Green buildings demand employee sacrifices

IT workers are finding that they have to make sacrifices for the greater good of cutting back on energy usage in the data centre, and operators of the nation’s greenest data centres say it takes time for employees to get used to working in environmentally friendly ways.

“It takes a lot of marketing and education” to get employees used to working in a green building, says Chris Long, director of health, safety and sustainable development at the Environmental Protection Agency’s facility in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

“We have a very highly educated workforce, and what we found is that when people do have the data, it makes a difference,” Long says. “They find out that it makes a difference if they turn off their computer screen when they are out of the office. Some of us even have motion strips that turn off our computers when we leave the room.”

Most green buildings don’t look like typical office buildings. They often have stark, modernistic designs and are made of Space Age materials. That’s what employees discovered at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md., which opened in June. NSOF recently earned a coveted gold certification through the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

“There’s not a lot of color in the finish of the building. We asked the architect to give us a high-tech feel, and it feels very industrial. But employees would like more color,” says Paul Pegnato, project manager for NSOF.

NSOF is unusual because it has a “green” roof, with soil and plantings on top of the building. Most green buildings have drought-resistant plants rather than a conventional lawn.

“Our landscaping is 80 per cent to 90 per cent natural wildflowers and native plantings. People don’t drive up and see this beautiful green lawn that’s associated with an office building,” Pegnato says. “But by using natural plantings, we’re able to reduce fertilizers running off into the Chesapeake Bay. And we’re reducing the amount of mowing required, which reduces noise pollution and fuel usage.”

Inside, green office buildings are typically large open spaces with mountable wall systems and modular furniture. That requires a culture shift for employees used to having their own offices.

“We use a lot of open space,” Pegnato says. “Employees that came from private offices or had two or three people in an office now have to work in a large space. It’s been a little hard for them to get used to that.”

The Air Force Weather Agency (AFWA) has taken the same approach with its new data centre at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb.

“Every floor has a large open area, where all the office space is configured with furniture, kind of like a Dilbert cubical,” says Lt. Col Ron Dunic, chief of headquarters transition programs for AFWA.

Another difference is that green buildings typically don’t have electric outlets in the walls. Instead, they use in-floor boxes to provide power and data communications.

“These in-floor boxes can be picked up and moved fairly easily,” says Bruce McCauley, chief of construction management at Offutt Air Force Base. “This makes it easier for us to reorganize the office space in the future by just moving the re-mountable partitions.”

The nation’s greenest data centres eliminate personal printers for most employees. Instead, these buildings provide shared printing and copying rooms on each floor that vent directly outside to keep the rooms cool.

“One of the huge discussions during the design of the building is that we were giving up the printers that everybody had at their desks and the copiers in each department,” McCauley says. “Those have been isolated to printing and copying centers, which should reduce energy usage and paper usage. We have two or three of these centers on each floor.”

“We are getting a lot of pushback from the rank and file about the printers and copiers,” admits Lt. Col Dunic. “But it is going to be our policy going forward.”

Green buildings also have fewer electrical outlets so employees can’t plug in their own coffee pots, hotplates, microwaves or refrigerators. Forget about personal heaters, fans or desk lamps, too.

“Mr. Coffee uses about 1000 watts when it is brewing, and it cycles on and off. It’s 250 watts of constant power if you’re keeping a hotplate warm,” Long says. “We have rules that allow no more than two coffee pots for every dozen or so people.”

“Our employees are not supposed to have coffee pots, heaters or refrigerators in their personal workspaces. It’s a constant fight,” Pegnato says. “We probably get 90 per cent success on that.”

Pegnato says he chooses his battles when it comes to forcing employees to adhere to strict electricity usage in their offices. For example, he isn’t likely to force an employee to turn off the lights on a desktop Christmas tree.

“It’s a balance and a trade-off,” he says. “Do you literally run an office where you have Big Brother watching you? Where you plug in a pencil sharpener and somebody absconds with it? It depends on the culture of the organization.”

There is a plus to working in a green building: Lots of natural light. Green buildings are designed to make maximum use of sunlight. The fluorescent lighting in these buildings often have automatic dimmers so they adjust to the amount of sunlight in the room, and lighting automatically turns off when the room is unoccupied.

“No employee is more than 65 feet from natural light,” Pegnato says of NSOF. “We have five large courtyards and skylights.” Green building operators say the biggest complaints from employees are about losing their printers, copiers and coffee pots.

“It’s a huge mindset change because everyone wants their own close by,” McCauley says.

“The coffee pot and the printer are the big things,” Lt. Col Dunic agrees. “This is something near and dear to people.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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