By Dylan Waldhuetter and Matt Howard
From the April 2017 Issue
On the past several years, hundreds of thousands of building owners and facility managers in Flint, MI and Toledo, OH had to contend with toxic or no municipal water service. Building owners and managers from lower Manhattan to the Louisiana Gulf Coast have to contend with subsidence and increased storm surges that disrupt operations and damage building infrastructure. As a result, operations were disrupted if not lost, and building occupants in some cases suffered irreparable health impacts. Water can no longer be taken for granted or ignored solely based on the relatively low amount it costs to procure it. The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) has developed a water use standard for commercial buildings that helps owners and managers ensure an optimized, healthy, and financially sound building stock.
What is AWS?
AWS is a multi-stakeholder organization dedicated to enhancing water stewardship capacity and guiding, incentivizing, and differentiating responsible use. AWS employs three mutually-reinforcing programs to drive improved water stewardship: standard and verification system, membership of a multi-stakeholder association, and training.
At the heart of the AWS mission in North America and beyond is the stakeholder-endorsed AWS International Water Stewardship Standard (AWS Standard). This voluntary, international standard defines a set of water stewardship criteria and indicators for how water should be managed at a site and within the watershed in a way that is environmentally, socially, and economically beneficial. The AWS Standard provides a six-step continual improvement framework that enables facility management to commit to, understand, plan, implement, evaluate and communicate water stewardship actions (See Figure 1).
The AWS Standard is the world’s only comprehensive water use standard that can be used by industrial, agricultural, and commercial sites. The six-step process acts as a strategic framework to help water users identify and mitigate water-related risks—both inside and outside their buildings. The AWS Standard is not a prescriptive standard and is flexible enough to be used in water scarce and water abundant regions. Once implementing sites complete the six steps to water stewardship, they can contract directly with an accredited AWS conformity assessment body to achieve credible, third-party certification as world-class water stewards.
AWS Standard For A Commercial Office Building
Sustainability focused building standards offer a variety of important benefits. Primarily, these encourage sustainable design, construction, and upgrades to a facility, which offer long-term operations and maintenance savings, reduction of environmental footprint, and creation of a healthy environment for occupants. For instance, LEED Standards are one of the most widely known and applied building standards. According to a 2015 Green Building Economic Impact Study, between 2015 and 2018, LEED certified buildings in the United States are estimated to achieve $1.2 billion in energy savings. This study can be found here.
The AWS Standard is distinct in that it offers a framework for strategically operating a facility by optimizing water-related processes within the building and identifying water-related risk factors in their local watershed that could impact critical building functionality. It is also solely focused on water; and, it is not focused just on the direct cost of procuring, treating, and discharging water, but all costs including indirect costs of outsourced services, regulatory compliance, and handling of hazardous substances.
As a result of the recognition of the full spectrum of water-related costs and risks to building owners and operators, organizations are becoming acutely aware of how inaction can pose a serious risk to operations and resilience. Globally, hundreds of sites are using the AWS Standard to address these risks including The Global Water Center, a Class A commercial office building in Milwaukee, WI. In 2015, The Water Council formalized its designation as the official North American regional partner for the AWS. Headquartered at the Global Water Center, AWS North America wanted to demonstrate that the AWS Standard provides business value for commercial buildings.
Thus, the AWS Standard is being implemented at the 98,000 square foot Global Water Center building, which houses over 40 tenant organizations including universities, water-related companies, and accelerator space for emerging water technology companies. The site is a 100 year old warehouse that was redesigned and retrofitted to LEED Silver certification for Core & Shell. The green building focus of the site’s redevelopment provided an invaluable platform for AWS Standard implementation.
Local watershed conditions also played an important role in the site’s implementation. The Menomonee River Watershed in which the building sits (see Figure 2 at right) contains a number of Lake Michigan tributary streams that have been given an “impaired” designation from the U.S. EPA. Additionally, as is the case for most of the United States, there is concern for the aging municipal water infrastructure. Due to the nature of the Global Water Center being recognized as a global hub for water technology and stewardship advocacy, there were important reputational considerations for the site as well.
An obvious application for AWS Standard implementation is in water scarce regions where a building uses large volumes of water. But how applicable or useful is the standard in water abundant regions? The Global Water Center sits on the banks of Lake Michigan, which as part of the Great Lakes system represents 20% of the world’s surface freshwater reserves—not exactly water scarce.
While water quantity isn’t a major concern for this specific site or watershed, there are major water quality, infrastructure, and reputational risks to address. It is important to note that the AWS Standard will help building owners and managers identify and mitigate major water-related risks and produce outcomes to improve local water quality, water balance, and watershed governance.
The second of the standard’s six steps is Gather and Process. It is in this step that a site gathers significant site and watershed level data including water-related costs, water-related revenues, source water identification, status of water-related infrastructure, water quality and quantity data at the building site (and also for the watershed), and a thorough understanding of all water-related regulatory issues and permitting.
