Ashforth Pacific, Inc., Portland, Oregon, USA
A Natural Step Network Case Study
Ashforth Pacific, Inc. (API), is an investor, owner, and operator providing third-party property management, construction, and parking management services in West-Coast markets. An affiliate of The Ashforth Company, a Connecticut-based firm, API was established in Portland, Oregon, in 1995 and currently has 55 employees. The Ashforth Company presently owns and manages upwards of 15 million square feet of office space, of which 1.5 million square feet is in Portland. In May 1999, API launched an environmental initiative based on its newly created environmental statement and the four system conditions of The Natural Step.
The Ashforth Company was founded as a family owned real estate company in New York in 1896. Throughout the next century, it expanded its services and coverage areas. The creation of the API office extended The Ashforth Company’s services beyond the Northeast to include the rapidly growing Northwest real estate market.
The company strives to bring social and economic benefits to the communities in which it operates. The opening page of its centennial celebration book states, “We owe it to our ancestors to preserve entire the rights they have delivered to us; we owe it to our posterity not to suffer their dearest inheritance to be destroyed.”
Ashforth is dedicated to serving its customers by adhering to its four operating principles: Commitment—to create enduring business relationships that will enhance the value of the company, Quality— to be dedicated to providing the highest level of service with speed and professionalism, People—to foster teamwork, personal growth, creativity and leadership and to encourage respect for the individual, communication, optimism, and a sense of humor, and Practices—to act with integrity and fairness to customers, employees, and community.
Introduction to The Natural Step: the Passion of a CEO
Hank Ashforth, CEO of API and the great-grandson of The Ashforth Company’s founder, learned about The Natural Step (TNS) through his involvement with the environmental community in Portland. Convinced that the business community must be part of the solution of pressing environmental issues, he attended an Oregon Natural Step Network breakfast meeting and quickly saw a good match between API’s principles and the framework TNS provided. In March 1999, he invited Duke Castle to give a briefing for members of the API executive team in charge of property management, construction, leasing, and finance.
The executive team met with Castle again to conduct a visioning exercise and brainstorm potential ideas. The team came up with a list of “low hanging fruit” and sent several employees to the National TNS conference in Portland in April 1999. Its purpose was to gain insight on ways to implement TNS framework, recruit a summer intern to focus on environmental issues, and train employees.
Launching the Environmental Initiative
In May 1999, the executive team hired Wendy Faubert as an intern and worked with her on a strategy for implementing an environmental initiative. They developed an approach that was both top-down and grassroots oriented. This strategy was designed to take advantage of the strong support of the executive team, the small and personal nature of the company, and the existing interest and passion of some employees.
The primary function of the grassroots approach was to develop awareness and interest among office employees in a fun and non-threatening manner. Meanwhile, the top-down strategy involved the executive team formulating an environmental policy statement and the formation of two sustainability teams. The teams’ mandate was to focus on ways that office operations and building-management practices could support the environmental initiative. The two groups, OSCAR (Office, Sustainability, Conservation, and Recycling) and BEAT (Buildings Environmental Action Team), would each be staffed by six employees handpicked by the CEO.
In July 1999, API officially launched its Environmental Initiative at an all-hands meeting—a debriefing meeting attended by all members of the office. The initiative was based on the company’s new environmental statement, “We will be stewards of our environment by taking responsible actions within our business and our communities,” and the four system conditions of The Natural Step. During the meeting, Duke Castle presented TNS framework, Hank Ashforth spoke, and a brainstorming activity allowed employees to write down their ideas for practices that could be implemented within the company.
By the fall it was apparent the Faubert was needed fulltime, and she accepted the job of sustainability coordinator.
Building Employee Support for the Environmental Initiative
From the beginning, building employee interest, awareness, and support for the Environmental Initiative was a top priority. The initial strategy was to keep the activities voluntary and fun. Several different methods were used to educate employees about sustainability and concepts surrounding TNS framework.
A brown bag lunch series served as the primary means of engaging employees. Employees learned about other environmentally conscious businesses organizations such as The Collins Companies, the Sustainable Chef’s Collaborative, Nike, PGE, The Rebuilding Center, and Carsharing Portland.
