How often do we lay the blame for greenhouse gas emissions squarely at the door of cars, trucks, and SUVs? While 28% of U.S. greenhouse gases do come from transportation, the majority of that being our vehicles, it’s our buildingsour homes and workplacesthat are even bigger culprits. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, buildings consume 16.2% of world marketed energy and are responsible for 48% of the increase in U.S. carbon emissions since 1990.

In healthcare facilities, boilers, air conditioners, refrigeration units, and emergency generators are some of the sources of harmful emissions. Buildings designed 50 years ago are no longer up to the challenge of delivering good healthcare in 2008. But there are solutions to reduce our carbon footprint. Using Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and the Green Guide for Health Care (GGHC) standards, we can design healthy, comfortable spaces while using less energy.

Sacred heart hospital in eau claire, wisconsin

Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wisconsin

Certified LEED buildings have been shown to use 32% less electricity and 30% to 50% less energy than conventional buildings. Good design principles for upgrades and new construction are essential to counter sky-rocketing energy costs, an aging population, and shrinking workforce. As an added bonus, green buildings incorporate designs and materials that improve air quality and make use of natural lighting

key elements to a therapeutic environment.

One example of green design in healthcare is Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, an affiliate of the Hospital Sisters Health System. Sacred Heart tuned in to the concept of green design several years ago.

“Today we are upgrading two inpatient centers and constructing a radiology imaging center,” says Rick Beckler, director, Hospitality Services. “We are looking at LEED standards and we work with contractors and sub-contractors to review all the products that are being proposed and recycled. We have reduced by 90% the total volume of waste that might otherwise go to the landfill. That waste includes materials such as copper wiring, metal, and porcelain fixtures.”

Part of Sacred Heart’s green design includes the creation and maintenance of protected green spaces, including healing and rooftop gardens (figure 1). “This effort recognizes and affirms the proven role of nature in healing,” says Beckler. “The Healing Gardens were designed for visitors, family members, and employees to experience the year-round restorative and aesthetic beauty, peace, and serenity of natural Wisconsin habitats.”

An automated sprinkler system was included in the design, providing the ability to water during times of the day that would minimize evaporation and reduce water usage. The hospital also installed two 600 kW Caterpillar emergency power diesel generators that have noise reduction technology, are highly fuel efficient, and have pollution abatement features. These generators are so efficient that the hospital can sell energy back to the power utility Xcel Energy.

Sacred Heart takes a holistic approach to healing that includes stewardship of the earth and its resources in the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology (figure 2). Their Green Team mission stems from the hospital’s four core values of Respect (which extends to stewardship of the environment), Care (which includes efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle for today and future generations), Competence (having a trained and competent staff to safely handle and recycle hazardous materials), and Joy (discovering happiness in the work they perform).

Sacred Heart participates in the Energy Efficiency Commitment (E2C) program between American Society for Healthcare Engineering and Energy Star, purchases green lamp tubes that are recycled, and is working to include sustainability language and green initiatives into all group purchasing organization contracts and architectural specifications.

While faith and spirituality are central to healthcare at Sacred Heart, necessity can still be the mother of invention. Beckler says their food scrap program developed almost by accident, when the garbage disposal unit broke down.

“That was when we started talking about how we could reduce the waste that was being sent to the landfill,” says Beckler. “Now we take food scraps and wastesright down to the stems off strawberriesand send it to a local farm for animal feed. What makes that so good is that this form of disposal doesn’t add unnecessary sediment to our wastewater, requiring additional water to flush and additional energy to process at the treatment plant. It also helps local farmers offset feed costs. Also, in 2007, nearly 9,000 pounds of kitchen leftovers were donated to a local food pantry. That’s a bonus for those who are homeless, or lack the facilities or the basics to prepare food. Even a little program like this can make a big impact. Our employees have embraced recycling and taken it to every corner of our hospital. We have a good, solid, sustainable program.”

Other initiatives at Sacred Heart include a mercury-free commitment (receiving a Hospitals for a Healthy Environment mercury-free award the first year it was offered), extensive hazardous waste management policies, a ride-share program to encourage employees to carpool, donations of used equipment to hospitals and clinics in Third World countries, and becoming a smoke-free campus in 2006.

Making the environment a priority earned Sacred Heart Hospital a 2008 Environmental Leadership Award, the most prestigious of the Practice Greenhealth Environmental Excellence Awards given out annually. The Environmental Leadership Award is reserved for facilities with extensive pollution prevention and recycling programs, and recipients are inducted into the Environmental Leadership Circle.

“Going green goes hand-in-hand with our healing mission,” adds Beckler. “We know we heal more quickly in healthy surroundings, but we also know there are economic benefits to eco-friendly design.”

Sacred Heart has been treading the green road long enough that making environmentally sustainable choices each and every day has become second nature. Patients, staff, communities, and planet earth are benefiting from the hospital’s belief and discipline.

As President of Healthwise Communications, Aura Rose helps clients understand and leverage the power of communications and staff engagement to move their sustainability projects forward.

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