Worldchanging interview: One Union Square

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By Jennifer Power

I work in One Union Square, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the management of One and Two Union Square is currently pursuing certification for both buildings from the United States Green Building Council for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The LEED rating system rewards buildings that have been constructed to limit total energy use and emission production. And although many critics say that LEED standards don't go far enough, it is, in essence, a positive thing: a LEED certified building is less harmful to our environment than a conventional one.

This made me stop and think: What does it take for a building to be green? What does it take for a skyscraper to be sustainable? And in these economic times, how can anyone afford it?

Since I am in such proximity to this process, I decided to look for some answers from an insider: Rick Mock, Director of Facilities for Union Square, LLC, the management company for One and Two Union Square.

Jen Power: What does it take for a building to be green?

Rick Mock:The LEED program is a nationally recognized third-party certification process that benchmarks the design, construction and operation of buildings. It’s a useful tool for indicating how green a building is in its construction and operation. The LEED-EB (existing building) program is relatively new and it’s continuing to be modified and honed, but it’s also useful to some extent for showing how sustainably a building is being operated through its rating criteria. I don’t think it’s foolproof at this point but it is a good road map.

Anyone who actively pursues and promotes the reduction of their waste stream, water usage, and lighting and mechanical energy consumption is on the way to greening their building. A building that deserves to be called green has looked at their building holistically and has made a commitment to green and sustainable practices.

JP: What are some of the biggest areas for sustainable improvement in modern skyscrapers?

RM:Reductions in energy and water usually start with an audit/trending of system operation. Benchmarking and tracking consumption are important; it’s difficult to manage an unknown quantity.

In some cases curbing energy can be simple. For example, we were running the Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning system on Saturdays when very few tenants were in the building. By asking tenants to request ventilation, we were able to turn off HVAC equipment for all but a few offices. This provided a significant reduction in energy and has extended the life of our equipment with no capital expenditure. While more aggressive improvements can be challenging and require a large investment, these projects often reap greater energy saving rewards. Building-wide lighting retrofits, controls and mechanical upgrades would fall into this category.

Lighting is another large energy consumer that should be scrutinized for possible savings potential. We were able to reduce our lighting load at Two Union Square from 80 watts/fixture to 34. This lighting retrofit represented a building wide 10% energy reduction.

It’s important to commission and re-commission your building to verify that your equipment is running optimally. Basically, give your building systems a tune-up to make sure it’s efficient. As equipment wears out take the opportunity to purchase energy-efficient, long-life cycle equipment; it’s usually worth the extra cost.

JP: How do you balance your sustainability efforts and quality of service for your tenants?

RM:We have found that sustainability and providing premier office space go hand in hand. A strong commitment to sustainability can be economically profitable, environmentally responsible and healthy.

We’ve found green options for our cleaning products, implemented many energy saving projects, and converted our lighting to low mercury tubes and compact fluorescents. Almost all of the paint we use now is water-based low VOC. We currently meet the USGBC carpet requirements for low VOC’s. Also, Union Square was one of the first buildings in Seattle to implement a recycling program.

We’re in this together, the tenant and building management. Most of our tenants see a value in green building practices. We encourage our tenants to go green in the design and build-out phases of their remodels, but it’s a voluntary process – there has to be cooperation or it doesn’t work.

JP: Why did Union Square decide to start working toward LEED certification?
We’ve demonstrated that our desire is to do the right thing all along – from a marketing perspective LEED certification is demonstrative of that. We want our customers to see us in a good light: we’re responsible, we take the environment seriously, and we’re acting on that.

JP: Energy use is a big part of building operations. How does that figure into your sustainability efforts?

RM:We’re always trying to find new ways to reduce our energy consumption: Technology has provided more efficient and reliable ways to control our mechanical systems: digital control, variable frequency drives, T-8/T-5/LED lighting, high efficiency motors etc . Union Square has partnered in roughly 100 energy saving projects with Seattle City Light. These include lighting retrofits, automation and a variety of mechanical upgrades.

Funding rebates from Seattle City Light help to offset the cost of these projects. Most of these projects have been financially profitable with payback in often 5 years or less. We have also undertaken challenging projects such as the EMS/mechanical upgrade project at One Union. This project was designed to better manage and control our mechanical system. This project has saved 6,959kWh/yr while improving the comfort and quality of life in our building. Not every project is based on payback, but quick payback does help make a project compelling.

EnergyStar certification has become another indicator of the efficiency of a building’s operation; it’s also a pre-requisite for LEED –EB certification. Union Square became Energy Star certified in 2005. This rating compares high-performance buildings nationally; currently we’re in the 90th percentile for both buildings. EnergyStar is all about reducing energy, so going EnergyStar was a natural progression for us; we’ve been actively pursuing energy reduction even before Energy Star was developed for high-rise buildings.

We’re currently working with McKinstry, Seattle City Light and Bonneville on a study called demand-cut response. Demand-cut response is the ability to cut 10% of the power in the building during peak demand periods that put the cities electrical grid at risk. The challenge is maintaining amenities and comfort in our buildings during these periods of cutting back. This is another example of looking to technology to help us design a system that can be automatic and transparent to our tenants.

Saving energy is good business for everyone. It reduces operating costs and effectively increases the cities electrical grid capacity. Have we done everything we can? Certainly not, but we’ll continue to make an effort to reduce lifecycle costs and be environmentally responsible.

JP: How do you afford to be green in the current economy?

RM:There’s no question we have to be smart to both save money and energy in this economy. In a recession, you improve and invest as you can afford it. Over the life of a building investing in infrastructure provides real returns. An ongoing proactive approach to high-performance systems and products that save money, last and are safe have positioned us well to weather the ebbs and flow of our economy.

Running efficiently, running safe, and providing our customer with a good product is timeless. It should always be the right thing to do. In a recession, it becomes even more critical to do the right thing.

Jennifer Power has been a happy resident of Seattle since 2002 and hopes she never has to leave. She writes about her life in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood at Life on the Hill and Other Stories.

Photo credit: flickr/cloganese, CC license.

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