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Getting Down and Dirty With Green

Do you want to test a green building to see if it is truly operating in a sustainable manner? Then, go to the bathroom.

I don’t mean this in the same way I do prior to taking my 6-year-old on a long car trip. Bathrooms are a great place to see how sustainable policies, investments and practices come together and the answers you find on a quick inspection may not be pretty in more ways than one. With flu season upon us, now is the perfect time to assess the relative health of buildings and the risk they pose to you becoming one of the between 5 percent and 20 percent of the U.S. population that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says will contract seasonal influenza. That estimated loss of 70 million work days will contribute to more than $10 billion in lost productivity.

“Restrooms are often the Achilles’ heel of sustainability,” said Joshua Radoff, co-founder and principal of the sustainability consulting firm YR&G, during a GreenBiz webinar.

And, according to a survey by Staples, bathrooms may not be the dirtiest place in an office building. Nearly one-third of respondents said their keyboard and phone are the dirtiest thing in their office.

“There are also growing concerns about human health around the world and the prevention of dis­ease transfer and disease epidemics,” concludes the IFMA Foundation’s Global Green Cleaning Sustainability Guide. “However, the use of a comprehensive approach to green and sustainable cleaning, while monitoring the cause and effect in all ancillary actions, can have a measurable impact on reducing environmental impacts in an economic and socially beneficial manner.”

Take the Green Building Smell Test

What you see, hear and smell in a restroom will tell you whether a property owner is truly committed to sustainability or whether it is all just greenwashing.

Going green is not just about protecting the environment, but to provide a healthier environment for people in buildings. The big promise of going green – that workers will be healthier and more productive – hinges on the practices that converge in the bathroom and reflect the general commitment by a property owner to meet the expectations that the LEED plaque in the lobby proclaims.

When you entered the bathroom what did you see? Did a sensor turn on the lights when you entered? Do you hear a fan rattling away? Does it look dirty or did you pick up any strong chemical smells that make you feel a little green? If the answer is yes to either one, then maintenance could be an issue.

What kind of toilets is installed? Low-flow toilets are good, but in states like California, which has mandated low-flow toilets since 1992, you should look for clearly marked dual-flush toilets. Without instructions high-efficiency appliances can end up wasting more water and energy than they save.

For the men out there, stop by the urinal. Waterless urinals are great, but they require regular servicing. If you catch a strong whiff of ammonia, deferred maintenance might be an issue limiting the effectiveness of the devices.

Are the sinks sensor activated and when triggered was there enough water to properly wash or far too much? If you used paper to dry your hands, was the paper recycled and did you need to use more towels than usual? Of if a hand dryer is provided, how long did it take you to get your hands completely dry? Systems need to be calibrated correctly to provide the maximum efficiency. Too much water, paper or dryer time is wasteful. If you can’t wash and dry your hands properly the hygiene of a building comes into question.  Keep in mind that wet hands are more than 500 times likely than dry hands to transfer germs the next time you press the button to call the elevator.

If you find that the bathroom fails the smell test, then chances are that other building systems are not functioning effectively and providing the sustainable benefits you expect in a green building.

Michael Gottlieb is the Managing Partner of Advanced Green Solutions.

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