It is estimated that more than 40 percent of this country’s total energy use is consumed in commercial buildings, most often office buildings. In the two largest urban cities in the country, New York and Chicago, that jumps to about 70 percent.

Many, if not most, of the new buildings now under construction in this country are placing a great deal of emphasis on sustainablity such as adding building systems that use less fuel, energy, water, etc. This helps reduce our demand for natural resources and lowers operating costs as well.

However, our big problem is the thousands of older commercial buildings still in use around the country.  These buildings were notoriously flawed – by today’s standards – when it came to any type of resource efficiency.

Insulating many of these older buildings was simply not a concern. Developers assumed if building users were cold, they would turn up the heat; if hot, turn up the A/C.

Those days are over, but old buildings are not.  While some are being torn down, it is believed that by 2030, the vast majority of these older facilities will still be standing and in use.  In fact, in cities like New York and Chicago, 75 percent of these older commercial buildings will likely still be occupied and used every day.

Bringing sustainability to these older buildings is often prohibitively costly.  To make them more energy efficient, for instance, typically requires replacing major mechanical systems; windows; adding wall insulation; changing lighting; etc.  If the entire building is undergoing a total renovation, then these efficiency updates may be included.  However, if not, building owners typically question if the costs of these retrofits will show a reasonable return on the investment.

However, a pilot program in Chicago may provide solutions.  Known as the Retrofit Chicago’s Commercial Buildings Initiative, the essence of this public/private partnership is to promote energy efficiency. The way they are doing this is with new economical but advanced technologies.

The first thing we need to know about the program is that it recognizes that every older building is different.  While many of the skyscrapers built in the U.S. since the 1970s, have similar structural elements, those constructed in the 1950s and earlier do not. This means what may produce energy efficiency in older buildings “A,” may not work in older building “B.”

The technologies also realize that in order for any retrofits to become a reality, they need to be:

   Relevant (to that specific building)

   Fast (not taking more than a year to complete)

   Low-cost

   Have a four years or less return on the investment.

The system uses sensors placed throughout the facility, acquiring data, for instance, from energy consuming equipment such as HVAC devices, water heaters, lighting, etc. This data is then fed into software applications, which identify opportunities to make the building more efficient and provide continuous improvement.

This data is important.  While a building owner may believe that installing a new, costly, but energy efficient HVAC systems may help reduce operating costs and improve sustainability efforts, in some cases it will just make a dent and not be worth the cost.

Instead, this technology might suggest that just by adding digital controls designed to better monitor and manage building temperatures, humidity, and airflow, significant improvements will result in greater efficiency at far less cost.

The 21st century will be the century of sustainability.  With technologies like this along with many others, we should be able to scale down the energy, fuel, and water demands of commercial facilities around the world.  The professional cleaning industry is going to play a key role in making this happen, which will be good for our industry’s future and future generations.

Stephen Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group and known in the professional cleaning industry as the father of green cleaning and the industry leader, turning sustainability into cost savings.  He can be reached at



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