In today’s perplexing environment, energy consumption and efficiency aren’t generating Page One news. Yet energy policy and its impacts continue to attract global attention. The coronavirus has sharply reduced energy usage, resulting in bluer skies, petroleum storage shortages, and higher unemployment, especially in the energy sector.
But at some point, our collective hope is that the economy returns to normal (or above normal), at which point energy usage will undoubtedly return to previous levels. Energy efficiency goals are threefold: conforming to regulatory requirements; adhering to economic reality; and reaping an environmental benefit. Energy efficiency will continue to be an imperative in the design, construction, and refurbishment of industrial buildings.
At Prime Engineering, energy efficiency in the practice of architecture has become part of my DNA. Whether designing a warehouse building for UPS or an aviation structure for Delta Air Lines, we work collaboratively with our clients to achieve both regulatory requirements and budgetary objectives.
From a pragmatic perspective, design professionals are bound by jurisdictional and International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) guidelines, the baseline of energy objectives. From an ethical and moral perspective, we’re keenly aware of the impact that building energy usage has on our world as buildings account for 40% of the energy consumption in the US: a roughly 62/38 percent ratio of electricity to natural gas.
The Keys to Designing Energy-Efficient Buildings
The most important element to successful design is collaboration. Building design is complex, requiring firms to collaborate with their building partners and within their own organizations. It’s imperative that I build a relationship of mutual trust with my client as well as with my own engineers and support staff within Prime. With every project, we must reach agreements on critical variables such as baseline goals, budget, procedures, testing, and assessment. While there are varying degrees of collaboration (from baseline energy to a hierarchy of objectives that go beyond that), the greater degree of specificity we achieve at the outset, the greater our chances for a successful project.
- The Confluence of Technology
The advent of Building Energy Modeling (BEM) and Building Information Modeling (BIM) some 15 years ago has allowed technology to drive improved energy efficiency. Terms like “carbon footprint,” “building envelope,” and “LEED” led the public- and private-sector AEC communities to develop technologies like Comcheck and Revit to help us assess buildings’ current and potential levels of energy efficiency. For me, the interplay between Revit models and Comcheck software is the choreography among the code, the software, and engineering science. Fortunately for non-geeks like myself, the technology is easy to use and we, like most in the AEC community, pride ourselves on training and continuing education to keep abreast of technological advances and gain new insight into energy-influenced design.
- The Weakest Link
Yet even with proper training in these sophisticated technologies, adapting building design to the technology requires considerable effort, with every step in the process reliant upon the one before. The fundamental trifecta remains the same:
- Specific client goals for energy consumption and budget requirements
- Jurisdictional requirements—the Code—that mandate numbers and values
- Professional responsibility to limit waste, maximize efficiency, and use recyclable materials to produce efficient buildings
Yet as with everything else in the AEC world, silos are dissolving and the flow of information from concept to ribbon-cutting and beyond becomes increasingly fluid. Great design cannot overcome production shortcomings. For instance, I rely upon testing, performance criteria, and specifications coming from the companies that manufacture insulation in my designs. If the manufacturer hasn’t thoroughly tested its product under a wide variety of environmental conditions, my design assumptions are just that—assumptions; nothing more. Furthermore, what good is great design if mechanical systems are under- or oversized? We’re only as good as what the manufacturers produce.
- Addressing Challenges
Which brings us to one of the main challenges we all face in BEM: Prediction vs. Performance. Like an agency pitch for a contract that features all senior executives only to give way to junior staff actually working on said contract, the finest software on the world can’t guarantee that pre-construction predictions will equal post-utilization performance. Most disconnects can/should be addressed early in the planning process. Believe me, it’s a painful discussion but one that is far better than the postmortem discussions that happen when projections fall short. Explaining to a client that their pre-engineered, 100,00- sq.-ft. building with tight budget constraints may not pass pre-occupancy testing isn’t easy, but it’s a necessary discussion. Early, open communication with clients often brings options to the table—regulatory variances, alternative building systems, material substitutions, etc.—that allow us to take constructive steps to achieve a passing grade.
We don’t operate in a static environment. Regulations change. Mechanical systems may not be properly maintained. Refurbishing older buildings can sometimes be economically unrealistic and/or regulations so strict that building additions may not be practical.
Proper testing can avoid some of these challenges. But while mechanical systems and interior environment are required to be tested ahead of occupancy, architectural elements, such as the energy envelope or Volatile Organic Compound content, cannot be. Once again, collaborative consulting is crucial to negotiating the prediction vs. performance process and it’s imperative to have a planning and testing process in place at the outset of any design process.
- Best Practices
After almost two decades in the design business, I’ve learned the importance of incorporating best practices into the process. There are three practices I particularly recommend:
- Know the Regs
- Thoroughly understand local and federal jurisdictional guidelines and communicate those requirements to your clients.
- Anticipate future regulatory changes, especially at the local level, by staying engaged with the AEC industry and policymakers who impact our profession.
- Understand your client’s standards for building energy management. When I was designing hotels for Omni, the client had extremely specific laundry energy usage requirements. Understanding those helped me to appreciably streamline the design process.
- Testing, Testing, Testing
- While technology has made design and construction increasingly scientific, there remains an artistic element to what we do. Testing helps to bridge the gap between the two and is the most pragmatic way to balance the technological with the practical. Needless to say, testing is imperative before occupancy.
- We Value Your Opinion
- We live for feedback at Prime and we solicit it at various stages of the process. As discussed above, collaboration begins at the outset of the process. Building typology varies widely – a call center for Delta is far different from a warehouse for Amazon. Early and persistent feedback helps to navigate every typology. And finally, we conduct annual client surveys and interviews to provide us with important metrics by which we measure our own success.
Designing the Future
Architecture is an increasingly important element of Prime’s growing success, and as a senior architect in our firm, I owe my allegiance to Prime, our clients, and the world in which I design. Our job demands a profound attention to detail. But I also try to bring a high-level perspective to my profession. The AEC community has an obligation to continue energy efficiency progress, something that demands a delicate balance between responsibility and opportunity. But as we embark upon any project, I try to remember an important concept in our relationship with the world around us: We can inflict damage, or we can do the most good. As architects, we’re all human. We can’t control all things, but we can control small things. And if we collectively control the small things, we ultimately work to the benefit of everyone.
How do you balance the tightropes we all walk? I welcome your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.