Other education methods included field trips and a bulletin board displaying relevant articles and information on sustainability and TNS framework. Office games and activities for each system condition kept the initiative and the concept of environmental responsibility in front of employees in a fun and interactive way. One popular activity was the “cookies-for-trash-cans” trade where employees voluntarily gave up their individual trash can and agreed to throw away all of their garbage in a central area. This activity was easy for employees to participate in, succeeded in raising employee awareness about what they were throwing away, and saved API 9,000 plastic trash can liners a year.
Finally, each API office employee attended a two-and-one-half-hour TNS framework training. The sustainability coordinator, office manager, and assistant controller conducted the training in groups of six to ten people during August and September 2000. All office employees attended the training as well as several outside vendors and other organizations interested in The Natural Step. The training focused on understanding the four system conditions through a combination of games, videos, visual aids, and discussions exploring how our actions and purchases affect the environment. The employees also completed a questionnaire that polled their perceptions related to the initiative and their interest in participating in other environmental events.
Results, Results, Results
API’s Environmental Initiative is a vision shared by the entire company, but it is rooted in producing results, results that can be measured and managed. Hank Ashforth has emphasized quantifiable results, believing that “if we know where we are, it is easier to go where we want to.”
Energy. Many of API’s initial projects focused on energy conservation measures. Between 1997 and 2001, the company reduced energy consumption by 18% through lighting and heating/cooling changes in the four commercial properties it owns, saving $654,000 over five years. T-8 lights, compact fluorescents, and LED lights replaced less efficient products; and automatic controls sweep all lights off during evenings and weekends. Thermostats were adjusted by two degrees. As a conservation incentive, sub-meters were installed so that tenants pay for any extra use of electricity above a standard amount. In addition, API has invested 6% of total electricity usage in wind power through Pacific Power’s Blue Sky program. The company is one of Pacific Power’s largest supporters of Blue Sky.
Water. API reduced water consumption in its portfolio properties by 6% by not using air conditioning after hours and not watering lawn areas, saving $43,000 annually. To handle storm water on site, the Liberty Center Parking Garage was retro-fitted with bioswales that filter the runoff and allow it to seep into the ground.
Waste. Through electronic communication and double-sided copying, API reduced paper purchases by 39% between 1998 and 2001. As a further commitment to saving trees, the company switched to 100% post-consumer recycled copy paper and 100% (40% post-consumer) recycled, chlorine-free toilet paper, saving over $15,000 annually. In 1999, when PacifiCorp’s office space was renovated, API’s construction arm made an extraordinary effort to recycle not only metal and wood, but also ceiling tile, window glass, drywall, and carpet. The company is now working to expand recycling options available to tenants to include batteries and packing peanuts and to create a better mechanism for tracking waste and recycling outputs. The centralized trash collection system for the office is on its way to becoming standard operating procedure for all tenant spaces.
Toxics. The company worked with ABM Janitorial Services (ABM) to switch to non-toxic cleaning products in the maintenance of its buildings. First testing the citrus-based Bi-O-Kleen on an outside curtain wall and finding it effective, ABM found it could replace over 20 standard cleaners, from scouring powder to carpet spotter, degreaser to disinfectant, with the same solution in different concentrations. As a result, 25 hazardous chemicals have been eliminated. ABM now promotes Bi-O-Kleen with its other commercial clients.
To reduce landscaping impacts, chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers are now prohibited in API’s maintenance specifications. Gasoline-powered maintenance equipment has been replaced by propane, electric, or manual equipment wherever possible, and the most polluting two-stroke engines are no longer allowed. Leaf blowers, because of their air and noise pollution, are allowed only at the height of fall season.
Transportation. Not only does API provide free transit passes to all employees, but it also actively supports alternative transportation throughout the Lloyd District. For example, it played an instrumental role in the expansion of Tri-Met’s Fareless Square to the District. That means that workers can travel from downtown to the Lloyd District free of charge. For those who don’t drive to work, API has loaned two parking spaces and purchased a membership in Flexcar, a service that makes a car available when needed during the workday. To encourage bicycle commuting, it provides 34 bicycle lockers in addition to racks and included showers in its newest building. To further encourage employees to use alternatives to single-occupant auto commutes, it offers a special benefit on a trial basis. Those who use alternative transportation 80 percent of the time each month get a half-day of personal time.
