate and social responsibility agendas.

It’s likely that as the consequences of our environmentally damaging behaviour become more profound, public pressure and governmental intervention will grow. The EU is already introducing legislation to ban many sources of single use plastic, such as straws, cotton buds and throwaway cutlery, and in Britain government strategies to reduce air pollution are gaining momentum.

By keeping on top of environmental news, facility managers can begin to make changes to their buildings before more formal legislation is put in place. This can often reflect well on the company or institution by bolstering their green credentials, as well as fitting in with any social responsibility initiative they have in place.

Another motivating factor for facility managers is that making their buildings more environmentally friendly will also reflect well on them as individuals – proving them to be forward thinking and innovative. Additionally, it avoids any last-minute panic down the line, negating the need for actions to be taken in a situation of high-pressure, to conform to newly implemented government legislation or a sudden corporate policy.

Cutting back on waste and polluting plastics

A study by Envirowise found 70% of office waste is recyclable, however on average only 7.5% reaches a recycling facility. Also, every year 80.6m tonnes of printing and writing paper enters the UK waste stream, which accounts for 24% of UK waste. Recycling bins are one clear solution, but there are some important things to consider to make sure they are actually used effectively.

Perhaps the most vital thing is to provide enough recycling points in the first place. Many offices have lots of general waste bins scattered under desks, and once they are full most people will just empty the lot into the one non-recyclable bin, regardless of their contents. Facility Managers looking for a ‘greener’ alternative can remove this as an option, by putting recycling bins in convenient locations throughout the office.

People may have to leave their desk to throw something away in this case, but are probably more likely to place a single piece of plastic, cardboard box or food waste into the correct bin than sort through an already-full waste bin at the end of the week. Paper waste and plastic bins also fill up very quickly in offices (large boxes and coffee cups tend to take up lots of space), and once full, employees may just use the general waste bin. Keep them clear and usable.

Other measures to help building cut down on their waste include banning single-use plastics in the staff canteen and similar areas. While facility managers can’t stop employees bringing plastic in, with the availability of recyclable alternatives, there’s no need to provide it. Facility managers can stop any company shops giving out plastic bags, disposable coffee cups, or plastic cutlery. People will soon get used to bringing their own reusable options, and it’s possible to set up collection stations where canteen staff can gather any containers, cutlery or plates that employees have carried throughout the building or its grounds.

Offer facilities where parents can wash cloth nappies if they’ve bought their children to work, so they don’t have to rely on the disposable products. You can also provide clean cloths to cut down on the use of polluting wet wipes.

In order to comply with the UK’s sanitary bin legal requirements, workspaces (of course) need to provide sanitary bins. However, it’s also important to educate the workforce on the importance of not flushing sanitary products down the toilet. Tampons, pads and panty liners generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year in the UK alone, and the alarming statistic is that nearly all of them contain plastic.

Increasing energy efficiency

The IFMA ‘How-to guide’ (2011) finds that over 70% of the existing building stock is consuming more energy than necessary. Often, the design and age of a building are significant contributing factors (modern structures are are more likely to have been built with sustainability in mind), which in many cases facility managers have little control over – they simply have to work with the building they are assigned.

But this isn’t to say there’s only a limited scope for improvement. In fact, a facility manager can preside over many positive changes that will result in gains in energy efficiency, both through simple everyday changes and by encouraging their employers to think about investment in sustainable technologies.

Low-cost solutions

The majority of low cost solutions may be something of a no-brainer for facility managers, but they can be easily overlooked. These simple actions include changing light bulbs from traditional incandescent bulbs to either halogen incandescents, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), or light-emitting diodes (LEDs). CFLs use 66% less energy than standard incandescent bulbs.

Install sensor equipment to ensure under-used areas (such as storerooms and back stairways) are only lit when necessary.

Encourage people to take the stairs rather than the lift. People are always looking for ways to become healthier, so you can implement signs letting employees know that climbing the stairs four times a day can burn around an extra 120 calories.

