Everything You Need to Know About Sustainable Offices

By | Posted January 22nd, 2013

With trusted institutions like World Bank weighing in on the dire need to reduce carbon emissions, a green office is no longer an option—it’s a necessity. Beyond necessity, going green is more practical and economical than ever.

What makes a sustainable office? It’s a combination of team, office, and building practices that make a workplace sustainable.

What is a Sustainable Office?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sustainability is…

“Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

A sustainable office would be one that has either no or very little carbon footprint. Unfortunately, completely sustainable (“net-zero” or “zero energy”) workplaces are a far-off dream until commercial buildings catch up. In the U.S., there are only 21 Zero Energy Buildings (ZEBs) and Zero Energy-Capable Buildings (ZECs). Another 39 ZEB projects are under construction or just beginning to be certified by the appropriate agencies.

For a workplace to be as green as possible (for the foreseeable future), companies need to look into workplace practices, ENERGY STAR® appliances and building certifications.

What is Energy Star?

You’ve heard the term, “ENERGY STAR,” and you’ve probably figured that it’s a bandwagon you should be boarding. But can you really say what ENERGY STAR is, and what its ratings mean?

ENERGY STAR is a program run jointly by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy. Their focus on identifying energy-efficient products and practices saved upwards of 270 billion kWh in 2011. To put that into perspective, those savings are equivalent to the entire energy consumption by Spain in 2008, powering the lives of 47 million people.

But beyond appliance ratings, ENERGY STAR also rates the energy efficiency of buildings. Their building rating system is on a 1-100 scale, with “50” as the average energy performance. In 2012, ENERGY STAR released their list of cities with the most ENERGY STAR buildings; Los Angeles had 659 rated buildings, amounting to $149.8 million in savings (about $227,000 per building). Buildings from Cincinnati, 25th on the list, saved more than $186,600 apiece.

What Are The Laws?

Environmental protection laws aren’t new: the River and Harbor Act of 1899, the Oil Pollution Act of 1924, and the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 have been protecting U.S. waterways for decades. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the EPA was created, along with the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.

Two important laws right now are Executive Orders 13423 and 13514. Executive Order 13423—Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management—was signed in February of 2009. It set a number of environmental protection goals for 2015, including greenhouse gas emission reduction, increasing energy efficiency, and encouraging the development of energy-efficient electronics and cars.

Executive Order 13514—Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance—was signed October 5, 2009 and builds on E.O. 13423, creating new emission and sustainability goals for 2020.

What Are The Regulations?

Information on local and state regulations can be found through a quick Google search, or on the EPA’s homepage. The EPA also has a list of regulations by topic.

Further Reading

There is no lack of information to help “green” your office—and no more excuses. Get started by reading the Smart Steps to Sustainability, published by the EPA. Do a Google search for workplace checklists and explore related industry practices and regulations.