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Conversation with The Clinic's green champion

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/09/07 @ 8:31pm

Around the time “An Inconvenient Truth” was barnstorming the nation, senior leaders at the Cleveland Clinic had a revelation. “They became acutely aware of climate change and reducing the Clinic’s impact,” Christina Vernon Ayers, the newly appointed director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Office for a Healthy Environment, explains how her department and the new push to green the healthcare giant’s buildings and operations began this year.

Ayers spent the last year and a half in The Clinic’s facilities department where she developed a reputation as a champion of green ideas. This month, she begins focusing full time on the process of measuring and reducing what is undeniably a huge carbon footprint (as one might expect from an organization with 35,000 employees and thousands of customers coming to call). The work began in earnest when Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove arranged for renowned green architect Bill McDonough to visit last May for a public speech followed by a private work session with Clinic top brass. From that meeting, Ayers organized the Clinic’s goals into four areas:

  • Healthy buildings, especially creating a green building policy
  • Healthy operations, such as recycling and reducing energy use
  • Better buying, as in using the Clinic’s power as a major buyer to influence what it purchases; and
  • Finding champions and innovators within the organization

“My belief is the best way to inspire change is to foster ownership and innovation by those who know what they do best,” Ayers says. “I’m not interested in telling any of our hospitals ‘do this or that’, but to help them understand what we do on our campus and leave it up to them to innovate. I don’t have a list of what every hospital has to do or what a green hospital is. We have a lot of innovative people who work here—let’s put all this brain power to work.”

That said, Ayers is launching or strengthening a number of initiatives including:

  • An organic lawn care pilot
  • Comprehensive recycling pilot with the goal of diverting 10% of non-bio waste from the landfill
  • Helping form Green Teams at every hospital and a system-wide green team to organize efforts

In addition, The Clinic recently completed waste and energy audits that will provide a baseline from which goals and guidelines will be set, Ayers says. She would like to start with an educational program that encourages all Clinic employees to reduce their energy demand by powering down computers, turning off lights, printers, etc.

While the demand side is being managed and monitored, Ayers will evaluate renewable energy systems such as solar and geothermal as she and a newly formed executive sustainability team, a joint executive team at The Clinic, develop a comprehensive green building policy.

“We’re looking at green building as the right way to do it. We aren’t tracking it as a separate line item. But, we’re also at the point where we haven’t moved into any of our new green buildings. As we move in, we can track more effectively the impact it will have, such as energy use.”

“For energy use we haven’t set a goal yet. We’ll be tracking energy costs, consumption, and legislation and then determine what our goals are. We’ll also track waste disposal and costs to determine a construction demolition plan.”

Does Ayers envision all of the Clinic’s new construction seeking LEED certification?

“We’re working on a policy that works for us,” she answers. “Obviously, a small renovation on a floor somewhere doesn’t make sense. The policy would look at how to integrate green building into all buildings.”

Some of the Clinic’s current building projects—the E. 89th Street Garage, a major expansion at Hillcrest Hospital, and the commercial space attached to the JJ North garage at Chester and E. 93rd—are going for LEED certification, she says.

What might help the Clinic’s development arm extend its reach beyond its borders is the promise of a new LEED for Neighborhood Development product. Upper Chester, one of four pilot LEED-ND projects in Northeast Ohio, is being planned at the Clinic’s doorstep, and Ayers plans to meet with the Cleveland Foundation, which is managing the green neighborhood project, to consider ways it might get involved.

For now, the Clinic will focus on greening individual buildings, its operation, and—through a national collaborative—raise a dialogue about how the healthcare industry can be more sustainable. Ayers is aware of the possibility, but is not promising that Clinic developments in far flung suburban areas will slow or that they will be LEED-ND.

“I can tell you our approach to sites is incredibly sensitive,” she says. “I can’t influence where the business needs to go, but I can influence how we build on that site, and hope in a couple of months to have some announcements in that (area).”

The promise of Ayers appointment is the environmental goals of the Clinic’s leaders, and best practices from groups such as Hospitals for a Healthy Environment have a champion to pursue them.

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