Insights

Boost Employee Health with Efficient Office Buildings

April 24, 2017

In 2015, residential and commercial buildings were responsible for about 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption and office buildings alone consume 17% of energy used in commercial buildings nationwide.[1][2] There are many reasons why an organization would invest in technologies and programs to save energy and water in an office building, such as

  • cost savings,
  • federal efficiency requirements,
  • organizational mission, and
  • employee health and engagement.

With Earth Day this past weekend, what are some best practices for an organization seeking to implement building efficiency programs?

1. Provide Clear Messaging from the Start and Continual Feedback

Any change in the work environment can be met with concern by employees. However, if the leadership team explains that these efforts not only save costs, but also boost health, the message can be powerful.

Through language and behavior, leadership teams can demonstrate that these changes keep the employees in mind, helping them work better. They can share studies of today’s trends toward valuing well-being in the office space, and how efficient buildings can improve health and reduce stress by

  • having more natural light and access to nature,
  • improving air quality with up-to-date ventilation systems and non-volatile organic compound (VOC) emitting office furniture and finishes , and
  • keeping printers and other noisy machines in an enclosed, centralized place.

Additionally, leadership teams can show by their clothing choices that they are dressing seasonally, so that office spaces do not have to be cooled or heated to levels that are costly due to weather changes.[3]

Sharing energy and water savings on a regular basis can motivate employees to keep up their environmentally friendly behaviors. In some building lobbies, there can be a dashboard which shows current energy or water use, as well as savings from a baseline amount. A great way to get employees involved is by creating teams, by group or even floors, to engage in a challenge to see who can save the most.

2. Make It Easier to Use Less

There are many ways to design or renovate a building so the default option saves electricity and water.

At the Wynkoop Building in Denver, building managers installed dual-flush handles on the toilets. By pulling up on the handle, less water was used to flush the toilet. Pushing the handle down used more water. A post-occupancy performance assessment revealed that water savings were minimal due to the majority of users’ instincts to push down on the handle, not pull up. It was then decided to switch the plumbing so pushing down resulted in less water, and savings were immediately realized (about .5 gallons saved per flush!)[4].

In other buildings, computers, printers, and outlets can be automatically powered down when left idle for an extended period of time using smart power strips. Light sensors can also be used to turn off completely or dim in response to the amount of natural light in the space.

3. Give Employees Access to an Off Switch

In some buildings, there are areas and rooms where lights remain on at all times. This can be for safety reasons, but in other cases, there is just no light switch. At the Wynkoop Building, the data center room was always lit. Simply installing a $5 light switch saved $500/year in energy savings and had a payback period of less than 3 months[5].

Some light sensors turn on the lights as soon as there is movement in a space. A better implementation would cause the light to stay off, and the employee would then turn lights on if there is inadequate natural light. The sensor functionality would only kick in when it is time to turn off the lights.

In some office and conference spaces, the window shades lower as soon as an overhead screen is turned on. Sometimes this is unnecessary, such as on a cloudy day, and results in the need to turn the lights on. Giving employees user-override controls for these types of systems can further result in energy savings. It all adds up!

4. Consolidate the Work Space

The General Services Administration (GSA) has worked with LMI extensively to test new building technologies that save money. GSA is effectively the landlord of the federal government, so when it learns a good building management strategy, the impact can multiply across the government and industry.

For example, GSA has shifted from private office or cubicle-dominated work environments to more open area and collaborative spaces. This allows GSA to consolidate multiple buildings into one building, saving tens of millions of dollars in rent and utility costs. Open space offices also typically have more daylighting and better access to relaxing window views, as walls do not block natural light in the space. New research also suggests the positive influence these open environments have on promoting activity and reducing sitting bouts throughout the workday.

5. Encourage Innovation in Building Design, Construction/Renovation, and Operation

In a typical building project, the design moves from architect to builder without employee engagement. However, integrated design ensures the future building occupants and the organizational leadership are at the table during the design process. This also guarantees the investments in the building will result in a building that helps people function more efficiently and better fulfill the organization’s mission.

Some agencies are also more effectively utilizing performance-based contracting. Instead of a request for proposal (RFP) or bid process specifying very prescriptive requirements for building, the RFP states the end goals of function and savings. Those bidding on the contract then have more creative license in their response to include out-of-the box thinking that includes that ultimately delivers a better end product.  

GSA has pioneered creative ways of funding these types of building enhancements. Energy-savings performance contracts allow a private company to provide the upfront capital for the enhancements in a federal building and be paid from energy and water savings that result over time.

GSA has implemented well over $500 million of enhancements of this type in the past five years. It has reduced energy costs 30-40% percent in these buildings. One project in the U.S. Virgin Islands even resulted in a net-zero energy building (all energy needed is generated on-site through solar panels).

Our book, A Federal Leader’s Guide to Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, offers practical actions federal managers can take to implement their energy efficiency and renewable energy (EERE) investment programs.
 

[1] https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=86&t=1

[2] http://www.pnnl.gov/main/publications/external/technical_reports/PNNL-20761.pdf

[3] Cameron Allen McKean, “Japan Eliminates Millions of Tons of CO2 by Ditching the Business Suit,” Next City, May 19, 2014, https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/japan-eliminates-millions-of-tons-of-co2-by-ditching-the-business-suit.

[4] https://www.awwa.org/publications/journal-awwa/abstract/articleid/35092845.aspx

[5] https://www.gsa.gov/portal/getMediaData?mediaId=179059

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