HMFH Architects

Operating a Low Carbon Office

When we first made a commitment to reduce our firm’s carbon footprint, we thought our enthusiasm and willingness to walk the talk would make it easier to improve the environmental impacts of our office operations―our building energy consumption, for instance. Evaluate the consumption, calculate our costs to set a benchmark, cut back, and see how much energy and money we save.

It’s more complicated than that. We buy part of our power indirectly through the lease agreement with our building management company, which distributes costs of electricity and natural gas evenly among all of the tenants through the rent. Changing the thermostats can definitely impact energy consumption, but we can’t see by how much or find out what our costs are.

We control our plug and our lighting loads, though, so we’re prioritizing those to help us understand changes that are realistic. We’re lucky for a couple of reasons. First, when our office moved from a lower floor in the building to our current location a few years ago, we did a complete renovation that also improved the thermal envelope and building systems. LED light fixtures, daylight harvesting controls, and chilled beams for heating and cooling have all helped reduce our energy consumption significantly. We also have lots of exterior glass around the perimeter of the building, so our office gets some great daylighting.

Second, the office location in Cambridge, MA lets us take advantage of the city’s aggregate electricity program. We can purchase 100% renewable electricity for the portion of the power that runs through our meter. We’ve also asked building management about their power, but they aggregate their own power purchases for all of the buildings they manage and aren’t pursuing 100% renewable energy purchases right now.

Because the New England power mix includes 12% renewable energy, and we purchase 100% renewable energy for about 75% of our electrical power, we’re effectively hitting the 78% carbon-free level for our office energy consumption (the other 22% represents the non-renewable electricity and natural gas we use for heating, cooling, and ventilation), so we find ourselves getting closer to our ideal carbon-neutral target.

We’re still measuring our energy use to see if we can make other improvements, maybe trying some other ideas:

  • Ask the building management company if they’d be willing to purchase 100% renewable energy or renewable energy credits.
  • Ask them about using carbon offsets that tenants could pay for through lease arrangements.
  • Add solar panels to the building or in the parking lot. This also would mean negotiating with the building management company and would have a relatively small impact on our office’s energy use (and even less for the building as a whole). On the other hand, solar panels might be just right if they’re paired with an electric vehicle or two to use for meetings with clients or to get to job site

Reducing our carbon footprint via our office’s electric and gas consumption isn’t as easy as switching off lights and turning down thermostats, but we think we’ve made some measurable strides in the direction of carbon neutrality and we’re implementing some practical approaches to make even more.