The Global Water Center project team (comprised of two people) for the AWS implementation spent three months gathering this data and received considerable help from local municipal authorities and environmental groups. The project team learned several things about some of the site’s risks, including its contribution to stormwater runoff and community perception as a model for water technology and stewardship.
After data gathering, the AWS Standard requires external stakeholder engagement to help with developing an understanding and prioritization of the region’s and site’s water-related risks. Stakeholders include local water utilities, city officials, state regulatory agencies, and NGOs, among others. Consensus from stakeholders is not required but rather forms an important component of building relationships in the community and gathering intelligence about risks in the watershed, which could impact a building’s operations.
As a result, the Global Water Center project team developed a water risk profile and a priority list of shared water challenges. These challenges included stormwater runoff, eco-industrial district development, and neighborhood connectivity to the water bodies.
This information feeds directly into developing the building’s water stewardship plan as part of the third step—Plan. The Water Stewardship Plan is individualized for building owners and managers and must include SMART targets (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based).
The Global Water Center team has prioritized several targets, including monthly monitoring of on-site stormwater infrastructure, identification of salt reduction strategies by next snow season, and quarterly education and volunteer opportunities to engage tenants in building improvements and water stewardship initiatives. The site includes a parking lot adjacent to the Menomonee River, which flows directly into the Lake Michigan Estuary—a U.S. EPA designated Area of Concern. There are targets built into the Water Stewardship Plan to mitigate the parking lot contribution to stormwater pollution. This includes improvement of bioswales, limit of salt use during winter, and education of tenants regarding contributions such as oil, anti-freeze, and other liquids leaking from cars.
Since the Global Water Center welcomes guests from the community and all over the world, it is important for their credibility to advocate and model water technology and stewardship. Therefore, part of the plan includes targets for advocacy including hosting educational seminars to address and engage local groups further in initiatives. The Global Water Center’s Water Stewardship plan is currently being implemented (step four), to be followed by a period of evaluation (step five) and communication (step six).
The Global Water Center example demonstrates the applicability at commercial or light industrial buildings. While oftentimes commercial building operations are not as water intensive as agricultural or industrial facilities, beyond the direct cost of procuring water for tenants, a commercial site can face any number of water-related risks where the cost of inaction can be quite detrimental to the building’s value and reputation.
Water Intensive Sites
While this case study has focused on a commercial office building, the case for water stewardship is easier to make for large water users in the hospitality, industrial, and agricultural sectors, especially high intensity operations like hotels and resorts, petrochemical, and food and beverage processing. For these sectors, procuring, treating, and disposing of water results in direct costs.
Nevertheless, it is important to consider the applicability of the additional risks previously discussed. For example, regulatory risks are of greater relevance as many of these sites operate under various industry specific and/or legal regulations. Additionally, as is happening in California and elsewhere in the United States, the regulatory framework is changing as are stakeholder perceptions of how a site uses water and customer requirements for sustainability metrics and reporting. The water intensive nature of these sites also presents greater physical risks. From a quality perspective, there may be risk associated with direct discharges. There may also be environmental and cost benefits to limiting or changing the treatment process of discharged water. There are additional risks and opportunities for water-intensive sites in these sectors, but it reinforces the need for owners and managers to apply the only comprehensive strategic framework for identifying and mitigating water-related risks.
Using The AWS Standard
There are a number of benefits for any site to implement the AWS Standard. Water risks come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are specific to each site and the watershed in which it operates. The AWS Standard provides facility management with a framework by which they are able to build internal capacity to identify and address water risks. It is important that sites are proactive in order to stay ahead of physical, regulatory, and reputational risks.
The Global Water Center is an example of successful commercial building application of the AWS Standard. The site has identified the opportunity to become a regional advocate for water stewardship education. It has developed strong relationships with local groups to assist in continued efforts. Additionally, the site has addressed under-maintained stormwater infrastructure and taken steps to improve the water quality of the river and near shore areas of Lake Michigan. These outcomes set the stage for even greater impacts to be found in industrial and agricultural applications all across North America.
Waldhuetter is an intern at the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) North America where he is responsible for the implementation of the AWS International Water Stewardship Standard (AWS Standard) at the Global Water Center through his Graduate Internship with AWS North America. He has a B.B.A. in Integrated Science/Business with an emphasis in Water from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and is completing his M.S. in Water Policy and Management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences.
Howard is the director of AWS North America, and is the first to hold that position at AWS North America, a partnership program of The Water Council. In this capacity, he also serves as one of Council’s vice presidents. Prior to AWS North America, Matt served as Milwaukee’s sustainability director from 2010 to 2015 and spent 11 years with the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, DC. Matt was recently re-appointed by the EPA Administrator to the National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology. He has a B.A. and M.A. in international economics and is a LEED and Lean Six Sigma accredited professional.
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