Manufacturing industry primed for sustainable building revolution

August 2, 2016

From residential home solar and tiny house design to the soaring, energy efficient glass panels of modern commercial construction, much of today's effort in sustainable building has focused on individual and multifamily homes and large corporate offices. While these are certainly some of the most important markets in energy-efficiency, there is yet another that cannot be ignored: manufacturing. 

Traditionally, manufacturing plants have been seen as relics of the past, so massive that their inertia kept them from evolving and embracing the modern model of sustainability. But, that idiom looks about ready to expire, according to Mahesh Ramanujam, chief operating officer of the U.S. Green Building Council.

"Today's newest factories no longer make yesterday's products, nor do they fit the stereotype of the dark, dirty assembly lines that gorged on fossil fuels," he wrote in Crain's Chicago Business.

Even still, America's manufacturing sector is responsible for about 30 percent of the nation's total energy consumption, according to a new report from the USGBC, making it a critical target for sustainable building. Including plants, industrial facilities and product factories, the manufacturing sector operates at a scale that dwarfs that of homes, office buildings and even universities. Therefore, optimizing energy use in industrial facilities poses a unique set of challenges – but also an even greater potential for savings. 

America's manufacturing plants consume 30 percent of the nation's energy. America's manufacturing plants consume 30 percent of the nation's energy.

The USGBC's "LEED in Motion: Industrial Facilities" report shows just how deep an impact embracing sustainability can have in the manufacturing industry. Highlighting the benefits of LEED certification, the report found rated industrial facilities are more resource-efficient and high-performing, paving the way for increased asset value and millions of dollars in savings for both building owners and operators. According to Ramanujam, one leading manufacturer enjoyed 33 percent savings on energy costs after changing a building's design to pursue LEED certification.

Even outside the LEED program, manufacturers across the nation have pushed the paradigm, embracing sustainability instead of the status quo and reaping the benefits of energy-efficient design. 

Throughout Michigan, Ford has built a number of impressive manufacturing facilities, but none are quite as impressive as the 600-acre Rouge Center. Perhaps most striking is the center's Dearborn Truck Plant, whose 10.4-acre "living roof" uses bioswales and porous pavement to slow and clean excess storm water. Further contrasting the building's mechanical imperative are the skylights positioned throughout the building to maximize daylight, improving work conditions and reducing energy usage. 

While planning its Chandler, Arizona plant, Intel Corp. reassessed its building design with sustainability in mind to save nearly a million dollars in energy expenses, according to a USGBC post penned by Intel's Global Green Building Program Manager, Taimur Burki. Central to the company's efforts was a plan to recoup its process water, which allowed them to eventually cut overall water usage in half. With such a large opportunity for savings, the company would be able to recoup its investment in green technology in just two years, Burki wrote. 

With companies as massive as Ford and Intel leading the way in making our country's manufacturing industry more sustainable, hopefully smaller operations will begin to see just how big of an opportunity they have to change what it means to manufacture in the U.S. and beyond. These types of upgrades not only make our world more sustainable, but they can be far more affordable than many companies realize. Businesses interested in sustainable manufacturing can work with energy consulting companies to develop the most cost-effective solutions for their business models.