Sustainable Sustainability

Eric Dillinger
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Eric Dillinger is responsible for Strategy Development at Jacobs Global Buildings, with emphases in the areas of asset management, sustainable program development and lifecycle impact assessment for the built environment. In addition to helping author more than 15 publications and over 300 presentations and workshops, Dillinger has provided testimony multiple times before the House and Senate on issues pertaining to asset and facility management.

Airports around the world are "going green" with grass roofs, recycling programs, alternative energy sources, and more. In fact, it would be hard to find an airport conference where sustainability is not an integral part of the program. And yet, at the same time, "green" facilities and infrastructure continue to emerge that actually cost more to own and operate than their more traditional counterparts. Some buildings that are certified green don't meet Energy Star requirements.

The challenge to the aviation community is to use superior design and construction to develop holistic assets that consume fewer resources over their entire lifecycle - not to focus on earning a particular score or certification. Buildings that achieve green designations yet consume more energy than their non-designated counterparts simply don't make sense. And it shouldn't take a change in certification standards to get the design community to make a sustainable building that can exceed energy standards.

But that's only the first half of the discussion.

A sustainable built environment starts with the presumption that we, the aviation community, can and will sustain the things we construct. It means we have thought through and can afford the total cost of ownership, not just the initial cost. Most facilities cost at least three times as much to own and operate as they cost to build (not including financing costs). And most airport facilities represent a tiny fraction the cost of the operations they support - less than 5%. Real sustainability and resource conservation comes from designing airports with lower total ownership cost and overall lower cost impact on the operations they support.

A focus on lowering the total cost of ownership has a corresponding impact on the total consumption of resources over the life of a facility. Lowering the initial cost to meet design and construction budgets at the expense of the total cost is inherently counterproductive - for the organization and the environment. Moreover, if we are unable to afford it economically, it is unlikely the construction is sustainable regardless of certifications or designations. A lower ownership cost invariably translates into a lower net use of resources since the two are surprisingly in alignment.

A sustainable built environment also implies that we can deliver the serviceability intended by the original construction - not just on the first day, but through the facility's entire lifecycle. We have to be able to sustain the functionality and operational efficiency post construction. Neat and innovative ideas that are not practical or maintainable ultimately become a waste of natural resources. What good is innovative lighting if the airport maintenance crew can't change the bulbs? High albedo roofs make sense in warm climates, but not in climates where solar gain makes the building occupants more comfortable. Bicycle racks in areas that prohibit the use of bikes are simply inconsistent to the long-term stewardship of resources - even if they earn a few credits toward green certification. Truly sustainable design is context-sensitive.

Decisions about airport facilities and infrastructure need to be based on long-term solutions, even in the face of short-term pressures. It takes a decision-making hierarchy that recognizes what is affordable - economically, operationally, environmentally and socially - to make sustainability more than the flavor of the day or current fashion.

The importance of long-term sustainability should be embedded in all elements of an airport, as if it is actually part of the organization's DNA. When that happens, it's on the tip of the tongue for all internal and external stakeholders. That's also when facilities and infrastructure with real long-term sustainability are designed and built - structures with a green that doesn't fade.

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