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Stuart Reeve learned from experience: Proactive involvement and careful oversight are the keys to beating energy codes in new construction.
Reeve, energy manager for Colorado’s Poudre School District, has been studying ways to go beyond energy codes since 1999.
“We knew what didn’t work,” he says. “A school designed just to code is the worst building you can legally build.”
Reeve, who oversees four million square feet across 45 schools, had just completed a massive nine-year building project when voters in Fort Collins, Colo., passed a $175 million proposal for more new schools in 2000. With those new schools came a new philosophy: sustainability.
“Facility executives need to establish clear requirements if they want energy efficiency,” says Jean Lupinacci, head of ENERGY STAR’s Commercial and Industrial Branch. “They need to set energy design targets early so people know what they’re shooting for. And they need to communicate performance requirements in a way that can be measured once the building is complete.”
And that’s where the Poudre School District began its project. The district created a “green team” to research new products, solutions and strategies and create sustainable design guidelines for the next round of building projects.
“LEED was new then. We challenged our team to do things differently, to move away from traditional site design,” says Reeve.
For facility executives planning to build green, the first step is to establish priorities, says James Currie, an engineer with McCracken & Lopez who specializes in LEED. What are the issues in terms of comfort and energy efficiency? What’s the construction timetable?
The Poudre team embraced this directive and developed educational and technical specifications — the nuts and bolts of educational wants and needs — then set out to hire an architect and design team to execute the ideas.
“We didn’t only interview architecture firms, but the entire team, from lighting designers to landscapers,” Reeve says. “We asked questions such as ‘How are you going to build a team to work collaboratively for us?’ Interviewing the architect and the design team to see how well they work together is important. The architect might be great, but the team member might not be.”
Practical experience is a key to goal setting. “The facility executive has to understand the goal,” Currie says. “If the facility executive doesn’t know what to look for, a consultant who’s knowledgeable and experienced can walk them through the process.”
It’s important for a facility executive to take a critical look at the experience architects have. “Ask for examples of previous high performance projects,” says Lupinacci. “It’s not enough for a designer to produce a list of all the high profile projects and say that they’re supposed to be 50 percent better than code. Have the design team show examples where they’ve validated performance.”
Facility executives should also be leery of projects that are sold as being green yet aren’t very energy efficient. “A lot of green ratings allow trading off attributes,” says Lupinacci. “You can get a green certification without doing the energy efficiency. A green building at its core should be a top energy-performing building.”
No matter how well a building is designed, the contractor must construct the building correctly for the design to work. The challenge is that many Energy Star projects require atypical systems. A contractor that isn’t paying attention may accept bids for products that don’t meet the specifications, Currie says.
With that in mind, the Poudre team also utilized the commissioning process. An independent consultant ensured that guidelines were implemented and constructed as intended.
“The consultant works directly for us, the school district, to make sure everything is installed correctly,” Reeve says. “It takes the heat off our staff. Commissioning is a prerequisite in LEED.”
The team didn’t stop there. The group worked with numerous outside agencies, such as utilities and energy suppliers, to find innovative ways to beat energy codes. The team also drew on resources such as Energy Star, the State of Colorado’s Energy Conservation Management Program and the U.S. Department of Energy’s national labs.
“We were listening to experts,” Reeve says. “There are some great resources on a national level. They provided specific direction to the design team with energy targets.”
The broad aim of Poudre’s first building under the sustainability philosophy was to construct an air-conditioned facility that could equal the energy performance of a building that wasn’t air-conditioned. From there, the team established lofty targets in electrical, natural gas and water use.
“Performance goals are huge,” Reeve says.
The team focused on areas such as irrigation, lighting levels and natural light and looked at ways to reduce the size of the HVAC system and control hot water consumption.
Specifics are critical. “One of the better practices would be to consider ways to define energy efficiency beyond, ‘Let’s beat the energy code,’” Lupinacci says. “Fifty percent better doesn’t necessarily mean energy efficient.”
