Sustainable Design for Nonprofit Organizations: 10 Ways to Go Green in Your Office Space

Sustainable Design for Nonprofit Organizations: 10 Ways to Go Green in Your Office Space

This is the third 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. And in the second article we look at the LEED certification system and explained how green design is also smart design. 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.

All organizations — even those occupying rental space under a long-term lease — can benefit from improvements to the environmental quality of their workspaces and by reducing their use of energy.

Articles in the Sustainable Design series:

The best place to start is with existing standards and guidelines for energy-efficient workplaces. As part of its LEED program, the U.S. Green Building Council offers rating systems for Commercial Interiors and Existing Buildings that directly address energy use in tenant spaces. While the systems were developed for use by design professionals and building owners and managers, becoming familiar with their respective categories and methodology can be helpful to any tenant.

Once you have a basic understanding of these tools, your next step should be to conduct a comprehensive assessment of your organization's energy and office product use. Any such assessment should be designed to raise energy-use awareness throughout the organization and should also consider sustainable strategies that are less harmful to the environment than your current practices.

Obviously, changes to a building's maintenance and operation program will require the cooperation of the building owner. Just remember (and be sure to remind your building owner), actual cost savings from reduced energy use and environmental improvements to workspaces almost always translate into happier tenants and a more marketable commercial space — a win-win for building owners and tenants alike.

With a basic understanding of the LEED rating systems, your organization should be able to develop a list of energy-saving and product-substitution opportunities; obviously, each organization will have its own list, tailored to its own circumstances. But the list below should give you an idea of where to start:

  1. Lighting
    1. Replace any incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents
    2. Encourage your building owner to install lights sensors so that lights in sporadically used spaces turn off automatically when not in use
  2. Recycling
    1. Provide bins for recycling paper, bottles, cans, and cardboard
    2. Recycle "internally" by re-using any items that are minimally worn (e.g., large- format envelopes)
  3. Paper and plastic
    1. Buy paper that has recycled content and which is unbleached and non-de-inked
    2. Post notices in a common place and/or send them via e-mail rather than printing copies for every employee
    3. Before printing, edit all documents as thoroughly as possible
    4. Develop memos, letters, and documents in space-efficient formats to reduce page count
    5. Buy or lease printers and fax machines with the capacity for double-sided printing
  4. Equipment
    1. Develop a system (including a checklist) for turning off all equipment, computers, and lights to prevent unnecessary energy consumption
    2. Purchase the most energy-efficient equipment available
  5. Cleaning Supplies
    1. Use products that are non-toxic
    2. Buy products in large quantities to reduce the amount of packaging
  6. Commuting
    1. Encourage ride-sharing and car-pooling
    2. Sign up for any programs in which the employee pays for fare cards with pre-tax dollars
  7. Reduce heating and cooling
    1. Schedule heating and cooling systems to go on during pre-determined hours; let the system run hotter or cooler in off-hours, depending on the season
    2. Use natural heating and ventilation if possible
    3. Set the temperature a degree or two warmer in the summer and a degree or two cooler in the winter
  8. Employee Awareness
    1. Provide information on ways employees can conserve in their private lives (such as buying energy-efficient vehicles or setting up a compost bin)
    2. Make employees aware of programs such as mortgage subsidies for energy-efficient homes
  9. The Office Kitchen
    1. Avoid using paper plates and plastic utensils by providing dishes and utensils
  10. Innovate
    1. Motivate your employees to come up with new ways to save!

There are many helpful Web sites with additional information about energy-saving techniques and sustainable practices. Start by looking at the Energy Start Web site sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency. Environment Canada, Atlantic Region is another good site and offers a thorough analysis of ways to incorporate sustainable strategies into an office space.

The most important thing, however, is to get started!

In the next article in our series, my colleague Susan Pelczynski, IIDA, LEED@AP, will look at the value — economic and otherwise — of a collaborative LEED design methodology. In the meantime, if you have any questions about the LEED system or sustainable design principles, you can contact me at

The sustainable nonprofit

October 16, 2020