Green building. When API remodeled its office space, it installed Interface carpet tiles, allowing worn tiles in high-traffic areas to be sent back to the company without replacing the entire carpet. Low VOC paints were specified for the walls. Environ Biocomposite, a particle board manufactured from agricultural wastes, was chosen for desk surfaces.
Operating from the belief that people want to do their best, API has been pleased by employee ideas that have been generated through the Environmental Initiative. In fact, many of the projects API has worked on or is currently working on came from employees’ suggestions. A sampling of other employee ideas include double-siding fax cover sheets; using glasses, plates and silverware in the office instead of disposables; using envelopes provided by vendors in their invoices instead of API envelopes; and standardizing office supplies with choices based on TNS principles along with efficiency and cost.
• Invest time in training workers so they are knowledgeable and excited about the company’s new direction.
• Take small steps. The challenges, changes, and ideas can be overwhelming at times. Look for the easy things to do first, as accomplishments breed success.
• Encourage workers to come up with ideas to support the initiative.
• Set up a structure to make employees’ ideas a reality.
• Communicate environmental goals and policies to vendors to help expand your company’s impact.
API feels that the most important element in launching an initiative is enlisting the support of people working in the company. As Wendy Faubert, API’s first sustainability coordinator put it, “I strongly believe that having taken the time to get people on board, to make it fun, to increase the energy around the initiative before we start [more] projects. . . is going to pay dividends in the long run.” According to the office manager and assistant controller, benefits of involving employees in the Environmental Initiative include improving the cohesiveness of the company, challenging employees to think of new ways to improve existing processes, and better communications among departments.
API spent the first 18 months of its environmental initiative pursuing “low-hanging fruit,” primarily in the property management division. The projects were fairly easy to accomplish because they did not radically change business operations (e.g., shifting to a more environmentally friendly cleaner) and demonstrated short-term economic justification (e.g., the energy savings). The company’s next challenge will be changes that alter fundamental practices and are harder to justify economically. Greener construction, for example, often requires a large investment in materials and, initially, more employee involvement and time. In the “time-is-money” world of construction, such challenges can seem daunting. However, API is quick to point out that while construction will be more challenging, there is ample opportunity for significant environmental benefits.
Beginning September 2001, API was selected as property manager for the Vollum Natural Capital Center, a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold-rated green building located in Portland’s Pearl District. Involvement with this high-profile project has raised the bar for API to continue to develop innovative and environmentally friendly approaches to property management.
In 2002 API accepted a new challenge—participation in a pilot project of the U.S. Green Building Council to test its new LEED-EB (Existing Buildings) rating system. To date, the Council’s LEED certification system for green buildings has applied largely to new construction. Over the course of the coming year, Ashforth Pacific staff will document Liberty Center’s performance and policies in the areas of cleaning and maintenance, indoor air quality, energy efficiency, recycling and facilities, and landscape maintenance. Where necessary, building systems may be upgraded to bring the building into compliance with LEED criteria.
The company is now developing a more in-depth approach to sustainability involving all office staff. Smaller teams will focus on revising specific areas of corporate and building operations and working to balance sustainability goals with the needs of tenants, profit expectations, and the constraints of the company’s existing buildings. Each group will conduct a thorough analysis of its area of operations, identify and implement necessary improvements, and track indicators that will help the company measure environmental performance. The four system conditions of the Natural Step will serve as a compass for these groups as they redefine organizational processes and operations.
Many organizations and individuals have contributed knowledge and inspiration to the company’s sustainability efforts. As the work of the Environmental Initiative further unfolds, API will strive to share information and lessons learned with clients, suppliers, and the community at large. While recognizing that much work lies ahead in the company’s quest for
sustainability, Ashforth Pacific intends to continue stepping forward to increase service to clients while improving the environmental and economic bottom line.
1. Interview with Wendy Faubert, Sustainability Coordinator, Ashforth Pacific, Inc., December 15, 2000
2. Master Recycler News, October 2000, “Profile: Sustainability in Real Estate Management,” Mendola, Kathleen Finn
3. The BEAT Bulletin, November 2000, March 2000, October 1999
This case study was prepared in April 2001 by Vanessa Margolis for The Natural Step Network and updated in October 2002 by the Network.