By Dan Rafter
It’s an amazing figure: $1 trillion.
That’s how much energy that the owners of United States office buildings, storefronts, homes, and other buildings can save during the next 10 years if the US invests $279 billion in energy retrofits.
This figure comes courtesy of Deutsche Bank and The Rockefeller Institute, which in early March released the results of a study on just how important it is for buildings, commercial and residential, to reduce the amount of energy they consume each year.
The question is whether building owners are willing to invest money in improvements that will boost the energy efficiency of their buildings. Fortunately, the answer—according to the companies that manufacture insulation, building control systems, and data loggers—is “yes.”
“We’ve been preaching a message of energy efficiency for 30 years; that hasn’t changed,” says Frank Kiesecker, senior vice president of architectural products with Denver, CO-based ACH Foam Technologies, a manufacturer of expanded polystyrene insulation. “It’s just that the market is more receptive to it. Building owners and managers are more cognizant of the fact that energy costs have gone higher. They are now more willing to pay a little bit more for a better-insulated building. They do understand that they have to pay a little more money initially, but that they will receive a payback for that investment.”
Building owners and managers today are also more aware of how much hot and cool air can slip through a building’s envelope, its external walls, windows, roof, and floor. A tighter envelope, one with fewer gaps through which air can flow, more effectively keeps cool or hot air from escaping.
This reduces the workload of these buildings’ HVAC systems. And when this happens, a building’s energy efficiency grows, while building owners see their power bills drop. Increasing the tightness of a building’s envelope—often through the use of high-quality insulation—represents a relatively low-cost way for building owners and managers to slash the amount of money they spend each year on cooling and heating their facilities.
An example of this can be found in Okemos, MI, home of Delta Dental of Michigan.
The dental insurance plan administrator recently built a new $91 million headquarters in this slice of Michigan. The project included the construction of a 90,000-square-foot office building and the expansion and renovation of an existing headquarters building onsite. That existing space grew from 160,000 square feet to 188,000 square feet as a result of the project.
The project includes, too, a new 22,500-square-foot data center at the east end of the company’s campus. Construction on this significant project began in 2008 and wrapped up in the summer of 2011.
The project earned significant praise from the US Green Building Council and the Green Building Certification Institute, earning Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification largely because the resulting headquarters space is now so energy efficient.
Delta Dental earned the high LEED rating for several reasons. Construction crews relied on recycled building materials when constructing the headquarter facilities. Bioswales and native plants surround the site, limiting the amount of stormwater runoff and providing natural thermal insulation. There’s more pond surface now, too, providing nearly 160,000 cubic feet of additional stormwater storage for the surrounding community. Delta even developed a native wildlife habitat on the site.
Many of the most significant energy-saving measures, though, can be found in the improvements that Delta Dental commissioned to its building envelope. This includes larger and tighter windows designed to maximize the amount of natural lighting that the facilities receive and higher-quality insulation designed to keep cold and hot air from escaping.
This made sense on two levels, according to officials with Delta Dental: First, it made sound business sense, with the dental-insurance administrator able to boost its bottom line by reducing its yearly energy expenses. Secondly, because efficient buildings are usually the highest-quality of office buildings, creating a “green” office space also made sense for Delta Dental’s employees.
“When we decided to move forward with this building project, we not only felt it was important to consider the effect it would have on the environment overall, but the impact it would have on our employees and the greater community as well,” said Thomas Fleszar, president and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Delta Dental of Michigan, in a written statement.
The Delta Dental project has attracted praise from the US Green Building Council.
“Buildings are a prime example of how human systems integrate with natural systems,” says Rick Fedrizzi, president, CEO and Founding Chair of the US Green Building Council. “Delta Dental of Michigan’s corporate headquarters efficiently uses our natural resources and makes an immediate, positive impact on our planet, which will tremendously benefit future generations to come.”
Sarina Gleason, Senior Public Relations Officer with Delta Dental, says that the energy improvements and the tighter building envelope of the company’s new and renovated buildings also result in a more productive workforce.
As an example, Gleason points to the increased amount of natural light that the buildings’ larger, more efficient windows let in. “The boost to the employees’ productivity is huge,” says Gleason. “When people don’t get enough sun or natural light, they tend to get depressed. They tend to get down. It’s not an inspiring environment or motivating environment when there isn’t enough natural light. The artificial fluorescent light bearing down on you just isn’t a good replacement.”
This is another benefit that companies receive from a more energy-efficient office building: Such facilities tend to be better places to work.
“In my perspective, I feel much better when the sun is shining,” says Gleason. “It makes you feel better. It’s important to make sure that your employees are feeling good, that they are motivated to do their best work. Knowing that the company is there for you and is committed to doing things to make the work environment better makes you feel good about who you are working for.”
The good news is that Delta Dental is far from alone. Owners and managers of office buildings across the country are taking steps to create tighter building envelopes, a move caused, of course, by the rising costs of energy and the tighter operating budgets under which so many businesses are operating today.
