Whenever possible at SMC, we like to measure how we’re doing. Like other businesses, we have a collection of ways to measure our financial progress – profit and loss, annual budget projections and actuals, cost tracking of each of our projects, value of our several funds (pension, equity, and reserves) and more.
We consistently track (measure) our work backlog to help us plan for our near-term future.
We also measure social factors: employee education costs, compensation ratio top to bottom, length of employee tenure, average employee age, charitable contributions, and community service.
We try to predict our longer-term future, too – by doing strategic planning, creating five year plans, projecting organizational charts, and making succession plans.
In design and project planning, we do extensive measuring (engineering) to ensure good performance in our buildings. On our completed projects, we monitor energy use in our buildings and other factors (like relative humidity) to help us learn what works and what doesn’t.
And, of course, building is a process of constant measurement (and when we build we try to observe the old saying, “Measure twice. Cut once.”)
This desire – to measure whatever we can as a means of understanding who we are and what we do – led us recently, to decide to measure our carbon footprint. Despite our efforts to build durable, high performance buildings with low environmental impacts, we recognize that all of our buildings have significant impacts, as do our operations as a company.
We asked ourselves the question, “While we are working so hard to make zero energy buildings, how are we doing with energy and waste in our company operations?”
The answer, of course, is that we really didn’t know, so we set out to find out – to learn where our impacts are greatest and where the best opportunities exist to reduce those impacts. By gathering baseline data and measuring impacts, we now have a means to track our progress.
When we first imagined this project, we assumed we would find many models and templates. Surprisingly, we were unable to find small companies that are currently measuring their company carbon footprint (we still think they must be out there; we just haven’t found them yet). So we developed a methodology, gathered the data, and produced the first phase of our carbon footprint assessment. Our director of engineering, Marc Rosenbaum, was largely responsible for the methodology. My daughter Sophie, who works with us part time while she is working on an MBA in Managing for Sustainability, collected the data from various places and was the primary author of the report.
We have now completed the first phase. Here’s a snapshot that shows that by far the largest source of energy use in our company at present is employees getting to and from work and driving around (hopefully not aimlessly) doing errands during the day!
We have just completed a project to make our offices, shop, and storage facilities zero energy. We added a large solar array and replaced our oil heating with electrically driven super-efficient air source heat pumps. Because of this, we assume that our carbon footprint will diminish when all the data is in next year. Now we will prioritize the reduction of transportation energy.
We will also begin the second phase of our assessment, which is complicated. The materials that we use in our projects are a big part of our impact. In the first phase we only measured their transportation from Woods Hole (the other side of the water) to their destination, and the waste they generated. The second phase is to dig into a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of the materials we purchase for our projects – from the extraction phase through processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal. This requires extensive research and new learning.
For 20 years we have had the goal of reducing carbon emissions, but it has been an abstract goal to which we have only given episodic attention. It may take another 20 years to reach our zero energy and zero waste goals, and we are only beginning to learn how to do that. But this first phase of our Carbon Footprint Project – this initial inquiry – has served its intended purposes. We identified the areas in which we are already doing well, found the areas that are most ripe for improvement, and specified the aspects which need further inquiry.
There’s always something new that needs to be measured. Numbers tell stories. Stories teach. This metric feels like one that will be teaching us a lot for a very long time.
While there will be no end to this project, we are no longer at the beginning. It’s part of a path to a more sustainable future. Soon the complete report will be posted on our website. I’ll let you know when that happens. We also plan to distribute it to some of our peers for review – both to get feedback about ways to improve it and to help others begin this practice.