America / ARTICLES

The Boston Globe: “Ease the A/C”

Amid the cars parked in the garage beneath Education First’s 10-story Cambridge office building is a bright blue Dutch-style bicycle, with a cheerful bell, sparkling red reflectors, and a back seat fitted with a rubber band for holding a knapsack.

The bicycle does not belong to any one person.

Instead, it can be checked out by an employee free of charge, as an alternative to calling a cab or driving a car to midday appointments. According to the director of the EF center, Kathryn Baumgardner, one employee recently started riding the bicycle daily to physical therapy appointments at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Located within walking distance of the Museum of Science, EF, which operates language and cultural-exchange programs around the world, is investing millions of dollars to make its building energy-efficient and its operations more environmentally friendly.

It’s a trend that appears to be catching on in Cambridge. According to the city’s environmental planner, John Bolduc, 20 businesses participate in the Cambridge Climate Leader Program, which the city launched in 2006 to help companies join a communitywide effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Genzyme Corp.’s Kendall Square building, for instance, features a living vegetative roof (on which native plants take root to reduce storm-water runoff, among other benefits), solar panels, and a cooling system that uses waste steam from a nearby power plant.

Pfizer Pharmaceutical Co. cut its energy use by 15 percent using occupancy sensors to control the lights, automated cooling controls, and an improved ventilation system, while Novartis AG reduced its energy use by 10 percent, according to Bolduc.

At EF, overall energy use has been cut in half and electricity consumption by 60 percent, compared with last year, according to facility manager and chief engineer Norbert Lorscheider. The investment is expected to pay for itself in two years.

The biggest savings came from the new air-conditioning. While in the past, the air conditioning was based on a simple square-footage formula, this spring and summer the building is being cooled at different rates depending on a number of factors, including how many of the 820 people employed in the building are present and whether the sun is shining on a particular day.

Temperature sensors have been installed in numerous locations, modifying cooling intensity.

“Before it was either `on’ or `off’; now it’s infinitely variable,” Lorscheider said.

Carbon dioxide sensors are being used to determine how much fresh air needs to be introduced into the building. This has helped reduce energy consumption as well, Lorscheider explained, because fresh air has to be cooled in the summer or heated in the winter. Instead of leaving the fan to run day and night, as was done last year, real information is used to determine how much fresh air to bring in.

The company has also installed occupancy sensors in offices, so that the lights go off automatically when no one is using a space, and is switching to energy-efficient lights bulbs. In the bathrooms, all paper towels will be replaced with hand dryers and regular faucets will make way for electronic ones.

Even cleaning chemicals have become green: EF asked its cleaning company to use only organic soaps and substances without volatile organic compounds.

The greening of the building was facilitated through a $660,000 grant from NStar. According to NStar spokesman Mike Durand, EF is expected to save 3 million kilowatt hours of electricity and 63,000 therms of natural gas annually as a result.

The program has been so successful that EF’s European headquarters, in Switzerland, is considering using the Cambridge building as a model.

“The CEO is excited to have some of the changes there that we have made here – the energy efficient heating, and cooling, and the lights,” Baumgardner said.

To make sure environmentalism takes hold, EF organized a Green Team, which meets monthly and tosses around ideas on what else the company could do to improve efficiency. Most recently, the team was involved in encouraging employees to participate in the “bike-to-work” week last month.

“I think it’s contagious,” said account manager Keith Webster, also on the Green Team, adding that because so many young people work at EF – the average employee age in the Cambridge office is 27 – “it’s easy to get people into it.” Still, Lorscheider says much remains to be done.

The company is looking at developing a system to reduce water consumption by flushing toilets with used sink and shower water, said Lorscheider, who added, “I personally would like to see windmills on the roof of this building or solar panels.”

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