Campus & Community

Workplace, green place

8 min read

Simple, subtle steps to Earth-friendly offices

Desk, chair, lamp, computer, wastebasket. The offices we occupy are in many ways an inventory of the ordinary.

But a Harvard program launched this spring is designed to open our eyes to the environmental costs of ordinary objects in the office, and the personal habits that accompany them.

“Green Office,” conceived and administered by the Office for Sustainability (OFS), focuses on the energy we use in workplaces, the trash we create, the recycling we do, and the purchases we make. Four tiers of increasingly detailed certifications — “Leaf 1” through “Leaf 4” — are intended both as an awakening and a challenge.

On a bigger scale, Harvard already has plans to reduce its energy usage. Last year, the University pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by the year 2016.

The Green Office program is intended to take Harvard’s grand sustainability ambitions and translate them to a personal scale. It’s an attempt to change an office’s culture of private daily actions — influenced by things as simple as turning off computers, or using washable dishes instead of paper cups and plates.

“Offices integrate a lot of the habits you want people to change,” said Roy Lauridsen, facilities manager at Harvard Divinity School (HDS).  The ambition there, he said, is to get a dozen offices certified, at the rate of one “leaf” step every six weeks. (The physical footprint of an “office” and the number of people in it can be self-defined by the applicants.)

Seven offices have certifications so far; at least another dozen are in the pipeline, including the office of Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith. Also in line for certification is Massachusetts Hall, where Harvard President Drew Faust has her office (and where she keeps her refillable water bottle).

Interest comes from every corner of Harvard, including offices and labs at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

The basics come first, said Claire Berezowitz, Ed.M. ’08, Longwood sustainability coordinator for OFS. “Power management is an easy hit,” she said, along with proper recycling and water reduction. (OFS touts a faucet-mounted aerator that cuts water usage by up to 80 percent. It costs $1.20.)

OFS Director Heather Henriksen credited her team of experts for the Green Office program, the first effort to develop one set of University-wide lessons on the environmental impact of personal behavior.

“Our team created the program materials and trainings based on our day-to-day work with all the Schools, and on additional research,” she said. It summarized the best ways to bring sustainability to an office setting.

“We saw lots of potential and opportunity in offices,” said Jaclyn Olsen, OFS assistant director. Her team developed the certification program and its Web-based “tool kit” after consulting with experts from Harvard’s procurement, dining, and recycling operations.

Simply turning off unused lights, computers, coffee machines, copiers, and printers creates huge savings, she said. So does unplugging chargers, which pull “phantom” power when not in use.

“Every action is important,” said Gosia Sklodowska, manager of the FAS Green Program. Combine sustainability actions in offices with steps already under way at Harvard laboratories, dormitories, and Houses, she said, and energy savings accelerate.

Green offices can take steps beyond those mentioned in the certification application, said Olsen, including office composting and “freecycling” days to distribute unused office supplies.

Harvard Law School has a freecycle e-mail list and periodic freecycle events, said Cara Ferrentino ’08, OFS sustainability coordinator at HLS. It’s important to get reuse to be part of office culture, she said, “before you purchase something new.”

Changes in the way Harvard uses energy and water, cubicle to cubicle, desk to desk, and lab bench to lab bench can have an enormous impact, said Henriksen. For one, consider the numbers: 20,000 students at Harvard, along with 10,000 faculty and 8,000 core staff — most of whom work at least part of the time in offices or officelike settings.

On a big scale, Harvard is already doing well, said Henriksen. The recycling rate on the Cambridge campus — 55 percent — is the highest in the Ivy League. Water use University-wide is down 8 percent over last year. And 66 percent of all paper products have recycled content.

Harvard-wide temperature parameters for buildings were established this year to save energy, and the University’s 600-plus buildings have been analyzed for energy efficiency. This year, each School at Harvard will have a framework in place for further reducing energy usage.

“But if we are going to continue to move the needle, and meet our greenhouse gas reduction goal, we are going to have to go to the people,” said Henriksen. “That means embedding sustainability into how we all do our day-to-day jobs.”

At the same time, the Green Office program “is easy and fun,” she said. “It taps into the creativity of our community, and their solutions-oriented nature.”

The “office” in Green Office also implies more than one person — and a measure of collectivity is one secret to making the workplace into a showcase of small-scale sustainability. For each level of certification, at least 75 percent of office employees have to sign the application.

“In any office, it takes more than one or two people to succeed,” said Olsen of the 75 percent requirement. “We did this intentionally, so it’s very inclusive.”

Earlier this month, David J. Havelick — an executive assistant in the Epidemiology Department at the Harvard School of Public Health — organized a first meeting on the green office idea. About 20 people showed up. “One person in your department being responsible for all those in it,” he said, “is very rough.”

The Green Office program offers workshops on how to bring environmental values to the workplace. OFS runs them every two months at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (which accounts for more than a third of Harvard’s energy footprint) and periodically elsewhere.

OFS staffer Dara Olmsted ’00 ran an FAS green office workshop on Sept. 17, where workers took in an hour of lessons. Learning even the simple things — shut off your computer, use compact fluorescent light bulbs — makes a difference, she said.

Olmsted works out of an old house at 69 Dunster St., which in some ways is the office of the future. Aside from all the usual green office features — double-sided copies, signage on the light switches, “smart” power strips — her office keeps a compost barrel in the backyard.

There is also a blue vermiculture bin near her desk, where red wigglers and earthworms transform food waste and old paper into soil-like organic matter. (Harvard cafes and cafeterias already use composting as a standard practice and — a sign of the future? — there are compost bins on all 16 floors of William James Hall.)

But even without worms and kitchen waste, any office can quickly become a space in which less water and energy are used and where less trash is generated. “We all have a role to play,” said Olmsted. She tells workshop audiences that developing a “culture of personal engagement” is as effective as it is simple.

“Most of this was pretty easy,” said Jenny Harvey, program coordinator for sustainability at Harvard Real Estate Services, whose eighth-floor office in the Holyoke Center is applying for Green Office certification this week (Sept. 28).

She gave a breezy tour of some of the green office signposts: turn-me-off signage on light switches, a bottle-filling station, a room for tradable office supplies, a bin for scrap paper, instructions for making double-sided copies and for scanning documents to PDFs, jars to recycle batteries, and — on her desk — a tall, washable glass. The kitchen has dish detergent, a rack of cloth bags anyone can borrow, and operable curtains. Closed at night, they keep the heat in. During parts of the day, closed curtains keep solar heat out.

What makes a green office may be hard to see. In Suite 501 of Pound Hall at Harvard Law School (HLS), a visitor takes in the usual sights: shelves of books, a microwave, two copiers, a clock, soft lighting, and a pot of flowers.

But despite its mild appearance, this little office — the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic — is Harvard’s only workspace so far with a “Leaf 4” certification. The changes required are “very subtle,” said Amy Soto, staff assistant to the clinic’s director. Some are as easy as signage, a bulletin board, and a place to wash dishes.