Sustainable greenhouse in office building with plants.

Sustainability and Facility Management: a Blueprint for Partnership – Part 2

In my last blog, I outlined a methodology from Alan AtKisson for speeding up Sustainability transformation that contained 4 steps: Indicators, Systems, Innovation, Strategy. Understanding these four components of an improvement project can help us to keep complex elements in perspective, remain organized and stay focused on the desired outcome.

In an environment in which we seem to be moving ever faster and trying to take on more and more projects simultaneously, it can help to have a simple, straightforward framework to fall back on so that we are not distracted from our primary intentions.

Benefits when Facility Managers and Sustainability Managers cooperate

For this blog, I’d like look again at AtKisson’s four-step process – but through the lens of facility management, highlighting opportunities for facility management and sustainability professionals to work in tandem.

In fact, these two departments working together will strengthen your business case and shed light on the enormous wealth of knowledge and valuable data that the FM team collects and maintains. Let’s take a look:

1. Indicators

This first stage has FM written all over it. Facility managers are in many ways the eyes and ears of the workplace. Because they are responsible for fixing things that go wrong: they know when spaces are uncomfortable, when water doesn’t flow (or flows too much), when lights are out and movement through buildings is obstructed.

They also know what the fire marshal has cited, what the health & safety inspector has pointed out and whether the elevators have had their annual inspection. FM sees which facilities are heavily used and need frequent cleaning, which areas sit vacant, what is brought into the building and what is thrown out. In short, the FM organization has the data. If they have an IWMS system, it’s even well organized, up to date and reportable. And if it’s reportable, it’s improvable.

The importance of indicators cannot be overstated. Many studies have shown that, often, access to data can drive enormous changes in behavior. If people know that something can be measured, they develop an interest in improving the data. Because they have access to so much data, facility managers are in a unique position to drive sustainability improvements simply by making facility users aware of the positive and negative effects of their behavior. Just one example: When the US Environmental Protection Agency instituted a Toxic Release Inventory in 1986, requiring factories to report – without penalty – their emission levels annually, those emissions dropped by 40 percent in four years.

The Facility Management department will be a natural ally when you are evaluating INDICATORS for sustainability initiatives. Here are some questions you can have with your FM team to learn where your needs align:

  • What are our most costly buildings to operate?
  • Where are maintenance costs highest?
  • Which of our buildings have the lowest average occupancy?
  • Which facilities generate the highest number of temperature/comfort complaints?
  • Are there buildings with unusually high equipment failure rates?

2. Systems

Facility Managers are, by definition, systems thinkers, because buildings are complex systems of systems. As an architect, my love of the built environment is based on the complexity of overlapping, interlocking and interdependent systems that make up buildings, campuses and cities. These include utilities such as heating, cooling, plumbing, electricity, and communications, but also circulation, access control, fire protection, glazing and delivery.

And here’s one that many people forget: Finance is a system, one that interacts critically with every single physical and human system. Knowledge about all of these systems may be encased in another system: An information management system that has the ability to record, aggregate, compare and act on data about all of these complex constructions.

Changes in one system may have enormous and unexpected consequences in another. I recently heard Joe Allan, co-author of the book Healthy Buildings, speak at the 2021 IFMA World Workplace conference. One of the stories he told – also related in the book – was about the early attempt, beginning during the oil crisis of the 1970s, to conserve energy by tightening up the building envelope – making sure that our buildings weren’t leaking heated or cooled air through poorly sealed windows, doors and other penetrations of the building envelope.

The effort worked, but it had a serious side effect: Without that air exchange, harmful substances (today called Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs) were accumulating inside buildings and making occupants sick. “Sick building syndrome” became a serious business issue that had to be dealt with by ensuring adequate supply of fresh air. Mechanical systems had to become bigger and more powerful to make up for the effects of tightened building envelopes.

The complexity of buildings may be dwarfed by the complexity of the global environment, but thinking about complex systems still is a primary skill in addressing both. Good FMs have that skill and can effectively use it to help their organizations address sustainability issues.

3. Innovation

When your goal is to improve the way you operate, new ideas are your stock in trade. One problem: Many ideas cost a lot of money. And as facility managers know from painful experience, there is usually competition for every cent of investment. “Doing more with less” is so common a refrain in the facilities world that it’s almost comical.

Working with perpetually limited budgets, facility managers have learned to identify the changes – lighting improvements, roof replacements, flooring upgrades, etc. -- where they can create the greatest positive effect as well as mitigate the most serious consequences.

Back in architecture school, I was trained to see that the greatest opportunities for creativity (innovation) occur when you are working within tight constraints. In facility managers, I found kindred spirits. For architects, engineers, and facility managers, constraints force us to seek out the leverage points where we can make the greatest differences with the smallest adjustments. That inevitably leads to innovation, to new ways of solving old problems.

4. Strategy

Familiarity with data, understanding of complex systems and the ability to find ways to do more with less are a combination that suggests facility managers can and should have a key role in developing sustainability strategy.

The late sustainability leader Donella Meadows has pointed out that complex systems like the global ecosystem tend to operate counterintuitively, and thus our intuitive responses are often to push in the wrong direction. This suggests that those businesses that have defined and published their goals need to draw on significant sources of expertise in execution.

I don’t want to suggest that facility managers should be the sole stewards of these efforts, but it seems clear that many of the skills developed by FM professionals are critical, and that means that FMs should have a prominent seat at the table. As the caretakers of some of the most valuable data an organization has, FM professionals can be a great ally to Sustainability initiatives. They can help to stabilize projects by getting back to the basics, understanding what you have, and where you can get the best improvement for your efforts.

Portrait of David Karpook, Sr. Business Consultant, Planon

David Karpook

Manager Partner Program

David Karpook is the Manager Partner Program for Planon North America. In this role he is responsible for developing and maintaining the relationship between Planon and its partners, including those specializing in implementation and training.

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