The Green Champion: Why Your Company Might Need a CSO

7 min read

Do you have a program in place to encourage green practices in your communities? Experts say that green efforts are more likely to succeed if there is a chief in place to spearhead the effort.

Michelle Winters, director of green strategies at NeighborWorks

By Keat Foong, Executive Editor

Do you have a program in place to encourage green practices in your communities? Experts say that green efforts are more likely to succeed if there is a chief in place to spearhead the effort.

“I see my role as one of taking sustainability to all parts of the company and making sure that it becomes a part of our corporate culture,” says David Borchardt, chief sustainability officer (CSO) at The Tower Companies. Borchardt says that the CSO is needed if companies are looking to establish a green corporate culture throughout the organization.

Michelle Winters, director of green strategies at NeighborWorks, agrees. She says that greening existing housing stock involves much heavy lifting on the part of apartment companies. Since the industry should be headed in a sustainable direction, “without someone to lead the green effort, there is less chance that the organization will be successful in meeting its important green goals.”

A new position gains traction

Indeed, there is a movement afoot in the wider corporate world to create the position of chief sustainability officer. A number of large companies, such as Sun Microsystems, Georgia Pacific and Dupont have chief sustainability officers. This position has not swept the multifamily industry at this point, but it’s beginning to catch on. Certainly more and more apartment companies are designating officers to head up sustainability efforts, whether or not they are given the specific designation of chief sustainability officer.

The officer is responsible for establishing, implementing and maintaining green policies in the company and for pushing green goals, when necessary, to make sure they’re not forgotten. Borchardt and Winters agree that, without a head to lead the green effort, policies may not be established, and initiatives run the risk of languishing, as is so often the case. Without a leader, “what won’t be done is a focus on what sustainability measures need to be broad-brushed across the company if someone is not thinking constantly in that manner,” says Borchardt.

NeighborWorks advises its non-profit multifamily members to designate what it terms “green champions” to spearhead their green teams. “The ‘green champion’ makes sure the project’s green goals go forward and that they are not cut because of budgetary concerns,” says Winters. “The ‘green champion’ keeps the green goals always on top.”

Whatever the name of the leader of sustainability efforts, Winters notes that this individual need not necessarily be the most technologically knowledgeable on the team—a consultant can always be hired to provide technical services. However, the green team leader must have a commitment to sustainable goals, and importantly, be of a senior enough position in the organization to influence decisions, notes Winters.

Smaller companies may not have the budget to devote an entire position to lead green efforts, but they too should consider designating C-suite executives or senior managers to take on the responsibilities.

Who is on the green team?

The first step to creating a green team at any company is to take stock of current practices. According to Winters, at the property level this green assessment involves data collection and benchmarking. The first items examined in the green assessment are the “energy hogs,” energy and water consumption. (The consumption, not the cost, is examined, notes Winters.) The green champions can be determined before conducting the green assessment, or they can be designated after the assessment of the properties’ green status is completed.

Green teams may consist of asset managers, property managers and maintenance managers. In multi-housing communities, any on-site staff who provide resident services can also be included in the teams as they are involved in educating residents and organizing community programs. According to Borchardt, property and building managers are the core members of the team. “Everything goes through them. If I cannot have the team members make sure that everything is passed down or passed up, we are not going to be successful,” he says.

Not all employees need to be enrolled in formal educational programs in sustainability. Often, in the process of following the rules and procedures, many employees will be educated, says Borchardt. A few key personnel from the green team may obtain certification from professional bodies including the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). For apartment companies rolling out in-house educational courses, there are a few important considerations. The Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) is currently in the process of creating an energy management program specifically targeted to property managers, and the
curriculum may provide a good working model for development of in-house courses.

There are a number of key points to keep in mind when teaching energy management to property managers and technicians, says industry veteran John Steiner, CPM, owner of Control Automation. Steiner is working on behalf of IREM to condense his decades of experience in the field into a green educational program for property managers. The first part of the educational program is to impart the fundamentals of energy usage; for example, explain what a BTU is. “We have to educate [property managers] so that they can look at energy consumption of buildings and be able to determine if energy is being wasted,” notes Steiner.

Another key component of an energy management curriculum is preventative maintenance for HVAC systems. The course should address how to create a preventative maintenance program at properties, including defining what a good preventative maintenance program encompasses, and what is not a good program. In this regard, property managers need to be sufficiently educated about HVAC systems to be able to evaluate set standards for the chief engineer’s performance.

“In my travels, I recognize that chief engineers are rarely invited to the property manager’s office to discuss budgetary items and maintenance repair costs. Many people say that energy maintenance costs are what they are. There is nothing further from the truth. Most mechanical problems are caused and [can be prevented]. The engineer can be held accountable,” says Steiner.

According to Steiner, other key points to cover in energy maintenance educational programs are the basics of mechanical system controls: how to control mechanical systems in buildings. The dos and don’ts need to be covered such that the systems will be less likely to break down and energy will be saved.

“You can obtain all sorts of energy management information on the Internet today,” says Steiner. “A lot of it is pretty talk. We are attempting to develop a program that someone can take and turn into an action plan: step one, do this; step two, do this.”

How to obtain buy-in

In addition to rolling out an educational program for staff, the green team’s role is also to pass down the company’s green culture, policies and procedures to every employee in the company. The CSO and sustainability team are responsible for educating employees regarding the company’s green culture and policies and procedures, and to vet questions. Borchardt says his goal is not only to make sure employees follow the rules, but to obtain employee buy-in to the policies so that they are motivated to take their own initiatives and pursue green policies.

“To have a change in culture, you need to have employee buy-in. You can say, ‘this is the policy,’ and it will be implemented. But the moment you step away, it’s dead,” says Borchardt. “But if the staff buys into the policy, they will enhance the policy because they will always find better ways to implement.”

Borchardt says that buy-in is obtained by educating employees as to why they should have a personal interest in following the green policies. For example, they can be taught that taking green measures will be healthier for them personally, or they can be told that knowledge about green topics will benefit them in their future careers.

“You do have to let people know what is in it for them. Why should they even care?” says Borchardt. Also, many of the details in the implementation are left to the staff members to determine, or are determined in consultation with them, so that they will take ownership of the policies.

In the long-run, says Borchardt, the chief sustainability officer is absolutely needed in any organization. “We look at this as a long-term position that will exist within apartment companies. We see that this position will be absolutely necessary in the future, but it’s not happening right away. Not everyone sees the benefit of the position at this time, but it will grow as the need for sustainability increases across corporate America.”

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