Thinking Green

Sustainability in the workplace and built environment gains momentum
Stacy Innerst Thinking Green
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Allegheny County got rid of desk-​side wastebaskets in the County Office Building and Health Department administrative offices last year and, as a result, sent 64 percent less trash to landfills.

In its Downtown office tower, Highmark swapped fluorescent lighting for LED, and energy consumed fell by 20 percent on every floor where the lighting was changed.

Such straightforward and relatively inexpensive changes in practice were among the steps each organization took to earn top honors in the Green Workplace Challenge, a regional competition conceived by the nonprofit Sustainable Pittsburgh. In energy savings alone, competitors last year consumed 18.6 million fewer kilowatt-​hours, which is like taking 1,500 households off the grid.

In a region where annual energy consumption is measured in the billions of kilowatt-​hours, such reductions don’t move the needle a great distance. But programs such as the Workplace Challenge are evidence of a growing movement that is steering more southwestern Pennsylvania building owners and organizations down an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable path than ever before.

Why pay higher utility and waste disposal fees when you can measure what you are doing, set priorities and reduce those costs and problems?”
— Matthew Mehalik

More than 200 businesses, local governments, nonprofits and universities across the region have taken Sustainable Pittsburgh up on its Workplace Challenge over the three cycles of the annual competition. In the City of Pittsburgh, owners or managers of buildings representing 60 percent of the Downtown square footage and 85 percent of the square footage in Oakland are part of the Green Building Alliance’s Pittsburgh 2030 District, which calls on them to slash their aggregate energy and water use and transportation emissions by 50 percent over the next 14 years.

Turning heads

Undertaking sustainable practices remains largely voluntary in Pittsburgh and surrounding counties. But the potential for saving money and a changing business climate are turning the heads of an increasing number of building owners, companies, local governments and schools.

There’s a business case. It’s crystal clear,” says Green Workplace Challenge Director Matthew Mehalik. “It reduces your costs. It reduces your risk. Why pay higher utility and waste disposal fees when you can measure what you are doing, set priorities and reduce those costs and problems?”

Pittsburgh is not a newcomer to the sustainability movement. Green buildings began to rise in the region more than a decade ago. Today, the city has more than 160 U.S. Green Building Council LEED-​certified buildings within its boundaries, including the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and several PNC Downtown office buildings. In 2008, the city adopted a Climate Action Plan, which outlines strategies for reducing green gas emissions.

But when the Green Workplace Challenge was launched in 2011, sustainability’s role as a means of addressing climate change raised concern among some participants about unintentionally being drawn into the divisive issue. There were reasons for their concern, not the least of which was the national election the year before, which saw several incumbent congressmen lose their seats after being targeted for casting votes in favor of the failed American Clean Energy and Security Act, which had called for national reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

And for the first year of the Green Workplace Challenge, the competition was limited to building managers and company sustainability managers. “There was a general reluctance to be very public about aspects of this,” Mehalik says.

Movement blossoms

Such concerns were short-​lived. Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto, for example, has been very public about the city’s aspirations to plot its future around principles of sustainability. Last year, he announced an initiative to create a citywide model and vision for sustainable, innovative and inclusive development.

The city also co-​hosted a high-​profile summit to introduce local stakeholders to the experiences and ideas of metropolitan regions in the United States and Europe that are farther down the road in reinventing themselves with sustainable strategies and have demonstrated some success.

Pennsylvania’s Act 129 has helped push energy efficiency into the mainstream. By requiring electric utilities to reduce demand, it has spawned rebates and other savings programs for customers who take certain steps to lower consumption, such as buying energy-​efficient appliances or performing energy audits.

Sustainability is also gaining value in the world capital markets. Performance data on issues related to sustainability are becoming part of investment decisions. Companies are scored on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance. Firms that provide business information and analytics, such as Bloomberg LP, offer expansive sustainability data ranging from ESG scores and trends to controversy assessments identifying environmental and social incidents involving companies.

A critical step toward getting organizations to better manage their energy and water consumption is to get them to measure it. That remains a work in progress. Some cities, such as Philadelphia, require building owners and operators to track and report their energy and water consumption. Pittsburgh does not.

For nearly a decade, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has offered free software for tracking energy and water consumption and greenhouse emissions. But as recently as 2010, it was so underutilized that the Green Workplace Challenge found it necessary to train businesses on how to use the performance management tool as one of its first orders of business.

