GoGreen Seattle Green Line Series: McKinstry’s David Allen Argues For Bringing Business + Environmentalists Together

GoGreen Seattle speaker David Allen is a businessman—and a pretty good one at that—but he and his company, McKinstry, aren’t afraid to fight for the environment too. For those with an eye fixed on the bottom line, it might sound like a conflict of interest, but Allen assures us that what’s good for McKinstry’s clients also just so happens to be good for the Earth as well. And that’s the point he’s been tirelessly working to drive home—going green is good business. But results at scale won’t happen unless environmental advocates, government and business all work together to innovate effective solutions. Don’t know about ya’ll, but we hear David loud and clear!

GoGreen Conference: McKinstry singles out innovation as a key component of your success in sustainability—how does that concept manifest itself throughout the company?
David Allen: We became a part of the clean technology and energy movement as a result of the complexity of buildings. We’re a 50-year-old company that is engineering driven in infrastructure, mechanical, electrical, water, etc. In the 1990s computers showed up in homes and the watts per square foot demand increased. The mechanical and electrical systems that consume and use energy became more complicated and interconnected. So as a company that services clients of all types in the built environment, we had to come up with solutions to help them navigate their way through all of these changes. It was the perfect storm to instigate action—the cost of energy rising, mechanical and technology systems improving, changes in how and when people want to work and how they want their work environment to act—all of those things came down on building developers and owners at the same time.

Our goal is to have legacy customers. We design, operate, maintain and reengineer for them for the life of their building. In sustainability’s case, innovation simply became a mandate. Though we didn’t start off saying, “let’s save the planet,” we quickly found out how great an impact the built environment was having on CO2 and electricity use consumed.

From that standpoint we got hit with a double whammy. We needed to innovate for our clients in order to lower their utility usage—and thus their carbon footprint—and we need to innovate better ways of supplying heat, water and power while also maintaining and monitoring the use over time to lower costs. For us, stopping climate change and helping our clients ended up being the same thing. It’s a perfect segway into the conversation that GoGreen champions on the idea that environmentalism and corporate innovation go hand in hand. Businesses need to get involved with environmentalists and vice versa. We need to go arm in arm to attack these problems.

GG: Can you expand on this idea of continuity—that sustainability is not just renewable, but continuing. With green buildings, if you build something to the high standards of LEED Platinum, can you stop there? Will the building maintain its efficiency forever or do you have to keep with it?
DA: The US Green Building Council did a wonderful job of creating the LEED standards. They led on that initiative and it worked. People aspire to it and it’s well known in the mainstream as an important benchmark. The big issue that they run up against is that once a building is done, it’s the operational things that keep it sustainable. You can have a perfectly energy efficient structure with gray water systems, rain water collection, outdoor air mix and the right electrical lighting systems. You can incorporate all those things in a building model, but if it’s not operated correctly, it’s not sustainable.

For example, there’s a city that built a LEED Certified city hall. When they got done building it, they powered it up and it actually consumed more power than the old one. So we came in and found the operations weren’t being run well. All of the “integrated” systems were being run in completely non-integrated ways. Sustainability is all about optimization. And it applies to everything—not just buildings. It’s how we get to work, what we buy, where it came from, how do we get rid of it and where things up.

With buildings, we have to look at whether they are being run efficiently. Are people coming to work in the winter with a t-shirt on, when they should be wearing a sweater so you don’t have to crank the heat and consume mass amounts of extra electricity?

So much of this is behavioral. The green movement and clean energy movements need to adjust and get into innovative behavioral models. We’re doing some of that too. We’ve got a software program that we’re selling in mid-western schools called PowerED, which is a proprietary overlay to the energy education we do with schools, teachers and kids. With this program they can take things into the interactive realm and actually watch the BTU and watt usage. They can even compete with other schools on energy and water use. The result is that kids learn how to optimize their resource consumption. A lot of people say this is the first generation of kids who will be the ones telling their parents to turn the lights out.

Another thing worth mentioning is that the whole notion of a “negawatt.” This is the watt that doesn’t get used, but rather conserved as saved energy. And it’s a renewable energy source. Many experts are now saying that the largest, most accessible pool of renewable energy available in the US is the negawatt.

