GREEN: Geological Society of America: Rock Solid Sustainability

Column by Graham Russell


The Geological Society of America is a 501 C-3 nonprofit based in Boulder ( It owns its head office building, which houses about 45 staff. In 2008 Jon Olsen, director of publications, and Todd Berggren, IT director, were asked to take over management of the building. Neither had much experience in facilities management but they readily undertook the task, figuring they would learn what they needed to know.

Olsen had just returned from a trip to China where he had seen the results of explosive economic development, pursued without regard for environmental and natural resource considerations. He discovered that the GSA building, which had been constructed in the 1970s, was about as eco-unfriendly as it could be. He and Berggren resolved to rectify this and bring its operation into alignment with one of the key elements of the GSA's mission and the philosophy of its members -- Earth stewardship.

Like many successful sustainability initiatives, GSA's began with a focus on waste reduction. Olsen and Berggren started with a program to reduce electricity consumption on lighting by replacing all incandescent bulbs with CFLs. They recognized that most of the offices were overlit, so they implemented a "delamping" program resulting in the elimination of 600 conventional fluorescent tubes (without a single employee complaint).

With a little encouragement, employees learned to turn off lights and computer monitors when they were not in their offices, and arrangements were made to shut off the HVAC on weekends when staff were rarely in the building. Settings were changed to send computers and printers into sleep mode more quickly. 1970s vintage refrigerators were replaced with Energy Star models. The electricity bill quickly fell by about 25 percent, saving about $600 per month.

Olsen & Berggren were aided in their efforts by 10 for Change, a Boulder-based energy efficiency business coalition (, and by a free energy audit from Xcel Energy, the local utility. Using $7,200 from the electricity savings, the building was retrofitted with low-flush toilets and waterless urinals, which reduced monthly internal water consumption from 17,000 gallons to about 7,000. Working on the sustainable business principle that information drives action, a real-time water usage monitor was obtained from the City of Boulder and helped to keep monthly consumption of irrigation water in the lowest pricing tier (Boulder has a steeply progressive water tariff and currently makes available these water monitors for $75 -- Next step in the water conservation program: replacement of much of the existing landscaping with Xeriscape.

An aggressive recycling effort has reduced waste pickups from three per week to just one. A program to compost paper towels and organic waste from the kitchen areas led to the establishment of a community garden in the building's grounds that is run by a cadre of 13 employees who benefit from the fruit and vegetables grown there. Surplus produce is donated to local food banks. With all these waste reduction initiatives now in full swing, GSA is migrating from a 4-yard dumpster to a 96 gallon container. Waste handling costs have been reduced by over 50 percent, saving $2,500 per year.

Significant savings have been made in the consumption of paper (now 100 percent recycled), largely through an attack on excessive document printing. Ubiquitous desktop printers were replaced with a much smaller number of printers distributed strategically throughout the offices such that their distance from most employees tends to discourage their use. Printers are set to default to double-sided, black-only printing. Closer attention to the organization's purchasing process has reduced consumption of other office supplies. Paper and throw-away materials have been eliminated from all meetings, which are now essentially zero-waste.

Consciously looking at operations "through a sustainability lens," while something of an overworked phrase, is absolutely critical according to Olsen. GSA has a formal green team, which presents its progress to monthly all-staff meetings. This helps to maintain visibility for the program and its accomplishments, and stimulates the flow of ideas for additional sustainability measures. Olsen notes that the vast majority of staff have embraced sustainability with an enthusiasm that has become contagious so that one initiative leads to another, sometimes in almost serendipitous fashion.

One example of this occurred when a plan was developed to install a 66.6 kWh solar array on the building. Even with rebates from Xcel energy, an additional $140,000 was required to purchase the equipment. Casting around for fundraising ideas, the team learned that the City of Boulder was interested in using a portion of GSA's land to improve flood control arrangements. Negotiations led to an arrangement under which the City came up with the additional funding. GSA now obtains 35 percent of its required electricity from its own solar system and is banking the renewable energy credits in a fund to be used for equipment replacement years hence. This sort of "luck" is obviously not something most organizations can count on, but Olsen's point is that consciously using the "sustainability lens" tends to throw up opportunities that would otherwise remain hidden. GSA complements its solar electricity generation with the purchase of wind energy and is now 100% powered by renewable energy.

Some might argue that GSA is a nonprofit and, as such, can perhaps afford to pay less attention to the rigorous financial criteria that drive decisions in for-profit enterprises, thereby allowing sustainability initiatives to be more values or mission-driven. However, it's worth pointing out that the past three years have been some of the worst in living memory from a funding standpoint for non-profits. GSA's leadership would certainly not have pursued these sustainability initiatives unless they had been contributing to the financial well-being of the organization. Case closed.



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