Building Efficiency – Only the Buzz Is New: What a Difference a Recession Makes

Sustainability and efficiency are getting a lot of buzz of late, but for international architectural and design firm HOK, the only thing new is the buzz, not the concepts driving it.

“We’re early adopters,” says HOK’s director of sustainability, Mary Ann Lazarus, referring to the company’s adoption back in 1993 of sustainability and efficiency as core components of HOK’s mission. Back then, the idea of less is more may not have carried quite the same cachet it does today (the long journey ahead notwithstanding), but HOK has been content to pursue their commitment to efficient and sustainable design for the past 15+ years, understanding that, sooner or later, the rest of the world would catch up.

They are in the company of many others who have understood all along that the key to getting more is by using less. Organizations like the Rocky Mountain Institute, who we’ll look at shortly, or AgileWaves, a lean-and-green startup who we’ve written about here and here.

To say that a recessionary economy can be challenging for all players in society is to risk the sin of understatement; to say that with challenges come opportunities is to risk the offense of cliché. Despite that risk, and as readers of TriplePundit are well aware, the point remains that the recent economic upheaval brings with it opportunities commensurate with the trial Рopportunities to build a better world on the rubble of a broken and dysfunctional economy, one more in tune with the natural resources and systems about which all human endeavor is ultimately based.

And so it is that Lazarus sees before us a “perfect storm” for sustainability fueling her cautiously confident optimism she defines simply as a “glass half full” approach to dealing with hard economic times.

A fundamental shift

While most of the world’s markets were riding high on economic bubbles and unsustainable phantom wealth that helped fuel a frenetic push to consume as if there were no tomorrow, the reality has been more likely akin to a lost tribe wondering in the desert. It simply couldn’t (and can’t) last.

But for a glass-half-full optimist like Lazarus these are exciting times indeed. What she sees in the landscape ahead is a “fundamental shift” in direction, leading from the desert of unsustainable consumption toward the dawning realization that the world is not one of “infinite supply.” To be sure, we’re still in the desert – and there are no guarantees as yet that we’ll find our way out. But the tribe, with our shattered 401k’s in tow, is beginning to move in the right direction.

Across all markets

One of the most exciting aspects for me as a writer in this space is chronicling the changing perception of how the world works, and the efforts of those whose vision and purpose lead the way, showing as best I can how the spirit of human innovation holds forth to meet the challenges of difficult times. And from Lazarus’ vantage point there is innovation happening in all sectors of society and “across all markets” as government, business, education, and individual efforts all come together in a strategic transformation of society and the built environment, even as the Great Recession wracks the economy – and in many cases because of it.

Some examples…

Green downsizing – one company’s attempt to scale back into greater efficiency

Downsizing and layoffs remain a big part of the ugly truth about any deep recession. Losing your job hurts, and nothing I can say here will change that. But instead of implementing a “slash and burn” approach, many companies are finding opportunities for “green downsizing,” working to create a more efficient and sustainable workforce and workspace in the process of contracting. Telecommunications giant Sprint serves as one example. The company announced significant layoffs earlier this year, but, according to Lazarus, the slowdown has also led to a new direction in planning and resource allocation. These changes reflect a shift toward adoption of efficiency and sustainability as core company values. Sprint is “reshuffling real estate” to provide increased options for employees to telecommute and use virtual technology, and redesigning workspaces to better utilize office space, eliminate redundancy and create a more energy efficient and pleasing work environment – all leading to reduced energy consumption and a lowered carbon footprint.

Through the hard task of eliminating jobs, Sprint has also found an opportunity to “downsize efficiently” that helps to preserve some jobs that may have otherwise been lost, and making the overall operation leaner and greener in the process.

Efficiency in the built environment – steps to sustainability

Integrated efficiency design in most new major construction projects is now the desired trend in which HOK plays an important role (see our previous post on the new Indianapolis Airport). Integrating cutting-edge efficiency standards in new construction is crucial, but new building projects represent only 2% of the annual available office space. The biggest task for building efficiency is retrofitting existing buildings, where most overall efficiency gains in the built environment will be found, at least in the short term.

