I attended a lunch today honoring the “100 Best Green Companies to Work For In Oregon,” an event produced by Oregon Business Magazine, where I’m a staff writer.
Dennis Wilde, green guru at Gerding Edlen, was the keynote speaker, and although he devoted most of his 15 minute talk to the story of G/E, he also touched on a subject that is roiling the green building industry—the fact that energy efficient buildings don’t necessarily perform as well as they are supposed to once the building is occupied.
So a LEED Silver office tower that is designed to reduce energy use by 40 percent may in fact reduce energy use by only 20 percent, in part because of errant employees who bring space heaters to work, leave their phones/laptops charged overnight or deliberately press the wrong button on dual flush toilets.
The talk reminded me of a unforgettable trip I took to Aurora, Colorado a few years ago–to report on Wal-Mart’s first “experimental sustainable supercenter.” The store manager assigned to show me around expressed ZERO interest in the building’s flagship environmental building initiatives. The result was a tour more Saturday Night Live than state of the art sustainability demonstration.
Here’s an excerpt from the article, which appeared in Sustainable Industries Journal.
Phone interviews with executive staff are tightly regulated by Wal-Mart’s public relations firm, Edelman Public Relations. On-site tours, however, are sometimes led by store managers who possess little or no technical background, and who are visibly uncomfortable in their role as avatars of innovation. “You kind of feel like an idiot,” says Alberta Fears, an Aurora co-manager who conducts two or three tours a month with manual in hand, important sections highlighted in yellow.
Working at the Aurora site has raised her environmental awareness, says Fears — up to a point. Pausing in front of the organic foods section, Fears declaims: “I didn’t feed my kids organic, and they turned out fine.”
The native plants “raggedy” aesthetics, she adds, prompted a mowing directive from the Wal-Mart district manager. “I said, ‘We can’t do that! It’s supposed to be environmentally friendly!”
During a stop at the store’s highly touted food composting locker, a Wal-Mart associate picked up a crate of red peppers and dumped the entire contents into an adjacent garbage chute. Responding to Fears’ inquiries, the associate explained the compost facility had been locked since her first day on the job.
In the employee break room, solar tube skylights obviate the need for traditional light fixtures during the day. But at 2 p.m., all the lights were turned on, and employees responded blankly to Fears’ reprimand. A subsequent inquiry to an associate regarding organic cotton baby clothes elicited directions to the nearest Whole Foods — despite the presence of a “George” organic baby line just a few steps away.
Collectively, the glitches are as symbolic of the new Wal-Mart enterprise as the wind turbine. Labor issues have always been the company’s nemesis, and it’s no surprise that low-wage employees, even at the experimental store, seem to lack the encouragement or incentives to buy into their employer’s sustainability vision.
More recently… I wrote an article this month for Governing that also touches on the vexing problem of occupant behavior and energy performance, with experts noting that the next wave of energy codes will likely require ongoing building performance audits to ensure the structure is as energy efficient as architects/engineers intended.
So what is the best green company to work for in Oregon, you ask? Redside, a commercial developer and property manager. I hadn’t heard of them either…