Changing the Climate by Changing Buildings

Greenhouse gas emissions are expected to double in the next 20 years unless radical changes are made. As people argue over policies to address climate change and how to best educate the public about it, I actually work in a position where I can effect major change. Am I politician? A CEO of an energy company? A magic genie? No, I work with buildings. That’s right, your regular, boring, run-of-the-mill buildings. And buildings have a huge impact on climate change.

Why are buildings so important?

Buildings play a major role in the consumption of energy and as a result, greenhouse gas emissions. Currently in the U.S., buildings use almost 75% of the total electricity consumed, the vast majority of which comes from burning fossil fuels. The good news is that on the local level, policymakers recognize the oversized carbon footprint of buildings, and are taking steps to make them more energy efficient. But we still have a long way to go.

So why am I telling you all this? Don’t I have some building to insulate or heating system to upgrade? Well, I do—but that can wait. When you consider the future of energy efficiency and "green buildings", you have to ask: who will run them and where will their training come from? This is where education is invaluable.

It is estimated that fifty percent of the current American facilities management workforce will retire in the next five to 15 years. Despite significant efforts to recruit and train replacements, there are not nearly enough candidates currently acquiring the skills they will need to maintain whatever energy efficient built environment they inherit. These replacements are going to require a specialized skill set—and we better start training them now.

So what does a job as a facility manager look like?

Facility management is a global profession encompassing multiple disciplines to ensure functionality of the built environment by integrating people, place, process and technology. This isn’t just building operations and maintenance. Facilities managers are the ultimate project managers, dealing with finance, communications and even emergency preparedness. In light of climate change, facilities managers today need a background in environmental stewardship and sustainability.

So how are these managers going to get trained?

I’m the chair of the Sustainability Strategic Advisory Group for one the largest global professional organizations for facilities managers, the International Facility Management Association. This association has about 24,000 members in more than 130 countries. We have everything from accredited degree programs and professional development in the form of credentials, to education and research products. For example, a variety of webinars, presentations and white papers exist on IFMA’s web site. Additionally we produce free practical “How-to Guides” (e.g., Getting Started, Low Cost/No Cost Energy Strategies, Waste Stream Management, Energy Star, Water, Carbon Emissions, etc.) containing case studies, financial considerations and best practices available. As you can see, there are a lot of training options out there, but we are struggling to connect the training to students.

How do we convince students to take a leap into facilities management?

Let’s be honest, what 16-year-old turns to her parents and says, “Mom, I’ve given it a lot of thought, and instead of social media director for the Sierra Club, I’ve decided to become a facilities manager!” That’s unlikely to happen, though I wish it did!

What we need to convey to students is that some of the greatest actions we can take on climate change are right here in our homes, schools, and offices. We can show them that you don’t have to be a politician, scientist, or activist to reduce their community’s carbon footprint. Facilities management isn’t the sexiest sounding job when it comes to climate change, but for the next generation it could be the most important. If I had one wish, it would be that every teacher goes into class on Monday, looks around their classroom and asks their students, “If we could reduce the carbon footprint of this school tomorrow, what would we do?” The answers would be enlightening to their students, and could set them on a path to environmental change for the future.

Eric Teicholz chairs IFMA’s sustainability Strategic Advisory Group. He is the author of 13 books on facilities management, GIS and technology, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Advisor for Commonwealth of MA Advanced Energy Project and Integrated Facilities Management Initiatives. For those interested in receiving IFMA’s sustainability newsletter in order to learn about their activities and outreach programs (articles, webinars, How-to Guides), please send your e-mails to

Photograph by Henk Sijgers via Flickr