Leadership On Sustainability: The Man Behind the Greening of the VIC

Thu, 01/04/10

Alireza Ghaemi is head of Building Management Services (BMS) at the Vienna International Centre (VIC). More to the point, he's the man responsible for leading on the making this massive complex more sustainable, and pioneering an innovative special fund to finance it.

When he took on the job in February 1999, the VIC was in desperate need of refurbishment, having operated for 20 years with little done to the building. Among the many problem issues demanding his attention were improvements to systems and equipment, attention to the external structure, roof and facades, the removal of asbestos contamination, and a thorough environmental upgrade.  

An engineer and construction manager with a PhD in Sustainable Construction Industry and Buildings Operations, and some 10 years of private sector experience before first joining the United Nations Industrial and Development Organisation (UNIDO) to head the BMS civil engineering unit in September 1997, Mr Ghaemi began by drawing up a priority plan to address the most urgent issues. Costed at 4.5 million Euros, this first set of projects was implemented in just 11 months, more than eight times faster than the previous norm for BMS projects. His second step focused on operational costs, introducing a number of cost-saving measures such as the renegotiation of the electricity supply and elevator maintenance contracts;  these two changes alone saved the VIC over 1 million Euros a year.  

When a survey revealed the massive extent of asbestos contamination in various parts of the building complex, a comprehensive programme had to be negotiated to have it all removed. The host country was eventually persuaded to foot the bill, amounting to some 100 million Euros over a 10 year period.

But Mr Ghaemi's proudest achievement is the overhaul, renovation and upgrading programme by which,  as he says, “the VIC,  by far the UN's largest building complex, was turned into the most modern, least costly, most energy efficient and greenest of them all.” 

His programme, which also spanned a 10 year time frame, came in at an overall cost (besides the asbestos removal) of some 75 million Euros. It deliberately focused on projects which met a range of key criteria:

  • Completing long overdue major repairs and replacements
  • Upgrading to the most up-to-date technology in line with current EU standards for health, safety, security and operational reliability
  • Delivering state-of-the-art offices and other facilities and a pleasant modern working environment for the staff
  • Securing the workplace for the next 25 years
  • Saving costs
  • Meeting high environmental standards and energy saving criteria

Mr Ghaemi thinks that the multi-purpose nature of all the measures he put forward, and the fact that these improvements entailed no increase in ongoing operational and maintenance budgets, were crucial factors in getting the plan approved. “I firmly believed and still believe”, he says, “that it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to generate additional funds ... especially if it were just for the sake of energy savings.” As it was, it was still a daunting task to obtain the funds, and to win agreement for his radical proposals for managing them. Nevertheless, by painstaking detailed work and lengthy consultation, the member states and the four VIC-based organizations who finance the BMS budget were won over to the Special Fund idea. Finally  approved by the governing bodies and established with effect from 1 January 2002, this innovative mechanism enables the BMS to run its operations and projects in a way that is not subject to certain constraints of standard UN budgeting. In particular, because unutilized balances do not have to be returned to the member states at the end of each budgetary cycle, it can make longer term investments, and reinvest the savings. 

By creating this mechanism, putting his proposals into action without requesting additional regular budget funds, and achieving a combination of cost reductions and real sustainability gains for the VIC, Mr Ghaemi hopes to have helped show a way forward for future sustainability projects throughout the UN.  Aware that buildings and their operation are responsible for almost 53% of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, he is driven by the desire to make the UN a beacon of best practice in their management. The work of the UN,  as he puts it,  “must address sustainability goals starting from our own homes”.

Categories: Buildings, Energy, Finance, Leadership