Eric Bloom, research analyst with Boulder, CO-based Pike Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides analysis of global clean technology markets, says that building owners are relying on both old and new technology to tighten their building envelopes today.
And this, he says, is good for both businesses and the environment.
“The building envelope is made up of walls, windows, and doors, mostly,” says Bloom. “Conventionally speaking, windows are the areas in which you allow the most heat transfer from inside to outside and vice versa. If your office building has a single-pane window without any insulating properties, you might as well have the window open given how much heat can escape.”
|Photo: Delta Dental
Owners and managers of office buildings across the country are taking steps to create tighter building envelopes.
|Photos: Delta Dental
Significant energy-saving measures and an improved building envelope helped Delta Dental’s headquarters earn a high LEED certification.
Because of this, it’s refreshing to see building owners move to double- and triple-paned windows to prevent as much heat from escaping their facilities, he says. Many office buildings are turning to windows that feature an insulating area of air, gas, or gel in the middle of two panes of glass. This provides for an even tighter building envelope.
Such windows, though, do come at a cost, Bloom says. They tend to be more expensive than are conventional windows.
“Not every building owner is willing to pay for high-efficiency windows,” he says.
Even more exciting is smart glass technology. Bloom describes this as a type of glass that can be programmed. Building owners can send an electrical current through the window, changing the visual and thermal properties of the window depending on weather conditions.
On hot summer days, building owners can dim their office windows so that little or no light gets through, meaning that their air-conditioning units don’t have to work as hard. On cold days, they can program the windows so that there is little tint, letting more natural light and heat into their offices. Bloom compares it to having window shades but with no moving parts.
“With this technology, you can really guarantee that the building will perform in a certain way,” he adds. “You don’t have to leave it up to individual people to put the shades down at the right time of the day.”
These products, too, can prove costly. But those building owners willing to make the up-front investment will realize a payoff if they use smart window technology properly, Bloom says.
“It’s not a cost that most building owners can take lightly,” he says. “But it is an opportunity to tighten the building envelope.”
Bloom is actually seeing a greater willingness on the part of building owners and managers to pay the higher up-front costs required to achieve long-term energy savings. A growing number of companies are taking this long-term view, especially if they plan on owning their current facilities for several years, Bloom says.
The US Green Building Council’s LEED certification program has helped spur this trend, Bloom says. Buildings with tighter envelopes tend to win higher LEED honors. And there’s a certain cachet that companies earn when they can promote that their office spaces truly are green.
“There is a perception that a LEED-certified building is a better building,” he explains. “There is currently a lot of interest in LEED and green building. If you look at the LEED requirements, a lot of the points that you can get for energy efficiency come by having a tight building envelope.”
Not all measures that boost a building’s envelope are high-tech or new. For instance, building owners still rely on high-quality insulation to keep hot or cold air from escaping through their office buildings’ walls.
Bloom says that the biggest problem with insulation is that it is sometimes not installed correctly, but old-fashioned insulation that is installed the right way will dramatically boost the energy efficiency of an office building.
For Bloom, the trend for tighter office buildings is a good one. That’s because these buildings tend to be energy hogs.
“Office buildings are definitely big culprits when it comes to energy loss,” he says. “There are other building types that are also energy intensive: labs, hospitals, restaurants. But office buildings are such a huge part of the commercial building stock. Ten to 15% of all commercial buildings are office buildings. So any change you can make to the tightness of these buildings has broad implications for boosting the energy efficiency of the country’s commercial building stock in general.”
Doug Phelps, senior manager of corporate commercial solutions for Monett, MO-based EFCO—a Pella company that manufactures efficient windows and offers, through its Commercial Business Unit, energy analysis—agrees that office buildings are important structures when it comes to energy efficiency.
Phelps also says that windows are the first place that the owners of office buildings should look when they want to tighten their building envelope.
“Windows and the space around them can represent the highest potential for air infiltration in or out of the building,” he adds.
High-efficiency windows, of course, can help solve this problem.
Another problem area? The joint between a building’s walls and roof. Phelps says that building owners can solve this problem by hiring qualified contractors to install polyurethane or other insulating sealants around these joint areas.
Building owners might be inspired to boost the efficiency of their facilities, too, by the federal government. The federal government has a goal of reducing countrywide energy use by 30% by the year 2015.
One of the best ways for building owners to help the government meet this target is by tightening their building envelopes.
“For commercial building owners, energy retrofit projects have historically focused on the inside of the building, including lighting and HVAC upgrades. These projects have delivered some good savings, but more savings are necessary to reach the longer-term goals,” says Phelps. “Deeper energy savings start by fixing the building envelope first, which in turn can lower the internal energy demands for heating, cooling, and lighting.”
He uses an interesting analogy to explain the importance of the building envelope: It’s like dropping a hybrid engine in the body of a 1957 car and expecting to get 40 miles to the gallon. The old heavy frame of that 1957 auto, along with its non-aerodynamic shape, will cause the hybrid engine to work twice as hard while still not fulfilling its full potential.
