Prepare Your Building to Evolve

10/21/2011 | By Ralph DiNola,Associate AIA, LEED AP BD+C, LEED Faculty

Whether you believe we are facing an environmental crisis, are concerned about the coming wave of building code changes, or face building performance disclosure regulations, understanding how your building performs and having a plan for its evolution can alleviate the risk associated with uncertainty and help ease your mind.   

The gap between where your building is now and where it will need to be in the future as new high-performance buildings enter the market is potentially huge. As a building owner or facility manager, you may  feel like making substantial change in the current economic climate is beyond reach. But you can adopt a strategy that makes your building future ready, which will reduce uncertainty and sow the seeds  for long-term financial and ecological benefits.

Where You Are

Start by benchmarking your facility to understand how your building currently performs. Evaluate energy, water, and the major inputs and outputs of your building. Do you really understand the breakdown of energy needs for your building? How much energy does your lighting use?  What about equipment and plug loads?  Examine your water consumption and determine which systems require the most potable water. A building audit and comprehensive sustainability assessment will give you the information you need to understand where you are. Once you have a clear understanding of your current performance,  you’re ready to think big.

Where You Want to Go

Next, create a really compelling vision for the future of your building. What’s your desired future state? Be bold and have fun – this is your opportunity to get creative.  Could your building be net zero in terms of energy?  Could your building someday achieve Living Building status? Could it be regenerative or give back to the community? Could it actually contribute positively to the environment?

It can be difficult to step out of the day-to-day management role and view your facility with new eyes, so consider engaging a facilitator to conduct an eco-charrette or visioning exercise. An outside perspective can hone in on the full potential of your building, bring new ideas about technology to the mix, and help spur you toward a more ambitious approach with your building’s performance.

In the future, could your building integrate:

  • Renewable energy systems
  • An advanced HVAC system
  • Daylighting
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • A green roof or green wall
  • Exterior shading devices
  • A more flexible space plan
  • A building automation system that can provide the level of control and visible building performance metrics needed to engage the occupants?

Getting from Here to There

Once your vision and strategies are in place, you need to evaluate where your facility is today compared to where you want to go. Dissect your energy picture. If your heating and cooling system has the largest energy impact, how much of that is due to the building envelope? If lighting is the major issue, what changes will be necessary to achieve your vision? Create an outline that plans out each component. 

Don’t worry about the feasibility of the plan at this stage, just focus on the necessary steps.  Envision future building system changes and consider program flexibility. A building must be adaptable in order to remain viable over its life cycle, which requires you to assess the layout, structural system, floor-to-floor height, capacity, and building materials. Anticipating green technology most appropriate to your building is key, and this is another area where an outside expert can offer advice.

For example, a charrette for the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado’s Alliance Center in Denver identified strategies to retrofit the existing building toward net-zero energy. The charrette participants envisioned the building in the future and breakout groups brainstormed cutting-edge technologies like the development of a block-wide geothermal system, cogeneration systems, biomass gasification and sewer pipe heating/cooling as part of an eco-district. 

For building interiors, they considered a more open and accessible space plan to provide a significant increase in leasable square footage, and a daylighting system integrated with a demonstration of advanced LED lighting.

In the end, the financial practicality of improved natural ventilation and evaporative cooling to offset a large percentage of the HVAC load was considered a likely approach to push the project toward its net-zero goal. But aiming high and contemplating all options was an important part of the visioning process.

The key to creating an extremely green building is to explore what’s possible now and design the building to evolve as resources allow.

Capital expenditures track with the durability cycles of building components. For example, a building envelope is a 50- to 100-year commitment, your HVAC system may have a 20-year lifespan and your lighting system might be closer to five to ten years. What upgrades and retrofits are already planned? If you know you will need to replace the roof in three years, can you build in the structural components to meet one of your vision items?

In one project, a community college project in the Pacific Northwest wanted a rainwater harvesting system but couldn’t afford the cistern, pumps and filters. They created the basement space necessary for a future cistern and put in additional piping to make rainwater harvesting possible.

Having a future-ready plan in place will more effectively guide you efforts as you go through renovation cycles. Can you add the conduits, plumbing and chase ways for flexibility to accommodate future ducts or electrical wiring that will get you closer to the project’s next phase?

Scale Jumping

Thinking about your facility as a whole building is only one facet of being prepared for the future. Look around your building as well. Future-ready buildings might actually be eco-district-ready buildings.

Are opportunities for smaller-scale wastewater treatment systems or management areas on the horizon for your region? The Portland, Oregon eco-district initiative and Denver Living City Block effort have building owners talking to each other about ways to drive efficiency through shared systems.  Some things may be adaptable and others will be incompatible with the coming changes.

For example, you may need a water-based chiller and boiler rather than a variable refrigerant flow HVAC system to take advantage of the district energy. If you’re anticipating that there will be district systems available, this knowledge will not only influence which improvements you choose but also when you install them. Think outside your box. You may even want to create additional capacity to help generate energy for the district, rather than simply draw from it. Get involved and find out what opportunities await.

If you can do only one thing next year to draw you closer to your vision, do it. Every change you make now will add up to better environmental practices and long-term cost savings.

Ralph DiNola, Associate AIA, LEED AP BD+C, LEED Faculty, is a principal at Green Building Services Inc., one of the most comprehensive sustainability consulting firms in the nation. He provides environmental leadership and practical applications for green building projects in the United States and around the world. Ralph can be reached at 866-743-4277 or ralph@greenbuildingservices.com.



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