Since I was a kid I’ve wanted to be an engineer, to take things apart and put them together again. I was always driven to solve big technical challenges.

How do you understand the mechanics of operating a building, lowering energy costs, and re-engineering a building so that it has a sustainable and enduring life cycle?

Getting People to Change

By working on many high performance building projects over the years it’s become obvious to me that a successful project is about the people and not the buildings. It’s about the people who manage and service the buildings as well as the employees who go to work there every day.

There is a lot of resistance to change when you’re building for sustainability. People want to improve but they struggle with change —  it’s easier to re-engineer a building than to re-engineer the people so that’s what many companies do.

If you improve the way the boiler works in a building, you save on energy costs. However, the technician who operates the boiler system has been doing it the same way for 40 years; but it’s a different system now.

The technician needs to understand why it’s important to change the system and be trained how to use it. Now he’s motivated and more productive because he’s been asked to be part of the solution.

Elevate the technician to be a change agent and you can make change last.

Attacking the Problem

When we collaborate with our clients to develop a change management strategy for executing a sustainability program, the first step is to measure the change readiness of the building, the finances and the people.

Our readiness scan provides context for the project vision and the new skill sets and resources that are required.

Building readiness. How energy efficient is it compared to the average building in the U.S.? Part of our process when advising companies on gaining LEED® certification is to ask for targeted data about building systems. We don’t need volumes of documentation to help clients make an educated decision on retrofitting systems to take advantage of best practice opportunities.

Financial readiness. How ready is the owner or tenant to make an investment in sustainability? Timing is important. You might not be able do major upgrades if you’ve just signed a new lease. If the building is performing well financially you have less incentive to spend more money to make it better.

An ideal time for an upgrade is when a major tenant is going to leave, potentially creating a vacant space. If the cash is available, then you can create a plan to upgrade the space for a new tenant.

People readiness.  How ready are people who will be asked to change the way they do things now? You find out by talking to a cross-section of employees in the organization, who are at different skill levels, and test their willingness to change.

Some people who like to play sports are driven and competitive. They’re raring to go now. Then there are those who are more reserved. They’re more analytical and approach change from a different angle. They need to be convinced with facts and figures that change will benefit them and the organization.

Of the three critical ingredients for success – building readiness, financial readiness and people readiness – people issues are the most difficult to solve, but must be addressed for the sustainability initiative to be sustained.

You can solve an engineering problem. But learning where the people deficiencies are and fixing them is complex.

Communication is key – keeping everyone informed who will be involved in implementing the change and those who will be impacted by it. Tailor the messages and present the data to satisfy each audience – don’t assume they will all drink the Kool-Aid the same way.

A failure of communication is one of the major obstacles in getting people to accept your vision and understand how they are part of implementing the solution.

Solve the communication and people problems and you’re on the road to a successful sustainability project.

Patrick Leonard is the leader of Paladino’s Portfolio Management Practice that specializes in performance optimization of existing buildings.

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