Sustainable Facilities Embrace the Circular Economy

By TRAVIS HIGH, Strategy Manager, Leaders in Energy

As the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the largest economy, the U.S. plays an important role in international climate negotiations. Reducing U.S. emissions requires changes in the model of business operation in many different sectors. One of the most important areas of action is to find ways to reduce emissions that directly or indirectly result from energy consumption in buildings.

Residential and commercial buildings contributed to 12% of U.S. Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in 2014.   According to the Environmental Protection Agency, emissions from this sector come from fossil fuel combustion for heating and cooking needs, management of waste and wastewater, and leaks from refrigerants in homes and businesses.  Though that proportion may seem relatively small, when combined with the total amount of electricity sector emissions (see left pie chart below), this is clearly a large footprint.  Indirect emissions resulting from electricity consumed in homes and commercial establishments for lighting, heating, air conditioning, and appliances comprise 34% of total electricity end-use emissions (see right pie chart below). Additionally, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 40% of total U.S. energy consumption in 2015 (39 quadrillion BTUs) was in residential and commercial buildings. Therefore, efforts to reduce emissions in the built environment, including through energy efficiency, are an important component of the strategy for fighting climate change in the President’s Clean Power Plan, the Paris Climate Agreement, and other initiatives.

Figure 1 U.S. GHG Emissions by Economic Sector in 2014 - Source: EPA
Figure 1 U.S. GHG Emissions by Economic Sector in 2014 – Source: EPA
Figure 2 U.S. GHG Emissions by Sector with Electricity Distributed - Source: EPA
Figure 2 U.S. GHG Emissions by Sector with Electricity Distributed – Source: EPA

Better resource management has been an area of climate action for some time, but it is increasingly being viewed under the umbrella of the circular economy. This term refers to an industrial economy that is restorative, sustainable, and collaborative by intention. It relies on renewable and clean resources: energy, water, materials, and land. Through careful design, it aims to keep materials and products in circulation for very long cycles and eliminate waste.

In that sense, the circular economy is a useful way to conceptualize resource management in buildings – because buildings are not only static structures. They also form a part of their community and environment, with people and resources constantly flowing through them. Resource flows are an important underlying block of the circular economy. Looking at the start of the cycle, businesses and organizations need to manage their input in facilities – primarily their energy, water, materials, and toxic control.   On the back end of the cycle, building users need to manage their output from facilities– waste, carbon and other emissions, water discharge and runoff, and any hazardous output.  (More on this concept is discussed by Leaders in Energy member, Barbara Englehart, at Englehart Consulting).

Figure 3 Circular Economy Processes
Figure 3 Circular Economy Processes

Sustainability and the circular economy start with thoughtful design and consideration of the source materials.  Are they quality materials that are designed to last?  Are they from renewable resources?  Are they free of toxins that will give off gas in the air that we breathe? Buildings are made of bricks, steel, wood, wire, and concrete that can someday be broken down into resources that can be reused and repurposed. Improving the use of those resources is an important task, and building design is a good place to start. So designing with sustainability and reuse in minBlue-Metropolitan-Facilities-Solutionsd is another important part of the circular economy.
It is this topic that Leaders in Energy will discuss at our upcoming event, Sustainable Facilities for the Circular Economy on Tuesday May 24, 2016 at 6 – 8:30 pm at the Crystal Gateway Condominium Complex in Arlington, VA. The event is sponsored by Metropolitan Facilities Solutions. Click here to register.

Sustainable Facilities in the Washington, DC Area

The Washington area has been recognized as one of the nation’s leading metro areas when it comes to embracing sustainable facilities management. For two years in a row, Washington was ranked number one in the country for having the most Energy Star buildings since taking the number one spot from Los Angeles in 2015. The 2016 figures that were recently released show that 686 buildings, covering 154 million square feet, had the Energy Star certification. This ranking considers buildings that “…are verified to perform [in energy use] in the top 25 percent of similar buildings nationwide over a specific one-year period.” (see the criteria)  Moiz Kapadia from Autodesk Sustainability Solutions had an interesting take on this.

In addition, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, DC leads metro areas nationwide in the amount of certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) space per resident (19.3 sq. ft). The 2016 ranking by state was released by U.S. Green Business Council in January, and Maryland and Virginia rank second (3.06 sq. ft) and ninth (1.63 sq. ft), respectively.

