BY DOUG THOMPSON
Engineering firms take steps to minimize their footprint
Walk across a sandy beach near the waters edge and look back. You will see that you left a footprint. The bigger you are, the bigger the footprint. This metaphor has been used to describe the impact that we can have on the planet. With the growing emphasis on sustainable development, civil engineering firms increasingly are seeking ways to minimize their footprint, not only through project designs, but also in daily operations.
A businesss total footprint can have many dimensions; however, the carbon footprint has brought concerns about climate change to the forefront. Worldwide, the rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions since the Industrial Revolution has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earths atmosphere by 30 percent. While carbon dioxide is not the only GHG, it is the largest contributor, and is used as the benchmark for other GHGs. The carbon footprint is a measure of a firms contribution to increased GHG concentrations in the atmosphere.
Corporate America has been stepping up to reduce its carbon footprint. Companies, such as DuPont and Dow, have committed publicly to lowering their emissions. These multi-national enterprises are faced with doing business in a carbon-constrained environment in other countries, where many generate the majority of their revenue. They also have found a compelling business case for reducing their carbon footprint. Since most GHG is related to burning hydrocarbons for energy, any reduction in energy consumption will reduce not only emissions, but also operating costs. Dow reported a 48-percent drop in GHG intensity since 1994. (Intensity is the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent required to produce a pound of product.) Addressing climate change helps to differentiate Dows products in the marketplace and in the investment community, where players increasingly are becoming sensitive to climate change issues.
Civil engineers respond
Civil engineering is tied closely to the environment. Projects that fall within the domain of civil engineering are related typically to soil, water, and air. As such, it is not uncommon that many engineering firms missions identify with the environment. When Portland, Ore.-based David Evans & Associates, Inc. (DEA), developed its 2002 strategic plan, the 800-person firm identified that its purpose was, To improve the quality of life while demonstrating stewardship of the built and natural environments. To DEA, this meant considering sustainability in the way it practices engineering and conducts business. This has resulted in a set of sustainability initiatives to put the words into action. Gillian Ockner, corporate sustainability coordinator, sees this as an important part of the long-term success of the company. As the firm establishes its commitment to sustainability, it attracts bright people who want to have a work experience that aligns with their personal values. Furthermore, a firm of individuals committed to sustainability attracts clients seeking sustainable solutions.
One of the firms first initiatives was converting to renewable energy for the electricity used by all of the companys offices. Last year, DEA offset 6 percent of its firm-wide energy consumption with Green Tags, with the goal of having 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy. Green Tags, sometimes called tradable renewable energy certificates, are a type of currency used in the energy trade to represent the environmental and social benefits of renewable generation.
Ockner pointed out that local non-profit organizations were a valuable resource in determining the firms carbon footprint and the best way to offset it. DEA worked with Renewable Northwest Project and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to define the best actions to move them closer to their goals. The firm also identified other initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint, including reducing the impacts of work-related travel and using bio-diesel in its survey boats.
On the other side of the country, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. (VHB), a 725-person, Watertown, Mass.-based company, became the first engineering firm to join the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX). Last year, the firm inventoried its direct GHG emissions from business travel and the indirect emissions through electricity use. VHB estimated that the total annual emissions were 2,300 metric tons of carbon dioxide in its 17 offices. The firm was able to become climate neutral by joining the CCX as an associate member earlier this year. The CCX Associate membership is for office-based organizations. Firms can become a member for an upfront fee and must commit to neutralizing the greenhouse gases associated with their operations through credits and offsets offered by CCX. Several municipalities also have joined the CCX.
Why do these firms go to such extremes to reduce their carbon footprint? It is one thing to help clients figure out how to develop projects in a sustainable manner. It is another thing to actually look at your own business and make changes. So a primary benefit of reducing your firms footprint is living in line with your philosophy.
Additionally, many businesses, not just engineering firms, have found that working to become climate neutral is becoming a differentiator in the marketplace. Companies that seek to reduce their carbon footprint are able to offer their goods and services as unique.
Besides CCX, another organization that is helping firms reduce their carbon footprint is the Climate Neutral Network. This non-profit certifies the neutralization of a companys footprint and licenses the Climate Cool brand for its use. The Climate Neutral Network requires that a business inventory its emissions, work to reduce those emissions, and take steps to offset the remaining emissions. In addition to the obvious offsets, such as Green Tags, the organization also promotes innovative projects that reduce GHG emissions. Many of these projects are at the community level and provide businesses an opportunity to make a further contribution to the community in offsetting their carbon footprint.
One of the market sectors where all of this thinking comes together is the built environment. During the last several years, this market segment has been transformed with the development of the LEED certification. This certification process involves the accumulation of points for a project based on the achievement of targets established by the U.S. Green Building Council. Many of the points have to do with the use of environmentally friendly products in the design of the building.
Using this as the backdrop for discussion, why would A/E firms want to offer their services as climate neutral? At a minimum, the practice would allow them to demonstrate their true commitment to sustainability. A bigger statement is offering services in a way that allows clients to further their goal of constructing a building that minimizes the impact on the environment.
There seems to be opportunities in LEED for the client to realize the value of procuring design services from professionals who are climate neutral. Ideally, this would be for the whole company, but A/E firms also can adopt the model of manufacturers by offering design services for a particular project that are climate neutral. This could be accomplished by defining the carbon footprint for the project, which would include the pro-rata share of lighting, electricity, and other energy costs, as well as travel, associated with the project. Next, this footprint could be offset by purchasing Green Tags or similar products that are available through organizations such as the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Going a step further, A/E firms could seek certification from the Climate Neutral Network to license the Climate Cool brand for services related to the project.
Given the trend in sustainability, firms that take steps to differentiate themselves through these innovative practices should find that they have a competitive advantage in the market place. Clients are becoming more attuned to a firms commitment to sustainable practices and will be skeptical of those that try to tell them how to build more sustainable roads, water systems, and buildings, but are unwilling to conduct their businesses in a sustainable manner.
Doug Thompson is a strategy consultant serving the design community since 1991. His work includes strategic planning with engineering and architectural firms, and identification of opportunities to create sustainable workplaces and product offerings. He can be reached at 703-938-1363 or via e-mail at email@example.com.