Many companies have made upgrading their office buildings and facilities an area of focus for their environmental initiatives. There’s good reason why. According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, buildings account for nearly 39 percent of U.S. energy consumption and 38 percent of carbon emissions. Consequently, the building sector has a key role to play in the nation’s effort to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions. However, “going green” isn’t just about environmental concerns—done right, it can also be good for business. Companies that take smart, proactive steps to evaluate their buildings’ overall impact on the environment and seek ways to save energy and water can achieve economic benefits, improve employee engagement and bolster their corporate images.

As one of the nation’s largest electric utilities, Exelon recognized early on the need to take a leadership position in our industry by reducing our facilities’ energy consumption and embracing sustainable building. In support of our Exelon 2020 plan, which aims to reduce, offset, or displace more than 15 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year by 2020, we have made green building a priority. To date, the U.S. Green Building Council has awarded LEED certification to 10 Exelon facilities totaling more than 650,000 square feet. By showing it is possible and profitable to green its operations, the company hopes our effort can serve as a model for other organizations.

To demonstrate that meaningful emissions reduction could be achieved through building renovation, we embarked on a multiyear project to consolidate and redesign our headquarters in downtown Chicago’s Chase Tower. Using the highest standards provided by the USGBC’s LEED rating system, we renovated and consolidated our space, combining three offices into a 10-floor, 220,000-square-foot office. This significantly reduced occupancy costs, including energy and water consumption. Most recently, Exelon expanded the headquarters by adding another 27,000 square feet of LEED Platinum-certified space in the same building.

Despite a marginally higher upfront investment for these sustainable building projects (less than a 5 percent premium), we have realized meaningful cost savings much sooner than expected. The expansion of our headquarters immediately reduced electricity consumption by 50 percent and water consumption by 38 percent compared to the former space. Given the reduction in operating costs, we have recovered the premium in less than five years, based on energy savings alone.

Beyond the environmental and economic benefits, these efforts have reinvigorated employee morale and enhanced productivity. By demonstrating an ongoing commitment to a productive and efficient work environment, we successfully engaged employees throughout the decision-making process to cultivate their buy-in and support.  For example, of the many enhancements made to Exelon’s headquarters, employees have shown enthusiasm about to the abundance of natural light, and improved air quality via highly filtered and multiple HVAC zones. These improvements have created a more open and democratic environment that promotes collaboration. Based on the positive feedback we continue to receive from employees and third parties, our sustainable building efforts have made Exelon a more desirable place to work and continue to be a key selling point enabling us to attract and retain top talent.

Other companies interested in undertaking green building projects may want to consider a few lessons Exelon learned through its own experience:

• Do your due diligence. It is critical to establish consensus around your priorities and goals to ensure that all parties—design professionals, contractors, owners and end-users—are actively engaged in determining the level of sustainability you will pursue, the cost and benefits you expect to realize, and how the space will be used and maintained. If your company is a building tenant , as with our headquarters, it also is important to ensure that the landlord is receptive to and shares your vision for a sustainable renovation project. If not, you will need to educate the landlord about the project’s benefits. Doing so upfront eases the process and can potentially save you from committing to a space or landlord that hinders your ability to achieve your sustainability goals. 

• Don’t reinvent the wheel. In the early days of green building, there were a number of “guinea pigs.” Companies now have recognized guidelines to follow, such as LEED, and can apply lessons learned and best practices to their own efforts. To help minimize costs, tightly manage your green building project by employing practical design tactics and using proven products available in the market, rather than the latest, “greatest” (and usually most expensive) technology or products.

• Educate stakeholders. It is important to invest time in educating management, employees, landlords and contractors about the overall benefits of building green. This includes communicating clearly, early and often to the project team the connections between design and constructability outcomes. The upfront costs associated with sustainable building can be a major deterrent to company leadership, so a well-thought-out plan that highlights tangible business benefits and return on investment will be important to justify costs and win buy-in.

Reducing Exelon’s energy consumption and enhancing productivity without adding unreasonable cost has been no easy task. But through a company-wide commitment and sharp focus, we are doing just that. By setting new standards for low-emissions operations, we are proving every day that economic and environmental sustainability goals are in fact compatible, feasible and sensible.

Deborah Kuo is a director of real estate at Exelon and oversaw the two-year renovation of the company’s Chicago headquarters to LEED Platinum status. Exelon Corporation is one of the nation’s largest electric utilities and the largest U.S. producer of zero-emission nuclear power.