Certified Green! No Kale consumption required…

When we first heard about Certified Green Business Program back in 2009, our interest was piqued. We were already committed to sustainability in our personal lives but had no idea what it took for a city consultant to officially certify that the way our business was conducted was officially “green”.  At the time we were living and working in San Francisco, and we invited a consultant with the San Francisco Department of the Environment come to do a site assessment with us.

The program requires the candidates to demonstrate that their business practices, material use, and policies are sustainable, including such things as the energy efficiency of their equipment and lighting, the efficiency of their water use, efficiency and upkeep of vehicles, their use of recycling and overall waste management, and their use of non-toxic cleaning materials.  

Our office at the time was in a portion of our 1922 era home. We had done some remodeling 10 years prior, including building a dedicated space for our architectural office with four employees. The consultant found quite a few things that did not initially “pass muster”. The attitude they bring is all positive – it’s a can do approach to see how we can work together to improve the facility and practice. The first certification was the hardest. We found a leaky toilet we had to replace (but hey our water bill went down!), we changed some light bulbs from MR-16s to high efficacy LED’s, the bathroom faucets all used more water than was permitted (they installed new aerators for us at no cost!), they pointed out that our printing and paper use should use more recycled content (we found new vendors to supply these and never looked back). After the initial certification, we were re-certified two more times (re-certification and site inspections are required every three years). It became more of a game, a challenge to keep doing better each time. We added solar panels, bought a hybrid vehicle, added a gray water system for irrigation, printed our business cards on 100% recycled paper. We looked for other certified green businesses to support through their network. Fire Clay Tile is one of our favorites!

As  we moved our home and office to Pacifica earlier this year, we finally got around to looking into the  certification process for the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability. We had to start over as our location was new, but as we had just built a high performance Net Zero Energy, all electric home and office, we didn’t think it would be that difficult to get certified again. We filled out most of the documentation online and had Lawrence Nussbaum her today for our site evaluation.

We were surprised to learn that this is part of a state program, all using the same software and metrics to be able to share information and continually improve the program.  Lawrence was thrilled to see our space and all we had already done, such as our solar panels, our rainwater storage tanks, our highly efficient heat pump HVAC and water heaters, our LED lighting, and so forth.  He was also pleased to hear that we have committed to community outreach and education regarding green building.

Lawrence also guided us to a new information that can help us go even further. For example:

  1. Our electricity is tied to the grid through PG&E. While we are Net Zero over the course of a year, we don’t yet have a battery, so we are often feeding energy into the grid during the day, and paying for energy from the grid at night. While the transmission in our area is through PG&E, the power actually comes from a different source through Peninsula Clean Energy. 50% of the power we receive comes from renewable sources already, but there is an option to upgrade to 100% renewables by paying just $4/month more. I’m willing to give up a cup of coffee once a month for that satisfaction!
  2. It’s very hard to sort through the greenwashing of cleaning products and Lawrence offered to send us a list of approved materials with links of where to purchase them. Easy!
  3. There’s an Integrated pest management program that I need to learn more about as we look to finish our landscaping, so the timing was perfect. Plus there’s a gopher that is driving me crazy…

At the end Lawrence said we did very well and thought we could finalize the certification in the next few days. I had read that there was an “Innovator” category as well as a “Certified” category and asked if we might qualify for that as well. We started going through the checklist – yes we wanted to help other business become certified, yes, we do public education through our presentations to Rotary and other clubs, and we offer Net Zero tours and presentations, yes, we’d be happy to blog about the program and speak at events. We are also currently assisting a non-profit on a pro-bono basis to upgrade their building systems and put solar on the complex. We are very close to having all the boxes checked to become the first “Innovator” in San Mateo County!

One of the certification requirements is a “testimonial” from a principal of the firm that relates their beliefs to their business practices. Here’s our testimonial:

Environmental degradation and climate change due to human action are gravely endangering the sustainability of our civilization and our living world. As architects, our work affects something like 40% of the energy budget of our country and a great deal of our resource use. For our own sake and for the sake of our children and their children, it is incumbent on us to strive diligently to do our work in a sustainable fashion, and to create buildings which are energy efficient and sustainable in their construction and maintenance over time.

Our projects are mostly residential, and as our own personal history of home ownership shows, well designed houses can last for generations, even hundreds of years. Energy wasting homes can last that long too, so it is important to design both efficient and durable homes.

Finally, humans spend the majority of their lives within their homes, so a healthy home environment is important for quality of life. Non-toxic materials, proper ventilation, thermal comfort, structural strength, and weatherproof integrity all need to be considered. The construction materials we use, and the processes that make them, should be as friendly to the environment as possible.

Of course, as a home-based ‘white collar’ service business, we perhaps had an easier time being certified than, for instance, an auto repair facility.  Our employee transportation carbon footprint is minimal (the commute for half of our staff is walking downstairs!). While various businesses have different challenges, there are things we can all do to help our businesses be better. These programs are partners with you to help evaluate your potential, which often also results in large operational cost savings as well.  

The certification program also helps to highlight and reward green businesses. Check out your local green businesses not only as potential vendors or clients, but also partners, committed to sustainable practices for long term benefits to our communities and ecosystems.

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