Through a company-wide email or other promotional tactics, try to get staff to leave their desks during their breaks rather than surfing the Internet. Whether they use communal areas, go outside or head for a walk, you can frame it as a wellbeing exercise (which in itself is a good idea) – and a time where their computers, lamps and equipment are switched off.

Discourage the use of windowless offices in an attempt to utilise space. In large buildings, it can be a temptation to create office spaces that have little or no natural light. This means lights are switched on all day, and employees have very little exposure to natural light.

Make sure that portable heaters aren’t used when a building’s temperature is controlled by thermostat. If just one warmth-seeking employee brings in a portable heater to increase the temperature of their unit, the whole building can cool – encouraging those in other units to do the same, and resulting in a expensive and wasteful snowball effect.

Look for energy leakage through gaps in doors, windows, floorboards and walls, and assess how much energy you are losing through ageing ductwork. Studies have found that leaking ductwork results in 10% to 25% of leakage in commercial buildings.

Other helpful actions which are perhaps a little less immediately obvious include focusing on the building’s canteen, kitchen and kitchenette areas. Observe the behaviour of staff and use of equipment, and formulate the necessary energy saving plans, such as working out how long it takes ovens to preheat. It may be current practice to turn the ovens on at 7am and begin using them at 8am, but if it only takes twenty minutes for an oven to gain the correct temperature, this represents a waste of energy. Advise chefs on best practice, labelling equipment if it’s easier.

Remind people to close refrigerator doors – especially walk-in units where people may leave the door ajar as they take stock counts or retrieve items. You can also set the refrigerator to the correct temperature – according to regulation and food guidelines – as they are often colder than they need to be, especially in the less formal environments of office kitchenettes. For every degree difference in temperature, you are using approximately 1.5 percent more in energy.

Remove the bulbs in vending machines so they aren’t lit up throughout the day, encourage employees to switch appliances that have a “stand-by” mode such as microwaves off at the wall when not in use, and remember that overfilled kettles are a huge energy waster. In a domestic dwelling, only one week of energy use from heating the extra water in a kettle could power a TV for a whole day. In a commercial or office environment, this could add up to eye-watering amounts of wastage.

Investment for the future

This is something of a trickier prospect, as ultimately any spending and investment decisions are in the hands of companies and funding bodies. However, facility managers can use their role to become advocates for sustainable technology solutions, and encourage their employers to make choices that save both energy and money.

Solar power is unlikely to generate enough energy to power a whole building, but can contribute a significant proportion. Photovoltaic cells don’t only need to be installed on rooftops, either, but can become part of a building’s facade, or even installed in transparent modules in windows and skylights. If a facility manager happens to work with or within a skyscraper, wind turbines are another option.

The refurbished CIS tower in Manchester, England, features a photovoltaic skin that generates up to 180 000 kWh of electricity per year and has two dozen wind turbines that produce about one tenth of its energy requirement.

Another exciting area of technological development is that of “footfall harvesting”. Using a tile surface which flexes about five millimetres when stepped on, floors can be optimised to create kinetic energy that is then converted to produce an average of six watts per footstep. In busy areas that see a lot of walking traffic, this can potentially create a huge amount of energy.

As an intermediary measure, facility managers can suggest employers use temporary installations of this technology, and rate its performance – perhaps encouraging them to think seriously about a building-wide roll-out later down the line.

During the summer and in warmer climates, cool roofs and Electronic Smart Glass can help to keep a building at an ambient temperature and reduce the need for environmentally expensive methods such as air conditioning. Cool roofs use reflective paint and special tiles which aim at reflecting heat and sunlight away, lowering heat absorption and thermal emittance – keeping buildings comfortable even as temperatures fluctuate – while Smart Glass blocks out the heat of solar radiation.

As time goes on, it’s likely that increasing numbers of exciting sustainable solutions will emerge, and facility managers can lead the charge in lobbying for change and development. By making their buildings more environmentally friendly, the impact facility managers can have is not to be underestimated – taking their buildings and companies into a more sustainable future.

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