How Buildings are Hurting Us & the Environment

September 11, 2019

Focusing on sustainability and energy efficiency, the Modern Energy Management podcast invites facility innovators to discuss energy best practices that go beyond the meter. In this week’s show, we spent time with Sara Neff, the Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Kilroy Realty Corporation.

Sara’s path to sustainability was an interesting one. After her undergrad, she spent a number of years in the entertainment business in Hollywood. But in the back of her mind, she knew she wanted a job that had more of a positive impact on the world. So, she returned to school and received a business degree in social enterprise from Columbia. Upon completing her degree, she returned to California and took a job at Kilroy Realty Corporation, where she has been ever since.

Today, Sara has two major areas of responsibility at Kilroy. The first is heading up all of Kilroy’s sustainability initiatives for existing buildings and projects in development. She oversees the implementation of technologies and products for energy, water, EV charging stations, recycling, compost, solar, and batteries. If that weren’t enough, she also leads the company’s corporate social responsibility department where she manages programs for diversity and building occupant health and wellness.

Building Programs from Scratch

Throughout its history, Kilroy has taken a leading role in energy and sustainability at its properties. Despite having built the first LEED building in San Diego and winning awards for energy efficiency as far back as 1983, the company had no formal sustainability practice.

But, as Neff points out, the key to bringing the ideas of sustainability and efficiency to the forefront of any business is a strong, ingrained mindset throughout the organization. In the case of Kilroy, it was the CEO’s passion for the ocean and the environment which led him to care deeply about environmental issues surrounding real estate. Through a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation, Kilroy Realty Corporate became a leader in sustainable real estate.

Innovation at the Forefront

After a chance meeting at a sustainability conference in Chicago, Neff was inspired by Mr. Kilroy to create the Kilroy Innovations Lab. The program defines what she calls the “rules of engagement” for working with cutting-edge technology products and providers like Lucid. In the past, Kilroy had found that piloting innovative products was difficult. Implementation was slow, savings were hard to measure and return on investment was unclear. To solve these problems, the Kilroy Innovation Lab provides a platform that informs prospective technology providers what Kilroy is looking for, the parameters of the pilot and how measurement and verification will be done.

Working in partnership with accelerators and clean-tech incubators, the result for the company has been a marked improvement in how they curate and implement technology pilot programs.

Commitment to Carbon Neutrality

Kilroy Realty is nothing if not bold in its quest to lead the green building revolution. At a conference in September of 2018, Kilroy’s CEO John Kilroy made an audacious promise: That Kilroy would become carbon neutral by 2020. Even though Sara had worked with him to make the announcement, the work ahead was daunting.

Admittedly, as a smaller developer, the challenge to obtain all their power from renewable sources both on site and through partnerships is not as difficult as it is for larger operations with huge, power-hungry data centers. But the company’s short timetable to get to carbon neutrality was, in her mind, intended to be a challenge and an inspiration to other companies that it IS achievable. It can happen now. And while the limiting of upfront carbon (that which occurs in the manufacture of building materials) is a goal for future innovations, the company is already nearing their goal.

A Focus on Health and Wellness

In her TedX talk, titled ‘Erected Disfunction: Our Buildings Hurt Us, But Don’tHave To’, Sara told the story of her daughter coughing herself to sleep each night. After 6 months of trying various remedies which didn’t work, she discovered the solution was as simple as an air filter. It was at that moment she realized we just didn’t know enough about what our buildings were doing to us.

Currently in California, buildings comprise as much as 40% of our state’s emissions. And while there is a growing awareness by legislators, health and wellness inside buildings isn’t something we talk about often enough. In her role as the leader of corporate social responsibility, Neff has spearheaded the installation of carbon dioxide monitors in all of Kilroy’s buildings. With initiatives like that, she believes they are helping to ensure that occupants feel better and are more productive whenever they come to work.

Advice to Energy and Sustainability Leaders

In the final segment of the podcast, Sara and our panel discussed ways that companies can begin to grow their own sustainability programs. Sara believes practitioners must think of themselves as hacking their own companies.

Based on “the hacker principles”, she laid out three tenets of successful sustainability programs:

  • Freedom is good…In order to succeed, leaders must empower everyone to make sustainability decisions, rather than just those who are creating the programs.
  • Attitude is no substitute for confidence…No matter how much you believe in what you’re doing, you have to back it up with numbers to show that you’ve done something important.
  • Boredom and drudgery are evil…Try not to create programs that create work for people. Rather than making employees track down data for reports, it’s important to automate as much as possible up front.

Beyond that Sara advises people to focus on quick wins in the beginning, rather than large, complex and long-lead installations like solar power generation. For Kilroy, one of her first initiatives was “Green Cleaning” for their properties to show how easy and fast the company could make an impact.

But for Sara, the most important thing to remember is to have gratitude. Through company-wide communications and even Twitter posts thanking employees who made a difference, Sara has found that a little gratitude makes employees more willing and excited to help make the big changes that are needed to green our buildings.

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