The Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta is currently the biggest event space to be environmentally certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. The center has spent the past 10 years investing heavily in sustainability — and now acts as a blueprint for other convention centers.
Large events are notorious for the amount of waste they produce, not to mention the carbon emissions involved in transportation to and from the meeting space. With so many materials involved, it can seem impossible to make an event environmentally-friendly, unless it is very small and local.
The Georgia World Congress Center Authority is doing its best to change that, however. The center, which also includes Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Centennial Olympic Park, is positioning itself as a model of what a huge, climate-conscious venue can achieve. In fact, it is the largest venue in the world to have a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, meaning it meets the many environmental standards of the U.S. Green Building Council. The certification, which is well-known and comprehensive, is one of the few ways event spaces can benchmark their progress.
Keeping this certification year after year has not been easy. It has meant investing thousands of dollars in redesign for the building as well as experimenting with different methods to reduce its carbon footprint.
“There are a lot of challenges,” said Tim Trefzer, director of sustainability and corporate social responsibility at the Georgia World Conference Center. “I mean, the Georgia World Conference Center alone is four million square feet. Mercedes-Benz stadium is two million square feet, and then we’ve got Centennial Park at 22 acres. So one of the biggest challenges is really just constantly educating and training our staff, and making sure everyone’s on the same page.”
Trefzer, who was hired in 2010, has been responsible for transforming the sprawling events center into one of the most sustainable venues in the U.S. From his experience, he pointed to a few key changes the venue made to reduce its carbon footprint.
“When they created my position, it was a brand new role,” he explained. “But they recognized that the industry was moving in that direction, and knew we could make it a selling point of our business. It initiated 10 years ago but it continues to ramp up each year.”
Public Transportation Is A Number One Priority
Events are known for creating a lot of waste, but transportation is actually one of the most environmentally damaging factors. As Skift previously reported, major events contribute literal tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Because of this, public transportation is very highly weighted by the U.S. Green Building Council.
The Georgia World Congress Center is positioned at the intersection of three different subway and bus lines, giving attendees throughout Atlanta an easy route to the convention center, stadium, or park. It is so easy to get to via MART, or the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, that even the city’s football team uses it, according to Trefzer.
“It’ll probably surprise most folks that the Atlanta Falcons has the highest mass transit ridership of the NFL,” he said. “And the reason for that is just the location of the subway stations.”
The convention center also has electric charging stations in every parking location.
More Can Be Recycled Than You Think
“The industry can generate a lot of material, but it’s not necessarily waste until it’s wasted,” Trefzer said.
The goal for the Georgia World Congress Center is to repurpose as much of the materials used in an event as possible, whether it be the food, the furniture, or any of the props or gadgets.
“We’ve got a fairly robotic waste diversion program where we try to compost all of our kitchen food waste,” Trefzer said. “We’ve got a strong food donation program, a material donation program, and a recycling program.”
He added that the center had a person hired solely to oversee waste diversion.
The Details Are In The Design
Making a building more energy efficient really comes down to the nitty-gritty details, such as which lightbulbs are used and how to make use of space to generate more sunlight and fresh air. Ultimately, Trefzer’s job revolves around a lot of building operations, which he said can sometimes seem a little boring to outsiders.
“For the majority of things, it’s not sexy stuff,” he said. “It’s how you’re operating the building, what temperature set points you have during event move-in and move-out. How you’re minimizing energy consumption and water consumption.”
Trefzer explained that one of the things the Georgia World Congress Center did was to retrofit the bathrooms in order to have low-flow flush system. The center has also installed solar panels to make use of sunlight for electricity, designed windows for a maximum of natural light and outside air, closely monitors the air quality in the building, and has a smoking cessation program in place to help employees seeking to quit.
Connected Hotels Mean Greener Housing
The convention center is currently in the process of breaking ground on a new 1,000-room hotel, which will be connected to the Georgia World Congress Center and sit adjacent to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The idea for the hotel is to give attendees accommodations that are more environmentally friendly than perhaps other hotels in the area. Plus, by hosting attendees next door to the venue, it cuts down on the number of people using cars to get to and from the meeting place.
The Social Footprint Is Just As Important
The center’s connection with the local community goes hand-in-hand with many of its sustainability efforts. The venue has partnerships with a variety of nonprofits around Atlanta to donate food and materials.
For example, the center has linked up with several local shelters run by the Atlanta Mission, providing them with lunches, as well as running clothing drives and toy drives.
“This is really where I focus my energy,” Trefzer said. “How are we enhancing our life with Georgians that don’t come to our campus, who don’t come to our events, who don’t do business with us? We do that not only through our environmental footprint, but also through our social footprint.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Georgia World Congress Center Authority was breaking ground on 1,000 new hotels. It will be one 1,000-room hotel.
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Photo credit: The bright, sunlit lobby of the Georgia World Convention Center. Georgia World Congress Center Authority