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Building Operator Training In The Time Of Climate Change

By: Robert Muldoon

January 02, 2019

Among the potential leaders of our climate change era are the operating staff of the many thousands of buildings across New York City. As the main energy users and biggest greenhouse gas emitters, NYC buildings consume over 70% of our total energy and therefore have become the main focus of the City's efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. With NYC ramping up initiatives to make buildings more efficient, the role of management and building staff increases in making these efforts a success.

The 32BJ Training Fund pioneered one of the key initiatives to upgrade building operator training, starting in 2009 with our Green Supers training program. We have gone on to introduce additional levels of training for our union members. With recent funding from New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), we are starting a new effort to involve management and staff in training geared to their specific building systems and grounded in the impact on building performance. This training will help the overall industry continuously raise the bar on building operator training and help our union members step up and meet the challenge of addressing climate change.

Development of the 32BJ Green Building Training Program

SEIU Local 32BJ is a building service workers union that represents building workers across the country with 150,000 union members nationwide and about 70,000 of those members in the NYC area. Local 32BJ represents a variety of workers, from security guards to cleaners to porters, handypersons and building operators (Superintendents and Resident Managers). In other words, the union represents the people who guard, clean, maintain and manage many of the apartment buildings across NYC, as well as other facilities such as offices, schools and airports.

The 32BJ Training Fund is a joint labor/management benefit program for union members, which is funded by employer contributions agreed upon in union contracts. The program has successfully supported the industry in a number of areas from general industry training to security training to safety training and more. One of the union's on-going training areas has been Green building training.

Green building training at 32BJ began back in 2005 with a series of introductory courses. Through a $2.8 million federal Department of Labor grant in 2010, the program expanded with a labor/management initiative called the Green Supers program. The goal of this initiative was to train 1,000 union members in energy efficient operations and maintenance (O&M) strategies. The grant project was completed in 2012 with over 1,500 union members trained. A graduation ceremony was held in 2012 with then-Secretary of the federal Department of Energy Steven Chu, who called building operators essential to cutting waste, saving money and making NYC a healthier place.

The program focused on opportunities to improve building operation through basic low cost/no cost operating and maintenance (O&M) strategies such as tuning boilers, insulating pipes, air sealing, etc. We documented successes from the training, such as the operator that saved his building over $40,000 per year by regular tuning of his boiler and the operator who instituted air sealing of the apartment PTAC units as well as training for residents in their operation.

Our Green building Training program has continued this basic building operator efficiency training while adding new levels of training, including the Urban Green Council's Green Professional training (GPRO O&M). GPRO training offers a grounding in the concepts and strategies of Green laws, standards and rating systems, focusing mainly on the LEED rating system. We also added building analyst training. As members completed this series, they began pursuing LEED professional certification (GA and AP). We have also continued to develop Green training for commercial building operators, including GPRO Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing certification and the Northwest Energy Efficiency Council (NEEC) Building Operator Certification training.

The Next Level of Training: Green Supers On-Site Training & Coaching

Recently, we secured funding from the NYSERDA to develop Green Supers On-Site Training and Coaching. This new initiative is an effort to take training to a new level by first evaluating the building to inventory training needs and opportunities as well as building performance, then consulting with building management on the training plan for the building staff, then doing the training and following it up with on-site coaching to assist staff in applying the concepts and strategies learned to their daily O&M practices. Lastly, we will evaluate post-training building performance and report back to management and staff on our findings about improvements that were made and opportunities for further development and training.

Green Supers on-site training graphic

NYSERDA worked with the 32BJ Training Fund to pilot this training model back in 2017. We recruited the Mid-Bronx Desperados Community Housing Corporation (MBD) to try out the model with six building superintendents managing low rise apartment buildings. We discovered that when we delivered interactive training tailored to their building systems, staff responded and aggressively pursued many of the strategies. We also discovered opportunities to better coordinate boiler operations among these buildings and better involve the building superintendents in monitoring the equipment through logs and recordkeeping. MBD management was excited to learn about these opportunities and invited the 32BJ Training Fund to return this fall to train the staff for the rest of the MBD portfolio of about 30 more buildings.

We hope that our project establishes a new level of training that will be available to 32BJ employers well into the future and will evolve as we train different types of buildings across the city. We are still seeking more buildings for this training initiative and 32BJ employers are welcome to contact the 32BJ Training Fund at 1-212-539-2811 to learn more.

Lessons Learned: Empowering Building Workers

After almost 10 years of training building staff in strategies on energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality for multifamily buildings, we have learned some basic lessons about what our members need to help them be successful in efficient building operation. First, they need training in the concepts, strategies and technologies of efficient operation of building systems. We found that any time these can be delivered in a hands-on, interactive way, our 32BJ members are more engaged and more likely to apply what they learn in their buildings. Second, building staff also need the tools for energy efficient building operations. From easily affordable insulation for pipes to a $200 thermal imaging camera that attaches to a smart phone or a $1,500 combustion analyzer for boilers — all of these tools will quickly pay for themselves many times over when put in the hands of trained building staff. Third, building staff need to be plugged into the various incentive programs for retrofit and upgrading buildings.

From the NYC Retrofit accelerator program to the Con Edison incentive program and more, we work to educate our members about these programs so building operating staff not only bring their training back to their buildings but also real funding for upgrading lighting, heating systems and such. This can be operationally and financially critical as building systems are continually being replaced due to normal wear and tear, a key opportunity for a trained building operator to weigh in with the strategies and funding to upgrade to more efficient equipment. Finally, our members need the opportunity to earn industry recognized certifications so they can be recognized by their employers for the level of training they have achieved. Our courses offer a variety of Green building certifications including Building Performance Institute (BPI), GPRO and LEED, and more.

Training a New Level of Building Worker

In New York, nearly three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by existing buildings. This means that building workers can be the vanguard of change in ushering in a new era of high performance buildings in NYC. Many building workers are hungry for the opportunity to play this role and help their buildings move to these new technologies and strategies. More importantly, it is a fool's errand to ignore the building workers when retrofitting a building. As building systems get 'smarter' and more automated, training is important to make sure newly installed systems are properly utilized with the proper controls that optimize efficiency rather than fluctuating with resident demands for heating, cooling or overall comfort. As building systems continue to develop, NYC needs updated and dynamic technical standards for building operators to guide them in the best practices for health & safety, energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality and how to usher in new technologies and strategies in support of high performance retrofits. These standards need to clearly lay out the basic tools required and to continuously incorporate new technologies and systems. And outreach for incentives should be targeted at the building operator and not just building owners and managers.

Finally, these standards must be the basis for an industry-recognized certification that ensures a building worker has achieved an understanding and demonstrated the ability to apply this understanding in running a building. Clearly, smart, high performing buildings demand workers who are provided with the training needed to reach their maximum performance levels.


Robert Muldoon is the Manager for Green Building Training at the 32BJ Training Fund. He has earned various industry certifications, including LEED AP O+M, GPRO O&M and BPI MFBO & MFBA.

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