But if you start with a new lightweight frame—or, if you will, a tighter building envelope—the car will perform far better and generate much deeper savings once the new high-tech engine is installed.
The challenge for the manufacturers of building control systems, insulation, and smart windows remains the same: they must convince the owners of office buildings, who are often facing strict budget restrictions, to spend the higher up-front costs necessary to tighten their building envelope and receive long-term energy savings.
For manufacturers in this field, the key is to focus on how quickly a tighter building envelope will pay back the higher up-front costs of better insulation or windows, says Kiesecker from ACH Foam Technologies.
“The reality with our products is that because of the higher levels of energy efficiency they bring, it doesn’t really cost building owners more to use them. It pays them back,” he says.
That doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to convince owners to invest more up-front dollars. And the still-struggling national economy hasn’t helped.
In fact, the economy has changed the focus of building owners. The recession and its slow recovery has stalled many new-construction projects. This has instead left office building owners to focus on their current facilities.
The good news is that the sluggish economy has led to an increased interest among the owners of office buildings in reinsulating their facilities to provide a tighter envelope. Other owners are adding new roofs, a process that requires new thermal insulation.
“A lot of work in construction today is retrofit and refurbishment,” says Kiesecker. “The economy has taken a definite toll on the construction industry. But there is still work out there. It’s just a different type of work.”
Phelps, too, has faced the challenge of convincing owners to invest more dollars in improvements to their building envelopes.
“Today’s building owners sometimes receive mixed messages,” he says. “They understand the good savings potential of new high-efficiency lighting. But when it comes to the building envelope, they assume they will have to make large investments that don’t generate much savings.”
When facing this skepticism, Phelps says, it’s up to manufacturers to run down the list of benefits that a tighter building envelope brings. As an example, higher-efficiency insulation and windows can result in an HVAC system that doesn’t have to work as hard to cool or heat a building. This results in a system that over time requires less maintenance or repair.
A less-taxed HVAC system also brings lower monthly energy bills, a direct boost to a company’s bottom line.
One of the many challenges facing building owners and operators is indoor air quality issues such as moisture control to avoid mold and mildew problems in addition to controlling energy and maintenance costs, notes Jim Shelton, national sales manager for the Panasonic Home & Environment Company.
Advanced ventilation vans help building owners meet numerous challenges, including automatic built-in motion and humidity controls, to ensure fans operate only when needed and that they are not exhausting conditioned air unnecessarily, which can result in wasted energy cost, Shelton says.
Companies that monitor and measure energy use can prove helpful in this effort. After all, they can show the owners of office buildings just how much they are spending to heat and cool their buildings each month. And they can show them just how much they can save should they tighten their building envelopes.
Pocasset, MA-based Onset, manufacturer of HOBO data loggers, has for more than three decades been making devices that allow building owners to measure the amount of energy their facilities consume.
These products, for a low up-front cost of $200 to $500, can help owners quickly identify trouble spots in their buildings, something that might inspire them to spend the dollars necessary to tighten their building envelopes to stop the flow of lost hot or cool air.
“Everyone today is more conscious of their dollars,” says Scott Ellis, product marketing specialist with Onset. “The dollars today aren’t going as far as they used to. Building owners, or facility managers, or whoever’s job it is to look at a particular building can use data loggers to eventually save tens of thousands of dollars by identifying trouble spots in a building.”
Times have changed, adds Evan Lubofsky, director of marketing with Onset. There was a time when building managers didn’t focus as much on energy efficiency. They were more concerned about making sure that employees weren’t too hot or too cold.
That has changed as companies face tighter budgets, Lubofsky says.
“Worrying about energy efficiency may not have been part of the job title for facility and property managers in the past. At this point, in large part, it is,” says Lubofsky. “We are hearing from these people more and more that they need low-cost solutions. They have to get a handle on their buildings’ energy use so that they can make their facilities more efficient.”
For Ellis and others who work for companies that provide insulation, windows, and other products that can help owners tighten their building envelopes, the goal of a large-scale reduction in US energy consumption seems decidedly reachable.
Part of this hope stems from the longer-term view that the owners of office buildings are now adopting, Ellis says.
“We’ve largely seen owners focused on short-term monitoring of their energy usage,” he adds. “They have a problem, and they use our data loggers to find the problem. They make changes from there. But we are now also seeing owners and facility managers using loggers for long-term monitoring, to make sure that their energy consumption is staying at a certain point. A year after they take this approach—two years after that—they find that their energy costs haven’t gone up. It’s because they’ve taken that long-term approach.”
There’s a key point, though: The technology will always improve. Building owners can always install data loggers. They can upgrade to smart windows and increase their buildings’ insulation.
But until the people working inside these buildings change their habits, offices truly won’t realize their efficiency potential, Ellis says.
“There has to be a culture change,” he says. “People have to commit to turning off the lights when they’re not using a room. They have to commit to shutting down their computers at the end of the day. If that doesn’t happen, real efficiency increases won’t come.”
Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor to Distributed Energy.