Sustainability as a foundation

July 2014 » Exclusive
Engineering services firm Thornton Tomasetti invests in its future.
Amy Seif Hattan
Thornton Tomasetti provided sustainability consulting to the LEED Platinum De Anza College Media & Learning Center in Cupertino, Calif.

At Thornton Tomasetti, sustainable practices are common sense. Informed by changes seen in the marketplace, the company’s leaders recognized that sustainability is becoming integral to building design. And so Thornton Tomasetti — an international engineering services firm with 850 employees in 27 offices — made a commitment to achieving sustainability in both the built environment and its own business operations.

In the firm’s inaugural sustainability report, published this year, Thornton Tomasetti Chairman and CEO Tom Scarangello explained that in recent years many of our projects began pursuing LEED certification. Clients, governments, and associations also showed a rapidly growing interest in green buildings. We founded our Building Sustainability practice in 2012 in response to market need, and at the same time saw opportunity in establishing a corporate sustainability department. Corporate sustainability helps us practice what we preach, while also reducing business costs, inspiring innovation, and keeping us on top of industry trends. 

“We aspire to be one of the most sustainable firms in the AEC world, in the way we design our projects and in how we operate as a responsible business,” Scarangello said.

A carbon footprint analysis of a majority of Thornton Tomasetti’s offices identified electricity, business travel, and commuting as the largest contributors to total carbon footprint.

Defining sustainability

Thornton Tomasetti follows the “triple bottom line” approach to sustainability, meaning we measure success by evaluating our performance’s effect on the planet, people, and profits. Sustainability is most often associated with environmental protection, but we take a wider view that includes our employees and communities. In addition to reducing our impact on the environment and climate change, we endeavor to create a workplace that provides extraordinary opportunities for professional development, education, and training; a healthy and supportive workplace environment; and ample opportunities to contribute to the communities where we work. In implementing these initiatives that value the environment and people, we strive to meet or exceed bottom-line financial goals. We believe that we can “do well by doing good.”

Setting goals

Market trends were not the only factor that motivated the firm to set sustainability goals for our practices and operations. In 2010, Thornton Tomasetti joined the American Institute of Architects’ 2030 Commitment and was the first primarily structural engineering firm to do so. The 2030 Commitment asks AEC firms to track progress toward achieving the Architecture 2030 goal of climate-neutral buildings by 2030. It also requires member firms to develop a sustainability action plan that includes goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from business operations. We began to consider ambitious new sustainability goals for our business operations.

An analysis of Thornton Tomasetti’s structural engineering projects enables a comparison between the firm’s offices on the amount of embodied carbon and energy in its projects.

Two years later, we set a goal of achieving climate-neutral operations by 2030. We expect to meet this goal through a combination of energy-use reductions and by purchasing carbon offsets to neutralize emissions that are necessary to our business, such as those from air travel. To get us closer to this long-term goal, we set a five-year target for business operations. By 2018, we expect to reduce the average annual carbon footprint of our business operations to 4 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per person — a 24-percent reduction from our baseline level.

The target of 4 tons of CO2e per person requires us to lower electricity consumption in our offices by 45 percent, trim single-occupancy employee commuting by 15 percent, reduce business travel by airplane by 25 percent, and cut the volume of waste generated in our offices by 35 percent.

Measuring progress

Beginning with 2012 as our baseline year, we calculated the carbon footprint of every Thornton Tomasetti office larger than six employees (excluding those planning a move during the next year), a total of 13 locations. We input data from a 12-month period beginning in January 2012 — gathered from employee surveys, expense and travel reports, and utility bills — into our own third-party-reviewed Excel-based carbon footprint calculator. We calculated carbon dioxide emissions from a range of sources, including electricity, heating and cooling, employee commuting, business travel, and office waste. To track progress toward the corporate sustainability targets, we recalculate the carbon footprint of our offices every two years.

We developed a carbon footprint mapping tool that allows for quick comparison of offices, making the data accessible to employees in a fun, interactive format. To inspire staff to continue to make reductions, we compare offices in a friendly competition. Employees in the office producing the lowest carbon dioxide emissions receive a Carbon Footprint Challenge award. 

London office staffers show off their new organic recycled-fiber socks, which they received as prizes for winning Thornton Tomasetti’s 2013 Carbon Footprint Challenge.

Results of our 2012 carbon footprint analysis show electricity use, business travel, and commuting to have the largest impact on the company’s operational carbon footprint, with our total emissions amounting to 3,020 tons CO2e, or 5.3 tons CO2e per employee.

In addition to tracking our progress at reducing emissions from our business operations, we are measuring the embodied energy efficiencies of our structural engineering projects to create a baseline for reducing the embodied carbon footprint of buildings by how we design. By their nature, structural engineering designs call for substantial amounts of structural materials, predominantly steel and reinforced concrete. These materials contribute to climate change through their embodied energy and carbon, the life cycle energy used, and associated carbon emitted from raw materials extraction, refining, manufacturing, and transportation.

