When energy goes into design

Posted on Aug 1, 2011 :: Features
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Even in an uncertain economy, interest in environmentally sustainable buildings hasn’t waned — if anything, more companies are looking to maximize the benefits that green buildings can provide. Architectural and engineering firms, many of which have created the position of sustainability director, are noticing more companies willing to invest in up-front capital costs to reap long-term savings. They’re also more interested in learning how to get the most out of their efficient buildings.

Miron: Interest is high, but not all projects move forward
Theresa Lehman, director of sustainable services at Miron Construction, says in recent years the cost of “green” products and products related to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification has improved because of incentives, so it’s becoming normal for firms to incorporate sustainable features into design.

“You’re seeing more and more green products spec’ed as standard products, whether it’s a sustainable project or green project or not,” Lehman says. “That’s a change in the general marketplace. … I don’t think people are as timid about renewable energy systems — in particular photovoltaics — as they were even three years ago.”

Lehman says Miron also is starting to see more clients request designs based on total lifecycle costs rather than initial capital costs.

As LEED standards have evolved they’ve also become more market-specific, fueling a drive for sustainability in certain markets. Lately, health care has attached itself to those sustainable standards, and that makes a lot of sense since health care facilities are one of the largest consumers of energy, Lehman says. Food processing and manufacturing facilities, which are among the highest consumers of energy, also are looking at big-picture, lifecycle costs.

Recent LEED projects for Miron include Lake Mills Middle School, which achieved a platinum rating — No. 1 in the state and seventh in the world as far as green schools go, Lehman says. It wasn’t originally a LEED project, but initial plans came in well under budget, prompting the school board to pursue certification with the remaining funds.

However, while interest is high, not all clients are moving forward with their projects.
“In all of my years of construction, I have never seen more projects be planned, designed, awarded for construction and then put on hold,” Lehman says. “People are very timid right now of what the economy is doing and where the industry is going; they get all the way to actually loading the gun, they just don’t pull the trigger.”

But a positive effect — and Lehman has seen this happen industry-wide, across all markets — is that more businesses are interested in making what they do have run more efficiently.
“Everybody knows you can design and construct a building to be as energy efficient as you want, but if you don’t teach the building occupants how to be sustainable, the efficiencies of the building aren’t going to matter,” Lehman says.

It can be as simple as teaching people to turn the lights off and unplug appliances. Miron, for example, used to provide complimentary bottled water to its employees, but the company began to notice bottles collecting everywhere — a sign of waste. So the company instead began providing glasses and water stations that kill germs with UV rays. In 2008, the company had purchased 788 cases of water. In 2009, the company dropped to 96 cases; in 2010 it bought 21 cases and finally this year hasn’t bought any. Lehman says if the company had kept up the same rate as in 2008 it would’ve spent $21,000 on water in two and a half years. Another example is switching to direct deposit – it saves the company more than $50,000 on printing and other costs such as mailing, not to mention paper waste.

SEH: Rethinking waste, in general

Short Elliot Hendrickson is also making similar changes internally, says Andrew Dane, community development and sustainability specialist at SEH. The company has just adopted its first corporate sustainability plan that it will implement at all 26 of its offices, using 19 indicators from the Global Reporting Initiative. The company also has developed another five indicators of sustainability, Dane says.

Smaller and mid-size companies are now paying more attention to sustainability than several years ago, perhaps fueled by the economic downturn, Dane says. “It seems to me that one of the things that companies do in a recession is look at ways to become more efficient. And I think that dovetails nicely with a lot of companies’ sustainability strategies.”

He says one of the newer trends and something we’ll continue to see in the future is more discussion toward mitigating big-impact problems such as climate change, draining aquifers and the loss of biodiversity.

“It’s exciting to have these opportunities because clearly we’re going to play a big role in helping shape what those systems are going to look like,” Dane says.

One of SEH’s projects, the Underwood Creek Rehabilitation Project in Milwaukee, was an example of this effort. The project took a section of concrete-lined stormwater conveyance and restored it into a meandering stream for aquatic and wildlife habitat. The project was challenging in that it needed to incorporate vegetation, hydrogeology features and flood protection. It ultimately won awards for its design, Dane says.

“The next logical step is to look beyond the building and to how the buildings relate to each other,” Dane says, “how we can create synergies between buildings … and really start to rethink waste in general.”

Hoffman: Sustainability a priority for two-thirds of clients

Mark Hanson, director of Sustainable Services for Hoffman, LLC says firms like theirs must be prepared to offer sustainable features to clients or they may not even be at the table when it’s time to discuss the projects. So Hoffman in Appleton tries to incorporate sustainability into all its projects. Most owners appreciate, at least, saving costs in the long run, and more are demanding sustainable buildings, he adds.

Hanson says in this economy firms are looking to trim costs so they’re looking more at performance, such as how much energy and water they’re using. That may mean making adjustments in how they’re operating the building — turning heating and cooling systems on just before workers arrive and turning them off just after they leave for the day, for example.
“You may find your building has everything you need to run efficiently, and you’re not — or you’re not as efficient as you could be,” Hanson says. “If one has a commitment to the environment, you don’t want to use more energy than you need to. You pay for it, but you also create pollution.”
The firm is increasingly focused on “evidence-based design,” where it examines what features have worked best in previous projects and incorporates them into new projects, Hanson says.

Examples of recent sustainable building projects by Hoffman include River Crest Elementary School in Hudson and Northland Pines High School in Eagle River, both of which received gold LEED certification. It also completed a project for Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton, which was built at a cost comparable to a standard, non-green building ($246 per square foot) and it is the highest-rated building in the state for the 2.2 version of LEED.

Ten years ago, maybe a third of clients were interested in sustainable features, Hanson says. Now at least two-thirds of clients consider sustainability one of their main priorities. And it’s not just because of the economy.

“My sense is it’s coming from a broadening commitment and understanding to the impact our activity has on the environment,” Hanson says.