Transforming the VIC: A New Standard of Environmental and Economic Performance

Wed, 31/03/10

Something had to be done about the UN Vienna International Centre (VIC). To put it bluntly, after 20 years of operation, it no longer came up to scratch. Its environmental performance left a lot to be desired. Facilities needed to be replaced and adaptations made, to meet the requirements of a modern office building,  Urgent repairs were necessary too, including the removal of asbestos, which represented a health hazard for staff.  Taking on all these issues, and delivering one of the best green building initiatives in the UN system, has required a remarkable combination of commitment, financial innovation and management cooperation.

The VIC is a huge complex. It covers an area of 180,000 square metres, comprising nearly 4,500 offices and nine conference rooms, and accommodates nearly 3,600 employees from four international organisations: the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the United Nations Office at Vienna / United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNOV/UNODC) and the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). 

Maintenance and operating costs of the whole complex are shared by these four organizations, and managed through a Building Management Services (BMS) unit housed within UNIDO. Alireza Ghaemi, who  took over as the head of BMS in 1999, saw the scope to reduce both its environmental impact and its operational costs. Under his leadership a 10 year plan was carefully developed to make the building more sustainable as well safer, more  secure and more comfortable to work in.  A key element of the plan was the creation of a special fund to pay for the project, financed by fixed payments from the regular budgets of the four VIC-based organizations, but managed independently by the BMS. It's an arrangement which crucially allows for funds to be rolled over from one year to the next if that means they can be used more cost-effectively in the longer term. This special fund, breaking out of the straitjacket of annual budgeting, is unparalleled in the UN system. It took painstaking detailed work and numerous consultations to persuade the administration of the four VIC-based organizations, the member states and the Governing Board that this was the right way to move forward. 

Implementing the 10 year renovation plan has brought major benefits on all counts. Replacing the windows of the façade, for instance, has yielded a 44% improvement in their performance in terms of cooling and heating, as well as enabling the building to cope with new security requirements. An updated lighting system functions with an impressive 50% reduction in electricity usage. Further savings, with similar 50% improvements in energy efficiency, have been achieved by upgrading air conditioning units, elevators and the Building Automation System, the 'nerve centre' through which lights, air conditioning and so on are controlled. 

New water systems, waterless urinals, automatic taps and dual-flush toilets help save some 100,000 litres of water per day,  with irrigation and toilet flushing water now coming from underground sources rather than using drinking quality mains water from the city’s network. On the recycling front, special waste bins and/or containers have been installed throughout the premises. With the help of staff and contractors, these have greatly improved the separation and sorting of garbage and materials for recycling. There is a separate collection, for instance, for all waste paper – and all the VIC's paper is now 100% recycled. All cleaning products and detergents used throughout the complex are environmentally friendly, by agreement with the  cleaning company. As for the asbestos hazard,  a comprehensive asbestos removal project for the entire VIC (funded separately by the Austrian host country government) was initiated in November 2004. 

The renovation of the VIC, whose improvements cost 75 million Euros (apart from the 100 million Euros spent separately on asbestos-related work), yields a direct benefit in terms of operational costs. These have seen an annual reduction of  1.5 to 2 million Euros. Less tangible, but no less real, are the improvements in the working environment for UN staff. Overall, the VIC has been made more sustainable, with a marked reduction in the building's carbon footprint and significant cuts in water consumption, and its funding represents a real innovation for initiatives of this kind at the UN. 

Last but not least, this project delivers on its promises; it 'walks the talk'. 

Categories: Buildings, Energy, Finance, Leadership, Waste, Water