No and low cost measures to increase building sustainability

Getting greener with measures for materials and waste management, commuting, cleaning, and water and energy reduction

July 2016 — Building managers can increase sustainable building operations by seeking no and low cost actions in all aspects of building operation. Sustainability programs that identify and prioritize no and low cost measures set a foundation for continuous environmental improvement and position the building for success in any future green building certification pursuits. While the specificities of each unique building’s sustainability plan will undoubtedly vary based on the systems and practices already in place, overall, no and low cost improvements can greatly improve building operations, enhance occupant experience, decrease harmful environmental impacts, and increase systems thinking and environmental awareness among facility managers.

Materials and Waste Management

The impact of durable and ongoing consumable goods used by a facility can be difficult to measure as their associated harms are veiled by the portions of their lifecycle that exist far before it enters, and long after it leaves the facility. The lifecycle of these products and materials—from extraction, processing, and transportation to use and disposal—can cause a wide range of environmental and human health harms. To reduce these burdens and the overall impact of an operating building at low cost, building owners and operators can closely examine the responsibility of purchasing and waste management procedures.

The first step in waste source reduction and responsible management is to conduct a waste stream audit in which the contents of the building’s waste stream are sorted and analyzed. This allows building managers to learn about the volume and category of waste generated by the occupants and site/building maintenance. Waste stream audits help building managers identify opportunities for source reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting to decrease the quantity of waste currently disposed of through incineration or landfill, and reduces the associated operational and financial burdens associated with waste disposal.

Most commercial buildings can greatly reduce the volume of waste sent to landfills and incinerators by targeting two categories: paper (office paper, paperboard, cardboard) and organics (yard trimmings, food scraps, and wood). The storage and collection of recyclables is an essential step in diverting waste from landfills and mitigating the release of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In fact, “recycling and composting prevented 87.2 million tons of material from being disposed in 2013, up from 15 million tons in 1980. Diverting these materials from landfills prevented the release of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air in 2013—equivalent to taking over 39 million cars off the road for a year” (

Occupant Commuting Patterns

A building operator’s consideration of how building location and available transportation amenities effects occupant commuting patterns can significantly decrease the level of emissions associated with transportation and even incentivize healthy lifestyle decisions. A little bit of time, occupant communication, and willingness to explore improvement options are the primary tools needed to address sustainable transportation to and from a building.

Providing building occupants with information on available green commuting options can be an important first step. Occupant communication can be advanced by conducting a simple, standardized survey that gathers information such as an individual’s daily distance traveled, vehicle make and model, carpooling, and alternative transportation habits. Periodic building occupant surveys can show building managers and occupants how their aggregate commuting decisions impact the environment and change over time.

Building operators and owners who are well informed about their occupants’ travel patterns will be able to develop policies and incentives that can encourage changes in transportation habits. Offering incentives such as carpool programs, bicycle parking, or encouraging telecommuting cost little more than a practical amount of time and planning.

Green Cleaning

Implementing a green cleaning policy for a building and its surrounding site can reduce levels of chemical, biological, and particulate contaminants that compromise air quality, human health, building finishes, building systems, and the natural environment. A simple approach may be to adopt a green cleaning policy that is compliant with LEED® for Existing Buildings (LEED EB) green cleaning requirements.

There are three general options when considering implementing or improving a green cleaning policy. First, building managers may require an internal team to follow the LEED-compliant green cleaning policy.  If cleaning is performed by an external provider, have them follow a LEED compliant green cleaning policy. Lastly, one can hire an external provider that is certified under Green Seal’s Environmental Standard for Commercial Cleaning Services or the International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA) Cleaning Industry Management Standard for Green Buildings.

Water Use Reduction

Reducing potable water use in buildings for urinals, toilets, showerheads, and faucets decreases the total amount withdrawn from rivers, streams, underground aquifers, and other bodies of water, thus protecting the natural water cycles and allowing municipalities to reduce or defer the capital investment needed for water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure.

Building owners and operators can begin reducing potable water use by developing and implementing a policy that requires all future fixture and fitting replacements conducted over time meet efficiency standards set by sustainability programs such as LEED and USEPA Water Sense Program. The attrition of water fixtures over time will gradually increase overall efficiency of the water fixtures.

Collecting an inventory of all water fixtures in the building can enable the periodic evaluation of the economic benefits of upgrading water fixtures in the building more broadly.

Explore if there are low cost opportunities to use condensate or rain water for cooling tower make up water or for irrigation water.  Compiling updated documentation such as site plans, fixture cutsheets, alternative water sources such as grey water use or rainwater harvest, and occupant and usage calculations can also help to inform policymaking decisions.

Energy Use Reduction

Beyond simple measures such as turning off lights and equipment when not in use, building operators can develop and implement a policy that requires any updates made to building energy use systems be evaluated and analyzed to meet minimum efficiency requirements. ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager® is an excellent free tool for building energy use tracking. An ongoing equipment maintenance program managed with a continuous maintenance management system (CMMS) supports maintaining energy efficiency. Periodically review the measures included to see how they can be adjusted to enhance energy efficiency.

A policy establishing regular staff training for energy efficiency associated with equipment operations can be also helpful. Examples of staff education practices include a comprehensive training module for incoming staff, sharing access to written materials, and how to schedule and execute building management updates.


Implementing a no and low cost measures sustainability program provides a continuous improvement opportunity and can assure that when building operational or physical improvements are made for any reason, opportunities to increase building sustainability through these improvements are not missed. It is important to note that the above suggestions for no and low cost building improvements do not apply uniformly to all facilities—no and low cost sustainability measure depends on the specifics of each building.  Informed building mangers, policy development, performance tracking, and dynamic goal setting can be the keys to setting a building down a sustainable path without incurring significant costs.

Leonardo Academy is a nonprofit organization that develops sustainability solutions through consultation and certification services in the LEED Green Building Rating System and the Cleaner & Greener sustainable event program. Leonardo Academy also provides sustainability and continuing education training, including training for the LEED Green Associate credential for individuals who support green buildings in their profession, such as building owners and facility managers.

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