Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Steps Toward a Sustainable Small Business - Part 2 of 2

In part one of "Steps Toward a Sustainable Small Business" I focused on internal and operational steps a small business can take to become more sustainable.  In part two, I focus on steps that a business can take to make their service offerings more sustainable.   These steps are most applicable to the architecture, engineering and construction industry, but they should be easily adaptable to any project based industry.  Rather than offering specific technical tips, such as using rain-gardens or green roofs, the steps in this post are more about the process one goes through during a project's lifecycle.  More specific, civil engineering, related technical tips will be the topic of future posts in this blog.  As an engineer I have been trained to study the technical details and theories of a design but experience has taught me that the process is often as important to the end result as the technical details.  I believe that the following 7 steps foster the concepts of sustainablility in the design of any project.
  1. Build a Strong Team - Any good project requires a strong team of engaged professionals and this is especially true with projects designed for sustainability.  All of the project stakeholders need to be on board with the goal of creating a sustainable project.  A project manager or leader (often the architect in the building industry) can certainly shepherd the process but you will never be able to create the synergies between different design disciplines that are necessary for a successful and sustainable process unless ALL of the project team is on the same page.  
  2. Bring the Team Together Early - Almost as critical as having a strong team is bringing that team to the table early in the process.  If the entire team is not involved with the project planning and design process from the beginning it is often too late to take advantage of many of the cross discipline synergies that create a successful design.  Too often one team member walks the project through the initial phases before seeking input from the rest of the team, and as a result by the time the rest of the team is able to give valuable input much of the design is already complete.  It is critical that the entire team is involved and engaged at the beginning of the project in order to successfully create a sustainable design. 
  3. Determine What is Important to the Client - A project is only sustainable if it meets the requirements and goals of the client or end user.  Being green is certainly a noble cause but it isn't sustainable if it blows the client's budget and/or doesn't address the core needs and desires of the client/owner/end user.  Before moving forward with design determine what's important to the client's business or personal ideals and use that as a focus point; for Coke it was water use reduction, for Interface it started with waste reduction.  By focusing on what is important to the client you can create a project that is sustainable for their business and the environment.  
  4. Plan for Sustainability - The most successful projects integrate sustainability into the project plan.  While it's possible to implement sustainable design strategies late in the design or construction process it's often difficult and expensive.  As you work through the project objectives and goals create a plan that integrates those goals and objectives into a project that is sustainable by virtue of its design rather than making it an add-on at the end of the project.
  5. Look for Synergies - The beauty of good sustainable design is the synergies that can result from looking at a project from an integrated and holistic point of view.  If team members design their part of the project in a vacuum and don't consider the effects on all the other members they miss those synergies. If your project is a building for instance, the civil engineer, architect and mechanical engineer should work together to orient the building in such a way that minimizes site disturbance, and energy use and maximizes daylighting and aesthetic appeal.  Team members must learn to look beyond the traditional responsibilities of their own discipline and search for opportunities to create synergies among the entire design team.
  6. Consider Life-cycle Costs - The number one perceived impediment to sustainable or green design is first cost.  Whether sustainable design does cost more upfront and if so how much is matter of debate, but even if it does to stop the discussion there is short sighted.  We need to get past the idea of simple first cost and look at the life-cycle cost of our projects.    In the case of buildings, the operations, maintenance and people cost of a building over its lifetime dwarf the first cost of construction so it's foolish to ignore those numbers.  It's critical to research and discuss how a sustainable design can save money and make money for the client/owner over the life of the project in order to see the true impact of project design.  
  7. Sustainable Design is Good Design - Remember that sustainability isn't just about being green, its about solutions that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.  Consider the triple bottom line - "People, Planet and Profit."  Most companies are in business to make money, and most of the time that hinges on the people that work in the company so if profit and people are ignored in the name of the environment then the project will ultimately fail.  By focusing on a long term, sustainable solutions we can create projects that are successful economically, socially and environmentally.
A strong team with a plan can create sustainable solutions for any project within any budget as long as the proper steps are taken in the process.  If you are looking for ways to make your projects more sustainable, look first to your project plans and processes before moving on to the technical details of the design.    