Note that it can be difficult to compare apples to apples here – Energy Star focuses on energy use, whereas LEED covers different aspects of building design and resource use. But at their heart, both standards embrace the principles of the circular economy. Here are some sources for comparing green building standards from the EPA and the National Institute of Building Sciences.

Buildings, the Circular Economy, and Sustainable Urban Planning

As mentioned earlier, buildings are not to be taken in isolation, but as part of living communities. This is especially true in urban areas, which are growing in size and population in both in the U.S. and globally. Through integrated planning of neighborhoods and districts within cities and the incorporation of sustainability within, cities can minimize their impact while continuing to grow the economy. One organization that recognizes this is EcoDistricts, a nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon that empowers practitioners of sustainable urban planning both domestically and abroad.

The organization recently announced its EcoDistricts Protocol which is a holistic, project development framework focused on social, economic, and environmental sustainability at the center of neighborhood initiatives.  The EcoDistricts Target Cities program has 11 projects across 9 North American cities to accelerate neighborhood-scale regeneration projects and create replicable models for change. To help guide prospective EcoDistricts, they are also developing other innovative services, including professional certification and accreditation.

One of our Sustainable Facilities event speakers, Nancy Meyer, CEO of Community Forklift, has been developing a project under the EcoDistrict model, involving the four Port Towns of Bladensburg, Colman Manor, Cottage City, and Edmonston in Prince George’s County in Maryland, just outside of Washington. In 2014, the team representing the area participated in the 2014 EcoDistricts Incubator. The Port Towns EcoDistrict covers an ethnically diverse region with a high concentration of industrial activity. This project aims to take advantage of the area’s existing resources and contribute to job and business creation, housing, green transportation and infrastructure, and preservation.

Outside of the Port Towns, also from the DC area, the Rhode Island Metro Improvement District participated in the 2015 Incubator (see 2015 cohort). Participants in the Incubator receive a 3 day intensive training from EcoDistricts on their model for sustainable urban planning. On the Incubator website, you can also learn more about other Incubator project teams.

In addition to the Incubator, EcoDistricts is currently targeting three other projects in Washington, DC, including the DowntownDC Business Improvement District (BID), St. Elizabeths/Congress Heights, and SW Waterfront (see article from WAMU).

Read the vision for the DowntownDC BID’s EcoDistrict, and you may get goose bumps (or maybe it was just me) from the way they speak about the vision of a Washington where commuters bike share their way to work, enjoy energy-efficient HVAC, buy (presumably locally grown, organic) food at a farmer’s market, and actively recycle throughout the day. Though utopian-sounding, many of the pieces for this vision are becoming a reality. Out of 550 buildings in the BID, there are about 100 LEED Certified projects. Even the Macy’s store at Metro Center has gotten on board, and according to DowntownDC BID, has more than recuperated its investment in energy upgrades. By 2020, DC hopes to reduce its energy consumption by 20%, and energy efficiency is an important piece of the plan.

Leaders in Energy Event on Sustainable Facilities for the Circular Economy in the DC Metro Region (May 24, 2016)

We are fascinated by this flurry of activity and look forward to hearing from our panel on Sustainable Facilities for the Circular Economy. As the momentum for building green facilities continues to grow, we hope that lessons learned can be instructive for the broader questions of how to build a more circular economy.

Our panel speakers include:

The moderator is Barbara Englehart, Leaders in Energy, Director of Business Sustainability and Principal at Englehart Consulting.

We will examine:

  • The Circular Economy: How is it defined and thought and practice leaders
  • Success stories: Examples of facilities and other real estate designed and managed for the circular economy and examples of projects, networks, cities, regions to use as benchmarks
  • Value proposition for your organization and region: The change required by the circular economy framework is significant – so why should you undertake it? Benefits will outweigh costs on all three sustainability dimensions: social, environment, and economic.
  • Design for Circularity of Facilities and Real Estate:
  1. Maximize use of renewable resources (materials, energy, water)
  2. Prioritize maintenance, reuse/repurpose, refurbish/remanufacture
  3. Avoid all waste and demolition
  4. Be creative: buildings can be farms, factories, power plants, offices, residences, gardens, and places of great beauty all in one
  5. Build for longevity and resilience, build for the next 1,000 years


Crystal Gateway Condominium Complex

1300 Crystal Drive

Arlington, VA 22202

Accessible by Metro (Blue & Yellow)

Pizza and beer (and non-alcoholic beverages) will be provided. Special rates for students and job seekers.

Click here to register.




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