Green Connections

Comcast has a sweeping sustainability program in many states, but the initiatives taken in a cluster of its New Jersey buildings illustrate the granular nature of environmentally smart building management

One could imagine that a company as large as Comcast, with its 29 million cable subscribers, 25 million Internet subscribers, and 11.5 million voice service customers, would have enough on its plate without taking the time to consider its carbon footprint.

Prodigious energy usage for the telecommunications giant (the largest cable TV and home internet service provider in the US) comes with the territory, after all.

Marcella Garwood, the company’s facilities manager who oversees six buildings in southern New Jersey, is well aware of this consumption and uses her position to take on a green approach. As she works toward achieving her Sustainability Facility Professional credentials, Garwood’s primary responsibilities are to ensure those buildings serve their purpose, provide attractive work environments in a competitive jobs market, and have rational operating infrastructures that keep costs to a minimum.

In other words, the demands of sustainability and human resources overlay with her core responsibility of managing the buildings. She doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she seems to relish in it.

“I love problem-solving,” Garwood notes, which is a good thing, considering the spectrum of challenges that come her way.

That starts with the fact that those six buildings are very different from each other in type, size, and function. One is a call center, one a data center, another houses test laboratories, one building is a warehouse, and the smallest is an actual house in a residential neighborhood. The last of these is for real world testing of products to determine if, for example, the Wi-Fi router on the top floor reaches the basement and the back patio.

The testing lab building, referred to as the “Technology HQ,” is 143,000 square feet of four different laboratories. Internal environmental controls mean heat in winter and cooling in summer have to be maintained. What makes that exceptionally difficult is Comcast’s various research teams often bring in new equipment for tests, and that might mean greater electrical demand or mechanically generated heat that burdens the building’s cooling systems. Garwood has to simultaneously accommodate the research teams while managing the effects that has on the building overall.

She oversees an $8.5 million annual operating budget, two direct-report staff, and about 30 people among dedicated contractors, and has managed capital (construction and renovations) budget ranging from 2.5 to 6.2 million a year.

That’s a sweep of responsibilities, yet she’s quick to point out some of the more granular details, particularly those in the sustainability space. For example, a small renovation project completed in early 2019 effectively diverted 79.14 percent of materials in demolition away from landfills. Brick and concrete rubble were crushed for use in backfill and road base; metal, cardboard, ceiling tiles, and carpet were recycled; drywall gypsum was diverted for use as a soil amendment, fertilizer, and conditioner; wood was ground to mulch and compost products.

Other initiatives being rolled out, building by building, include replacing existing lighting with LED bulbs. This includes programmable and dimmable LED lights in at least one building, allowing the sun to provide task lighting a portion of the day. Garwood outfitted one of the largest locations with ultraviolet light-blocking shades. Sit-stand desks are being phased in, while office “hoteling” methods are reducing the space-per-employee allocation to account for flextime, flex-location work.

These and other sustainability initiatives mattered to Garwood’s team in part to save money and because there is a growing sustainability focus in the company overall. Comcast has a sustainable innovation focus on energy and emissions (with a nationwide fleet of 24,000 service vehicles), products that use less energy, waste diversion, and employee volunteering in community environmental projects. The company’s preferred return on investment (ROI) is typically 1.8 to 2.5 years. Retrofitting one building with LEDs is projected to take 4.7 years, but it was approved because it would be a clear winner in the long run.

“We just look for the sweet spot: to lower costs, achieve a smart ROI, and have happy occupants.”

Most of the New Jersey efforts aren’t from a top-down mandate. Rather, Garwood has the freedom to identify where and how to save money and carbon. “I like our buildings to be a test pilot,” she says. “A lot of this we’ve figured out how to do on our own.” The Technology HQ building is looking to pilot software, which uses artificial intelligence to rationalize energy use within the eccentricities of its varied and sprawling spaces.

Energy issues aside, Comcast also strives for an appealing work environment, one that contributes to overall productivity and retention. Garwood’s answer: turn empty lobbies into coffee bars, outdoor spaces into furnished patios and gardens, and contract (through the Fooda technology platform) to bring in a rotating selection of restaurant vendors to save money on company cafeteria costs.

Facilities managers are not expected to be gourmets, nor gardeners, nor environmental engineers. But as the company’s “Problem Solver,” Marcella Garwood doesn’t mind doing all of those things. “We just look for the sweet spot,” she says. “That’s to lower costs, achieve a smart ROI, and have happy occupants.”

Congratulations to Marcella Garwood on her career accomplishments and this well-deserved recognition. Bittenbender Construction, LP has been servicing the Comcast Companies for the past 15+ years and is honored to be a part of its journey and growth in becoming one of the Greater Philadelphia and Nation’s largest leaders and innovators.