FM and Sustainability

Sustainability is not a new concept, although the word did not become part of the common lexicon until the last decade. The seed for its underlying meaning was probably planted some 50 years ago, when Rachel Carson came out with her book Silent Spring. I remember reading
the book when it first hit the shelves. Like many other readers, I became interested in the environment.
I remember:

  • taking a train through Michigan and seeing the ground concealed by a thick, yellow fog;
  • the news relating how our waterways and lakes were so badly polluted that one could develop photographs in the muck; and
  • my own valley, on cold days, could have so much black airborne “yuck” that we could not see buildings only a mile away. 

Sadly, like many other people, I determined that this is our collective problem… that someone else would need to resolve.

The first oil embargo impacted the U.S. in 1973. We agreed that we had to become less dependent on foreign oil. (So far, we have failed miserably at achieving that objective!) Energy became more expensive, and we started to implement programs that were intended to save money. Energy conservation shysters that mysteriously appeared duped some of us. Others among us were actually fairly successful at conserving energy. Still, the motivation was based entirely on dollars, while not giving much thought to the environment.

Legislation such as the Clean Air Act (which dates back to 1970) was a well-kept secret. First passed in 1948, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, popularly known as the Clean Water Act, has been amended frequently since its initial passage. Yet, most of us in the FM business knew little or nothing about these acts. Once they were imposed on us, we looked at them as a burden; they were unfunded mandates that deserved to be indefinitely ignored.

In 1979 the National Science Foundation published a research-based report that for the first time publicly expressed concern about global warming. Yet it was only in the 1980s that the first organized efforts addressing the environment started to evolve, however slowly. The people who talked about it openly were called “tree-huggers,” and considered a little weird. Facility managers, for the most part, pooh-poohed the movement. Even as the word “sustainability” became more widely used, facilities managers continued to insist on doing business as we had before, with the exception of continuing to look for ways to conserve energy.

Today, while lay people and “experts” continue to argue about the reality of global warming, most of us now agree that we need to do more to sustain the environment. Arguably, most of us also support the notion that we need to do more to improve the environment. Remarkably, some of us in the FM business still continue to resist sustainable design and O&M. This reluctance is usually justified by the perception that it is too expensive.

Not all that long ago, that belief was sustained by a lot of truth. The process of designing and constructing a building that could meet the bottom level of LEED certification added a substantial premium to the project cost. We also found that operating and maintaining such facilities frequently required an increase in resources.

Today’s reality is that, with encouragement from organizations such as the IGCC (International Green Construction Code), USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) with LEED, similar programs in Canada and Europe and China, and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), producers and manufacturers of “green” products have become much more aware of the global competition for their products. Prices have come down to where they frequently cost no more, and sometimes less, than their traditional counterparts.

The costs for designing and construction of sustainable buildings have also come under control. The more conscientious (and competitive) designers/constructors have become better educated regarding sustainable design. They have staffed their offices with people who understand and are enthusiastic about sustainability. Thus, they are more able and willing to minimize additional costs for “green” design.

Now it is up to us. We must face the fact that we are going to be maintaining buildings and systems that are frequently much different from the ones we built even as little as 10 years ago. We must adapt to new products and processes that will enable us to sustain these new buildings, or else they will be more expensive. 


Note: Some of the details mentioned in this article were extracted from The Facility Management Handbook, Third Edition; Cotts, Roper, Payant; Amacom, 2010.


Pete van der Have is a retired facilities management professional and is currently teaching university-level FM classes as well as doing independent consulting. He can be reached at


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