For example, Seattle City Light is obligated to give the University of Washington a certain amount of electricity. There’s a baseline. The University turned around and decided they were going to be 20 percent more efficient in terms of their needs. That’s a huge amount of returned electricity Seattle City Light essentially gets back in the budget and doesn’t have to generate from coal. They can sell that somewhere else if they want. The opportunity is huge and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute wrote a white paper in 1990 about the negawatt and predicted in would be a $1.2 Trillion industry–and he was right.

GG: You work with a broad spectrum of clients across the business world. How do you work with clients whose budgets don’t always support doing everything they want to in terms of green construction or retrofits? Is it all or nothing?
DA: Here’s how you have to go about it. First, people need to understand that the building they have or are building needs to get specked out, so that when it operates efficiently to begin with. We are showing people that their business model actually has too much money allocated to run their building and pay for power. We’re trying to innovate and rethink the entire system of real estate and built environments along these lines, so that it becomes a financial opportunity to be sustainable, optimal and energy efficient.

Right now, a high-rise developer in Oregon isn’t very motivated to lower their utility bills, because they just pass the cost on to a third party called a tenant, right? That’s just wrong. We’ve been in Washington D.C. lobbying to get legislation passed that creates incentives for private building owners to spend low-interest money to amortize energy work over a longer period of time so that it fits into their model. That’s why all the public agencies are doing it, but not the private. Because they ARE the tenant. If people stay connected to the power rates, we’ll be a lot better off. Because if I own a building and there are 190 tenants, all paying 20 percent too much for power, that’s a lot of room for improvement.

The thing I ask politicians—and it applies to the people who say they can’t afford sustainable buildings too—is whether they want to lower carbon or not? If the elected officials in a community don’t want to do it, then there’s no discussion on sustainability, right? But if they do, they have to get down to it. You can’t just do the cute stuff. You have to do the things that are meaningful.

GG: What are the key areas you see needing to be addressed in order to get that meaningful change?
DA: Water conservation is also huge. We are all over people about water now, because it’s quickly becoming a bigger issue than energy in terms of being a scarce resource. We can solve the energy crisis, but water is not so easy. So if you’re talking to someone with a building who is asking whether or not they should put in a gray water system, we need to educate them. We need to be honest about the fact that water is going to triple in price. That’s just a reality.

And the engagement between business people and environmentalists on these issues is paramount. The GoGreen Conference is right smack dab in the middle of that conversation. We’re positioning ourselves in the middle too, because the two sides have to be brought together to get any results. We need a different strategy than what has always been billed as some battle between the greedy capitalists and the wacko greenies.

These issues are not wacko. There is a shortage of water. Our energy is dirty and there’s a groundswell of desire to clean things up and not live so large. So back to your original question—we are being more upfront and confrontational with our clients about the things we believe are important to push innovation in. That’s why we pour our resources into this. It’s a belief issue, but it’s smart business too.

I spoke at the Sierra Club a while back and while I was there I told them I was proud that they brought in a businessperson like me to speak to them. The environmentalists have done a great job at getting us to a tipping point on climate change and global warming. That’s pushed young people to adopt these things into their lifestyle and politicians to start running on a sustainable platform when they craft legislation. That’s all well and good, but if you don’t get business to come in and execute on the innovation we need in a way that lets us make money and create jobs for everyone—it just won’t happen.

It’s imperative that environmentalists and businesspeople to work on these issues. We work with a lot of non-profits and organizations like the GoGreen Conference to make this happen because we think it’s so important. McKinstry isn’t afraid to say that we’re a for-profit company and our partners say that’s OK too. So we’ve taken a step in the right direction knowing that “for-profit” and “good for the environment” and “socially responsible” can all exist together. We’ve just got to step it up even more to get to where we want to go.

David Allen is Principle and Executive Vice-President of McKinstry, a Seattle based construction, engineering and facility services firm. He’s also a featured speaker on the GoGreen Seattle 2011 roster. To hear David speak, along with 50+ of Puget Sound’s top sustainability professionals, join us April 20th for GoGreen Seattle 2011 at the LEED certified Conference Center. You can get more details or register at: http://seattle.gogreenconference.net.

Follow us on Twitter (@gogreenconf) and Facebook (facebook.com/gogreenconference) for all the latest event updates and sustainability news from the region!

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