In 2012, we began measuring the embodied carbon footprint of our structural engineering projects annually, developing a database fed by our own embodied carbon and energy calculator. We use the University of Bath emission factors for embodied carbon and engage in discussions with others also at the frontier of understanding the impact of embodied carbon in building materials. Because as structural engineers we do not have a large impact on the operational energy of a building, we are meeting the AIA 2030 Commitment requirement to report on predicted energy use intensity by calculating embodied energy and not operational energy, and we aspire to use fewer carbon-intensive materials and strategies.

Implementing sustainability

Last year was a groundbreaking year for Thornton Tomasetti. It was the first full year in which our sustainable operations policy was in effect, changing the way the firm conducts office moves and major renovations. The policy requires that all suitable office fit-outs are to seek LEED for Commercial Interiors (CI) certification and recommends LEED Gold or higher. In 2013, four of our offices sought LEED CI Gold or Platinum certification for their new office space or renovation: Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco. In 2014, we will seek LEED certification for additional office fit-outs and expect the number of our employees working in LEED-certified or registered offices to grow from 24 to 35 percent.

Thornton Tomasetti’s new San Francisco office is registered for LEED certification and a beta site for the new version of LEED, LEED v4. Photo: Benjamin Grimes

We recently celebrated the successful certification of our new Philadelphia office space, our second location to receive LEED CI Gold certification, but the first to do so under the new operations policy. In addition, our LEED Gold-certified Chicago office ranked among the top 10 (out of 267) most sustainable offices in Chicago, based on results from Chicago’s Green Office Challenge. Our new San Francisco office, which brought together teams formerly in three spaces in Oakland and San Francisco, participated in the USGBC’s LEED v4 beta. This gave our in-house sustainability consultants a great opportunity to gain expertise in applying this new version of LEED to building projects.

Our offices follow the firm’s sustainable office operations guidelines, which recommend best practices and set firm-wide operating standards that reduce energy use and waste. Our Green Champions program engages employees across the firm who volunteer to coordinate the greening of their offices. These champions are starting composting programs, educating employees about energy use and recycling, finding creative ways to reduce indoor air pollution, assisting with the LEED certification process, and in many other ways helping their local offices to meet the firm’s standards. 

In addition to local efforts, Thornton Tomasetti’s corporate sustainability department works to implement best practices for centralized business operations that are common to all offices. We have made important progress toward greening our communication materials and are working to increase the efficiency of our IT operations and to build sustainability into performance reviews. Recognizing that air travel contributes one third of our operational carbon dioxide emissions, we purchase carbon offsets to neutralize these emissions and will achieve carbon-neutral business travel.

As we develop ambitious initiatives to reduce the firm’s environmental impact, we also are working to improve the working environment for our employees and to contribute to our communities. In 2013, we added a new benefit that provides employees with one day of paid time off each year to use for volunteering. Research shows this type of program improves employee recruitment and retention, and several of our offices have opted for group volunteer activities that build teamwork. This program helps boost employee job satisfaction while also increasing the firm’s contribution to the communities where we work.

Investing in innovation

Thornton Tomasetti set five-year targets for reducing office electricity use, commuting emissions, business travel, and office waste generation toward achieving its goal of climate neutral business operations by 2030.

Our approach to sustainability starts with understanding our firm’s competitive advantage and looking for opportunities to build upon that advantage. Sustainability is not a “nice to have” but rather a strategic approach to doing business that makes for a better environment, happier employees, and a stronger financial return. Thornton Tomasetti aims to be the global driver of change and innovation in our industry, and our commitment to sustainability in an era of rapid climate change helps inspire this innovation for changing times. We are willing to invest in sustainability because we are guided not only by what has worked for us in the past, but also by what we see affecting our business in the future. In a 2009 Harvard Business Review article, “Why Sustainability is Now the Key Driver of Innovation,” the authors said, “In the future, only companies that make sustainability a goal will achieve a competitive advantage.”

At Thornton Tomasetti, we are committed to advancing a future in which buildings are dramatically greener and more resilient than those of today. We contribute to this transformation through our Building Sustainability practice’s consulting services and through our efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of all our building design projects. We are developing sustainability best practices for structural engineers, training our engineers in applying these best practices, and measuring our progress toward reducing the energy and carbon embodied in our structural projects. And we are “practicing what we preach” by building best practices into our business operations.

Amy Seif Hattan is corporate sustainability officer with Thornton Tomasetti www.thorntontomasetti.com. Read the firm’s 2013 Corporate Sustainability Report at  www.thorntontomasetti.com/about/corporate_sustainability.


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