Just a few years ago, few commercial property owners and managers had any perspective on operating properties using sustainable principles, and few people in commercial real estate really had any passion about how these assets could become more environmentally friendly. We just didn't know how it affected us.

Today, the landscape is much different and while many of us in commercial real estate feel inundated with messages about how to operate our properties according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards or Energy Star, we shouldn’t minimize the impact of even the smallest changes that commercial properties can make with little or no financial investment. I really think that “green” will become a way of life rather than just the next exciting initiative.

I often hear from colleagues in property management that investor clients still think that transitioning facilities towards a sustainable operation will include much more financial investment and a long timeline. That really isn’t the case anymore. Buildings don’t have to become LEED certified for existing buildings operations and maintenance or even Energy Star labeled to become more energy efficient and to incorporate sustainable practices. Each little step towards efficiency helps to reduce operating expenses, which is always top-of-mind during a difficult economic period, and leads to more sustainable practices. To understand the results of these small changes, the team should monitor month-over-month energy bills and in a few short months, they will see a difference.

Among our list of simple ideas is to start with a list of simple changes to be made in routine maintenance whenever possible, incorporating automatic occupancy controls for lights and HVAC, reviewing your HVAC frequently to make sure it matches your occupancy, light screens on windows to maintain internal temperatures and adding recycling containers in main hallways.

We started an annual E-cycling Day last year in conjunction with Earth Day and in one day, collected nearly 15,000 lbs. of e-waste, which includes cell phones, computer monitors, computers and printers. This tradition continues in 2010. The simple program didn’t cost NorthMarq or our clients anything, but did save our tenants money to recycle on their own and saved environmental resources for when those items aren’t recycled correctly. Ultimately, this effort made our tenants happy, which translates into tenants who renew.

Even for buildings that want to achieve LEED recognition, many of the changes that earn points on the LEED scale are small, and ultimately fairly simple. NorthMarq manages the 42-story, 729,638 sq. ft., Campbell Mithun Tower in the Minneapolis central business district for Principal Global Investors and recently achieved a Gold-level LEED designation for Existing Buildings. The building, located at 222 S. 9th Street, is the only Class A multi-tenant high-rise in downtown Minneapolis to achieve Gold certification. While their process of accumulating points toward the recognition took just over 12 months to achieve, even the most expensive change – swapping existing toilets for low-flow fixtures – cost less than $100,000.

Do you have ideas to share with our industry? I am sure that many of you have already implemented these things, but perhaps my thoughts will spur a new idea or help you think of your asset in a new way.

Lisa Dongoske leads the Real Estate Management group at NorthMarq and is former president of the Minnesota chapter of NAIOP.