In fact, the Workplace Challenge and the 2030 District initiative place an emphasis on developing the capacity of organizations to collect and analyze data and track performance. Both, in their own way, encourage organizations to adopt sustainable practices, and offer them access to technical assistance and networking opportunities to share experiences, ideas and solutions.

As a competition, the Green Workplace Challenge awards points for adopting what has grown to become a roster of some 250 practices that range from ways to cut energy and water use, waste and commuter footprint to coming up with innovative ideas for sustainable practices, getting employees involved and committing to the ambitious goals of the Pittsburgh 2030 District. An organization’s performance over the year is documented, analyzed and scored. The choice of issues to tackle is left to the organizations themselves.

Beyond baseline

Among Allegheny County’s choices was to reduce the waste it sends to landfills using a strategy inspired by one successfully used in Google’s London office that caught the eye of county Sustainability Manager Kathleen Hrabovsky while researching best practices.

Desk-​side waste bins were discontinued for some 400 employees in the County Office Building and the Health Department’s administrative offices. Recycling stations were set up on the floors with color-​coded bins for disposing clean paper; mixed plastics, metal and glass; and landfill waste. Employees were forewarned and the goal was explained to help diffuse any discontent that might arise over having to get up from their desks to discard a folder or bottle.

It met with little resistance, Hrabovsky says. And requiring them to walk to a recycling station led to a more effective recycling practice. “Even if we had a separate recycling bin and landfill waste bin at the desk side, it pretty much all went into the same container.”

Landfill waste had filled six dumpsters every workday at the County Office Building alone. Today, only three are on site and one is empty most of the time, she says. The strategy also led to more physical activity in an office environment sedentary by nature, which proved to be a selling point with employees and fit with countywide health initiatives. “We know that sitting is the new smoking. We sit to commute; sit at work. That affects health and productivity.”

Highmark’s energy conservation efforts trimmed consumption at its corporate headquarters by 9 percent overall last year, saving $125,000. The company also scored points for promoting bicycling as an alternative mode of transit for employees and city visitors and residents, an initiative in line with its health-​related mission and one that attempts to lower motor vehicle emissions in a car-​reliant region.

Both Highmark and the county are part of the Pittsburgh 2030 District, which is not structured as an annual competition, but, instead, solicits commitments from Downtown and Oakland building owners and managers to reduce energy and water use and emissions. Technical assistance and monthly workshops are offered to help them find ways to do that.

Building and sustainability managers tend to tackle basic, proven projects first to help build momentum, such as switching to energy-​efficient lighting and heating and cooling units when old ones are retired, and installing low-​flush toilets and aerators on faucets.

For the past couple of years, we’ve had a focus on energy because it is where we saw a lot of opportunity and low-​hanging fruit, which would allow us to show results with little up-​front cost,” Highmark Sustainability Director Phyllis Barber says.

Energy use among Downtown buildings in the 2030 District fell 12 percent below the aggregate baseline in 2013, achieving the 2015 incremental goal of 10-​percent reduction early. By the end of 2014, it dropped to nearly 18 percent below baseline. The buildings also used 10 percent less water. The Oakland district likely has a steeper climb to reach energy reduction targets due to a much higher percentage of laboratories and other energy-​intensive buildings in the portfolio. The first full year of performance data from Oakland was due to be published in late April.

As the Sustainable Pittsburgh Green Workplace Challenge matured, its focus reached beyond building managers and company sustainability managers to include employees in order to more widely promote sustainable practices in the workplace culture and community, Mehalik says.

The 2013 Pittsburgh Today Regional Environment Survey suggests that the audience which Sustainable Pittsburgh intends to more fully engage needs to be convinced that their actions matter. Some 79 percent of those living in the seven-​county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area believe they can do little or nothing about the region’s environmental challenges. The level of pessimism transcends geographic boundaries. And the least hopeful are senior citizens and young adults.

This is the second of a four-​part series examining efforts to make Pittsburgh a sustainable region. Pittsburgh Quarterly and Sustainable Pittsburgh are collaborating to explore the obstacles and opportunities facing Pittsburgh.


Jeffery Fraser

Jeffery is a Pittsburgh-​based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Pittsburgh Quarterly. In his past life, he was a reporter and editor for newpapers large and small, only one of which is still in business. His magazine and newspaper reporting has won numerous awards.

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