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010

    Steps Toward a Sustainable Small Business - Part 1 of 2

    There are a lot of definitions of sustainability out there, probably the most well know and widely adopted one is from the Bruntland Commission of the United Nations - "sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".  That's a hard definition to get your head around - who knows what that really means.  More recently with the "green" movement, the term sustainability is often used interchangeably with green, environmental stewardship etc.  The problem I have with that is I believe that you can be very environmentally conscious without being sustainable.  If I go out of business because I spent too much money being environmentally responsible, then my business practices were not very sustainable.


    There is a great deal of information available right now on corporate responsibility and ways to make your business more sustainable.  Companies like Coke, Nike, GE and countless others are spending enormous amounts of money on their corporate sustainability initiatives.  I think that their efforts should be commended, but what works for a multinational corporation doesn't always apply to small businesses.  So what can you do to make your small business more sustainable?  For most business types, I think that you can categorize your efforts two ways - operational or internal and external or product oriented.  If you are in the service industry (or specifically design like my small business) your product is the services you offer.  In this first of two posts I would like to offer some simple ways that you can make the internal operations of your small business more sustainable.  In part two I will address design tips that civil engineers and professionals in the building and construction industry can implement to make their projects more sustainable. 


    Here are 8 simple and inexpensive steps that you can take to make your small business more sustainable.  
    1. Use Recycled Materials - This may seem like a "no-brainer", and it is, but many people don't think about the products that they buy for their office.  People often assume that you suffer a substantial price premium if you buy recycled products or need to buy from specialty stores to get them.  Not true - Office Max, Staples and most of the major office supply chains offer recycled paper products, filing accessories, pens and other ubiquitous office products at little or no price premium.  
    2. Recycle Your Waste - For many small businesses and offices paper and cardboard form a large percentage of their waste volume.  Both of these are very easily recycled - check with your city or county solid waste department, many of them will pick up for small businesses for free.   
    3. Reduce Your Waste - We have all heard "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" but we often forget about reduce and reuse.  Again paper is an easy place to start.  Modern business runs on email and the web, but the paperless office is a misnomer.  Studies have shown that we often use more paper now than we did before everyone was using computers. Be aware of what you print and don't print anything that you don't need to.  When you do need to print, print on both sides whenever you can.  You may be supposed about how much paper and money you can save.  Also, consider reusable cups rather than paper for coffee and other beverages.  
    4. Buy Energy Star Appliances and Electronics - Chances are good that electrical use is a significant chunk of your small business carbon footprint.  One easy way to reduce your energy use is to buy Energy Star rated appliances and electronics.  You'll save money on your utility bills as well - an added plus.
    5. Consider Cloud Computing- Another easy way to reduce your energy use is through the use of cloud computing services.  Cloud computing is a term used for web based services including software and storage.  By using cloud based solutions you can often reduce or eliminate your onsite server needs which will in turn reduce your electrical loads.  Cloud based solutions places your data and software services on centralized systems that are optimized and more energy efficient than traditional office based servers.
    6. Buy Green Power - Most major power providers now offer green power options.  Green power options allow you to purchase power that is generated from renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass.  This is a good way to reduce the environmental impact of your energy use and encourage the use of renewable power sources.  
    7. Demand More From Suppliers/Consultants - Ask your suppliers, vendors, consultants and other business partners to implement more sustainable business strategies.  This is one of the most effective ways to have an impact because you are enlarging your circle of influence beyond your own small business.  Most companies are willing to do whatever they can to keep good customers, especially with the economy the way it is, so asking them to make small changes to become more sustainable should not meet too much resistance. 
    8. Educate - Let other know what you are doing and encourage them to do the same.  I believe that more business would be on board with sustainable business practices if they were more educated on the subject.  Many businesses may not be comfortable with charging into uncharted territory, but if they see other small business making changes they are often more inclined to make changes themselves. 
    None of the ideas above are ground breaking or difficult to implement.  Some may even criticize them as too little or not enough, but I believe that a lot of small businesses taking small steps toward sustainability can make a big difference.