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Top 12 Green-IT Users: No. 4 Perkins+Will

By Gary Anthes
February 15, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In 1916, when he was just 12 years old, Larry Perkins watched his father dedicate the first parcel of the Forest Preserve System in what is now Deer Grove in Cook County, Ill. He would later describe his father's vision as one of creating "green intervals for people to enjoy."

A devotion to "green" goes way back at Perkins+Will Inc., the Chicago-based architecture, engineering and construction company that the late Perkins co-founded in 1935.

For decades, the company's devotion to what it calls "sustainability" was driven by its clients' desires for workspaces that were kind to the senses as well as efficient in their use of power and water. But there wasn't a comprehensive green program for internal functions, says CIO Richard Nitzsche. P+W had brought in consultants to help, but they "didn't really give us the critical mass internally to progress as much as a lot of our peers, frankly," he says.

The arrival in 2004 of Peter Busby, an eminent Canadian architect and authority on "green design," was the catalyst, Nitzsche says. "Peter really infused the firm with a very strong ethic of sustainable design," he says.

Now, every P+W office has a "green team," and the company has a Green Operations Plan for six areas: transportation, office water use, office energy use, office consumables, indoor air quality, and office renovations and new construction. Although green IT initiatives play a role in each area, they are concentrated in office energy use.

Like many design firms, P+W has a "rendering farm" through which architects can tap into idle desktop cycles during off-hours to run compute- intensive design software. But P+W has taken the idea a step further than most companies. Previously, employees left their PCs on overnight, but now they turn them off. When designers want to do renderings — which turn design specs into images — they use Wake-on-LAN hardware and software in the PCs to power them up.

P+W also has server virtualization program. The original goal was to cut spending on server purchases, but server prices have fallen so much that the big savings now come from reduced spending on energy, Nitzsche says.

More Info

Photograph courtesy of Perkins+Will

Location: Chicago. IL
Website: www.perkinswill.com
What's special: Developed a Green Operations Plan focused on office energy use that encompasses six areas: transportation, office water use, office energy use, office consumables, indoor air quality, and office renovations and new construction.
What's cheap: Users can turn off their PCs at night, thanks to a new system capable of waking up the machines when they're needed for the firm's "rendering farm."

Nitzsche says he and his staff have to understand sustainability principles to effectively execute IT's internal green initiatives. But the need for such expertise is even greater for staffers who interact with the firm's designers and architects. Nitzsche has earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) professional accreditation from the U.S. Green Building Council, and he encourages his employees to do the same. LEED accreditation helps build a bond with the architects, he says.

Frank Gens, an analyst at market research firm IDC, says the IT staff at P+W enjoys a huge advantage in working with a management team long convinced of the importance of sustainable policies. He says economic considerations will be the key driver for green IT — especially as governments establish more incentives and penalties. But, he says, customers' increasing desire to buy from environmentally responsible suppliers will work in P+W's favor. "You're seeing a rising awareness of the importance of reducing the impact you have on the environment," Gens notes.

Paula Vaughan, an architect and co-director of P+W's Sustainable Design Initiative, says IT was "one of the first places we looked," both because of its considerable energy usage as well as its importance to sustainability efforts on behalf of clients. She says P+W is moving to Rivet, Autodesk Inc.'s building-information modeling software, which can facilitate green design efforts by, for example, showing the solar effects of different building positions.

"Usually when you think about green IT, it's about data centers and servers and equipment, but for us, it is much more ingrained in our business," Vaughan says.

Nitzsche says sustainability has been such a core principle at P+W for so long that there is no resistance to it from employees. "The only real difficulty is having the manpower to roll all this stuff out," he says. "We are a very lean operation."

Next: No. 5 Snohomish Public Utility District

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