Sustainable Design for Nonprofit Organizations: How Big Is Your Footprint?

Sustainable Design for Nonprofit Organizations: How Big Is Your Footprint?

This is the second article in our series on "green design" for the nonprofit sector. In the first article we explained why a sustainable design approach to office space is not only a good choice for nonprofits, it's the right choice. In the third article we outline ten ways you can go green in your office space. In the fourth article we look at the value — economic and otherwise — of a collaborative LEED design methodology. In the fifth and final article, we provide an overview of funding sources and mechanisms for your sustainable design project.

How big is your footprint? I'm not talking about your shoe size or the gadget the "CSI: Miami" crew uses to solve crimes. "Footprint" in this case refers to how much of planet Earth it will take to support your lifestyle over the course of your lifetime. The footprint of the typical American is 24 acres — that's 24 acres' worth of natural resources that must be mined, drilled, logged, or otherwise harvested to support one American from birth to death. You can determine the size of your own ecological footprint by filling out the survey on

Articles in the Sustainable Design series:

Being mindful of the ecological impact our activities have on the planet is the basis of sustainable, or "green," design. Everything we do affects the natural environment: where we live and work, what we consume, what we throw away. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the sustainable design movement is about more than just buildings; it's about changing the way people think about and relate to the environment.

Throughout history, humans have depended on the natural environment to provide them with food, water, and shelter. In the days before technology allowed us to control our internal environment, building design mandated consideration of climate. Orienting buildings to the sun and elements, optimized for summer and winter, helped people get through the year in relative safety and comfort. Only in the last century have technological advances such as in-door plumbing, electricity, heating, and air conditioning freed people from most of the restrictions imposed by climate and the natural environment.

But while technology helps ease our struggle to be comfortable, it also threatens the very systems on which we depend for air, food, and water. As Jared Diamond reminds us in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, history is rife with examples of technologically advanced (for their time) civilizations that ultimately collapsed due to environmental reasons. If our own technology-based civilization is to avoid the same fate, we would be wise to study history and apply the lessons it has to offer to our own relationship to Earth.

In that spirit, "green" design looks at natural resources and tries to find ways to conserve them. Recycling is the best-known example of a green design practice; when done efficiently, recycling reduces our use of raw materials, lessens the amount of energy needed to create a product, and reduces the volume of discarded materials in our landfills. Much new commercial construction today, for instance, uses recycled steel. And while there are many products in the marketplace that cannot be recycled efficiently, the number that can continues to grow.

Green design also focuses on how resources are used the first time around and on the manufacturing process itself. Simply by considering how built environments relate to the natural environment, we are more likely to make decisions that reduce energy use while minimizing environmental damage. Much of this is common sense. Native plants do not require irrigation or additional watering, and they provide better food and shelter for indigenous wildlife than do exotics. Green building materials that don't release harmful chemicals as they "off-gas" (a characteristic of vinyl tile and particle board) contribute to better air quality indoors, which tends to result in fewer employee sick days due to colds, flu, and asthma attacks. Healthier employees are also more productive employees. Similarly, siting a new building to maximize light, shade, and natural ventilation can limit the impact of the structure on the environment while improving its occupants' sense of well-being and extending the life of the building itself.

The basic principals of sustainable architecture are fairly straightforward. To help assess a building's "green-ness," the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) has developed a rating system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). LEED considers five aspects of sustainable design — Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, and Indoor Air Quality — and sets requirements for each. Buildings are scored against the LEED requirements and assigned a score in each category. A sixth category, for innovative design, awards credits for methods or techniques not included in the other five categories or for exceeding the requirements in a given category. A building's overall "green-ness" is determined by totaling the credits in each category. With the proper documentation in each category, a building can qualify as certified, silver, gold, or platinum, the highest level possible. Obtaining LEED certification brings its rewards: Marketability and positive publicity, tax incentives, and, most importantly, the enhanced well-being of everyone who lives or works in the building.

Considerations in the Sustainable Sites category include the building's location and orientation. Ideally, construction will entail minimal impact on the site and will enhance animal and plant habitat and reduce impermeable land cover. In addition to the building itself, parking lots, driveways, and other asphalt surfaces can dramatically increase heat retention and amplify storm-water runoff. (In urban areas dark roofs and asphalt surfaces can increase the ambient temperature by a full two degrees.) Last but not least, site selection should take into account a building's proximity to housing, good schools, hospitals, and shopping, thereby reducing the energy used by people traveling to and from work and home and helping to reduce congestion on the roadways.

In the Water Efficiency category, LEED advocates conserving water used for both site maintenance and interior plumbing. The use of native plants, for example, eliminates the need for irrigation, while captured rainwater can be used as a supplemental source of water. Inside the building, a variety of products have been introduced to reduce water use, including automatic shutoff valves and sensors, composting and duel-flush toilets, and gray water reclamation systems. All of these devices are easy to install and pay for themselves quickly.

The Energy and Atmosphere category considers energy conservation and the reduction of harmful gases released by the building itself. Leaving lights on and heating or air conditioning unoccupied areas costs money and pollutes the environment. Occupancy and daylight sensors can greatly reduce energy use. Alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power systems offer other approaches to energy consumption and, with further research and development, promise to further reduce humans' impact on the environment.

The Materials and Resources category focuses on using materials that are rapidly renewable, recycled, or create less waste. A rapidly renewable material is one that can be replenished within five years; examples include bamboo and other grasses. Responsible forest-management practices such as strategic harvesting — replenishing what is removed and removing only what can be sustained — also contribute to environmental sustainability.

LEED standards for Indoor Air Quality are specific to the indoor environment, including the overall comfort of individuals working in the building. Harmful pollutants such as cigarette smoke must be controlled and separated from the main air stream. Efficient ventilation systems and the use of materials that do not off-gas also contribute to healthier air. Other important factors to consider in this category are views to the outside, individual temperature and lighting controls, and proper day-lit spaces, all of which contribute to occupants' productivity and sense of well-being.

None of these benefits is free, of course. But when looking at the costs involved in producing a truly green, LEED-certified building, you need to consider them in terms of the life cycle of the building. Not only do alternative materials not always cost more, it has been shown that most of the additional cost associated with energy-efficient materials can be re-cooped within five years. Take, for example, the purchase of a refrigerator for an employee lounge. Before buying that refrigerator, you should consider, in addition to its initial cost, how long it will last, how costly it is to maintain and repair, how difficult it is to replace, and what will happen to it when you finally do replace it. All these things should be figured into a "life-cycle analysis" of the refrigerator, the goal of which is to determine which product will save you money — while contributing to environmental sustainability — over its entire life cycle.

Among its many benefits, the LEED system is used as a basis for financial incentives from the government. But short of certification, simply being aware of and following some of the guidelines associated with it will pay off — both in terms of employee productivity and the bottom line. The important thing to remember is that reducing the size of your organization's ecological footprint does not require lots of extra cash, doing without amenities, or sacrificing comfort. It merely requires passion and a sensitivity to the natural environment. And both qualities, increasingly, are the hallmarks of responsible architecture.

In the next article in our series, my colleague Holly Lennihan will outline ten ways you can go green in your office space. In the meantime, if you have any questions about the LEED system or sustainable design principles, you can contact me at

The sustainable nonprofit

July 2, 2019