Lighting typically constitutes 40-50% of a building’s energy load, so by simply improving lighting control and maximizing the use of daylighting substantial gains in energy efficiency are achieved with relatively little effort of expense. But efficiency retrofit programs shouldn’t necessarily be an ad hoc affair. What is needed is a systematic set of verifiable and repeatable steps that speak directly to the bottom line – in other words, a plan. With a plan efficiency gains throughout the built environment can spread more easily. An idea that leads directly to the Rocky Mountain Institute run by Amory Lovins, another “early adopter” and passionate evangelist for efficiency. Amory has a plan.

The very symbol of American building innovation

Out of the economic devastation of the Great Depression rose the Empire State Building in downtown Manhattan, then the tallest building in the world. While no longer the tallest and certainly not the most high-tech, it rises once again from difficult economic times, this time as a model of building efficiency retrofits for aging buildings all over the world. The Empire State Building Sustainability Program designed by RMI and five other partners has an incremental cost of $13.2 million, ultimately achieving a operational cost savings of $4.4 million annually and reducing energy consumption up to 38%. Break even for the project is in just three years, after which time. Most importantly, the program is intended as a replicable model for others to follow and demonstrates the win, win, win approach to building retrofit: humans made more comfortable and productive, in a building the uses energy efficiently, saving its owners money.

Note: See Richard Levangie’s post yesterday “Building Better Buildings: A Transformation Roadmap”

Efficiency in government

Well, at least efficiency in government buildings. Part of president Obama’s Reinvestment and Recovery Plan includes $5.5 billion for efficiency programs, with $4.5 billion targeted for converting federal building to “high performance green facilities.”

The National Renewable Energy Lab outside of Denver plans achieve a Platinum LEED rating for its new 218,000-square-foot Research Support Facilities (RSF) housing 714 staff. In doing so NREL is breaking new ground in office design and efficiency, a project, like RMI’s Empire State Building program, that will hopefully serve as a model for other office planners in building or redesigning more efficient and worker-friendly office space

The Lazarus idea for suburban renewal – the source of solutions

It is a time of purging for many Big Box retailers. Circuit City comes to mind. What better place to install a renewable energy micro-distribution power plant than within the empty shell of what once housed rampant gadgetry and consumerism? If it ever comes to pass, you heard it from Lazarus first, but her point is salient: Beyond the background noise of daily life there are many creative minds thinking up solutions. Solutions that reach beyond just technology and mechanical engineering, but to new ways of looking at the world as it is today

The sum is greater than the parts

Great change requires an alignment of forces to create the economic and political will required to move society forward. No single example described here will change the world on its own, but the sum is greater than its parts. People like Mary Ann Lazarus or Amory Lovins or countless others are able to see the parts coming together, building upon the momentum and innovative spirit that, even in the depths of wide and painful recession, keep their glass half full.

“Some folks go through life pleased that the glass is half full. Others spend a lifetime lamenting that it’s half-empty. The truth is: There is a glass with a certain volume of liquid in it. From there, it’s up to you!”

Empire State Building: Leadership in American Progress in Sustainability

Photo Credit: net_efekt, courtesy Flickr

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

3 responses

  1. Tom,
    I like your thought provoking piece, especially Mary Ann Lazarus’s encouraging comments about the multitude of opportunities that this recession will present for us if we choose to take advantage of it. I agree the glass is definitely half-full. I just completed writing a blog piece for my company’s website, about how building sustainably is a no brainer. I focused on the USGBC and LEED. There is so much opportunity to impact the environment through green building practices. helps companies get started with their green efforts. We focus on profitably. Please find below links to some of our blog pieces about sustainability and attitudes – both from the environmental perspective and the business perspective. I thought they might be of interest. It is free to join our site which is made of sustainability leaders and enthusiasts. We want to help people get started and to make it easy for them. We are not the experts, but the connectors. We are a resource and are eager to build our membership and spread the word.

  2. That’s Lazurus’ idea of suburban renewal? A renewable energy micro-distribution power plant that will further invoke more sprawl? How about creating a community first by introducing mixed use programming to the decrepit big box retailers? Let’s start rezoning surbubia before they turn into slums. mixed-use zoning = community = less consumption = sustainability. If HOK were so keen on sustainability, they should start being a bit more sensible to the human environment they build in, rather than chasing LEED points.

  3. Great points Will however you are missing the message.
    Suburban communities bear load and dependancy on diminishing resources.
    An evolutionary human environment sees a problem and finds a solution.
    Fixing the problem creates urban renewal, jobs and harmonizes the natural and built environment.
    Be postive friend and contribute to the solution.

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