For example, if a building requires 500 tons of cooling during the hottest days of summer, that need can be met in a variety of ways. Instead of installing one energy efficient 500-ton chiller, the facility executive could put in a smaller system that meets the average daily need, then install a second chiller to meet peak demand.
“Be smart about design,” Lupinacci says. “Often people are surprised that energy efficiency is not always about the latest and greatest technologies. It’s about integration. You can get a building that uses a low amount of energy with standard technology, just by looking at insulation, orientation, lighting design, control systems and HVAC size.”
Again, ask questions, Currie says. “When evaluating equipment, it’s important to understand that different technologies apply to different situations. For example, new technology for HVAC might work well in one climate, but not in another. It still may have the potential to save energy, but the complexity might make it more difficult.”
The Poudre team understood this and turned to energy modeling to ensure that its lofty targets were realistic. “Modeling gave us some level of comfort on design decisions,” Reeve says.
While most are impressed with Poudre’s innovations and accomplishments, Reeve’s colleagues grill him about another shade of green: money.
As with any building project, the budget is “always in the middle of the table,” Reeve says. “You have to look at ways to make the budget work. The number one question we get asked is ‘Do these buildings cost more money?’”
Reeve is confident when he answers that question, “Energy-efficient buildings don’t have to cost more.”
While it’s easy to get caught up in initial costs, long-term maintenance and life-cycle costs should be front and center. High-performance design generally does mean more time for meetings and design, Currie says. This extra time may translate to 1 to 2 percent more in design costs, but those costs should be recouped in construction and later in operating costs.
It’s the operating costs that facility executives will have to deal with for the next 50 years. And it’s in operating costs that Poudre has seen the real difference between the new generation of schools and buildings constructed the old way.
Two high schools, one built in 1995, the other completed in 2004, offer a striking contrast. The older building, Fort Collins High School, was built to ASHRAE 90.1 1999. The new facility, Fossil Ridge High School, was designed for efficiency and spends dramatically less on energy: Its costs for natural gas and electricity are 39 percent less than its cross-town rival. That has added up to more than $235,000 in savings since the new school opened in fall of 2004. “These are educational dollars that can go back into the classroom,” says Reeve. (See sidebar.)
Operations raises questions beyond costs. Will all maintenance be conducted by in-house staff or will it be outsourced? Do new systems require training? Will there be service contacts? Often times service contracts call for more maintenance. The upside is that the systems tend to run at peak efficiency with more maintenance.
“The whole design team can put in some pretty innovative systems, but they still have to ask, ‘What are long-term maintenance impacts?’” says Reeve. “You have to think about energy efficiency and life-cycle costing to wrap your arms around a building that is truly high performance and manageable for the district in the long term. Spend more on design up front, and then reap the benefits.”
Still, after the building opens, the job’s not finished. Energy modeling isn’t a performance guarantee.
“Things change,” Lupinacci says. “The only way to be energy efficient is to establish a target for energy use and verify that the building has hit that target.”
That’s exactly what Poudre did. Each of the new schools is individually metered, and actual energy use is tracked against the energy model for that project.
After each project Reeve and the team conduct a post-project review to determine what worked and what didn’t. “We constantly go back and look at the design. We continue to refine our process,” he says. “The first couple of projects, we were wondering if we could achieve these goals.”
And they did. The result was Zach Elementary School, which opened in 2002. It was Colorado’s first high-performance sustainable school. Bacon Elementary School followed in 2003, Fossil Ridge High School, a LEED-certified school opened in 2004 and Kenard Junior High School was completed in 2006. And there are two more elementary schools yet to build.
“We learned from one to another,” Reeve says. “We don’t design and stop. We design and learn.”
Energy Star Tools Help Set Efficiency Goals
The Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR program provides many online tools to help establish realistic objectives.
Go to ENERGY STAR and click on “Buildings and Plants” to find these and other resources.
— Lynn Proctor Windle, contributing editor
Lynn Proctor Windle, a contributing editor for Building Operating Management, is a freelance writer who has written extensively about real estate.