Get Passive, Go Green

June 21, 2010

Use low-cost, passive building solutions (instead of technology) to green your buildings

Post-war America was responsible for many social and behavioral trends that affect us today, not the least of which was the advent of labor-saving devices to increase our leisure time. Although the concept originated in the industrial revolution, our view of technology shifted after the 1940s. We came to rely on technology – driven by fossil fuels – to make life simpler and provide solutions to every challenge we face.

Our daily life changed. Cars replaced biking and walking; drive up windows brought fast food an arm’s length away; and people’s evenings were taken over by the sedentary entertainment of TV and video games. Facilities followed the trend. Airtight buildings, air conditioning, and artificial lighting created synthetic atmospheres that cater to our environmental needs. Technology has many beneficial applications, but the byproducts of some technologies are taking their toll: obesity is now a problem of national concern, sick building syndrome has created human health hazards, and our dependence on fossil fuels has led to global climate change.

Balanced Equation
We need a new lens. Although technology is an important part of green building, we can’t look blindly to it for every solution. People need to be brought back into the equation to fix the problems we’ve created instead of looking to new technology to free us. In terms of buildings, a less-automated scenario that incorporates passive strategies and activates people can provide a boost to human health, social engagement, and the environment. Passive solutions are low-energy solutions. Indigenous architecture and historic buildings offer great lessons on sustainable strategies that we can integrate into new construction, but there are many things you can do in an existing facility too.

Get to Know Your Building
Find out how your facility is performing in terms of energy use with a building audit and Energy Star benchmarking. Once you know the profile of your energy use, you can look for measures that will have the greatest impact. Walk around and through your building with the lens of passive solutions to better understand how it operates and what potential exists. Is it hermetically sealed? What types of glazing, lighting controls, and shading devices exist? Is there a way to provide more passive approaches? Do occupants have control over their environment, or are they restricted to a prescribed indoor environment?

Work Together
Educate your building occupants on the what, why, and how of your sustainability effort toward including more passive strategies. Open a dialog to incite creativity and participation. Tell occupants what’s working and what’s not and ask for their suggestions. Create a system to receive feedback and develop strategies for how you will work together to implement feasible options. Everyone in the building should be an integral part of the discussion in order to become aware and engaged in the day-to-day activities that make passive components work.

For example, the offices in the four-story mixed-use Burnside Rocket building in Portland, OR incorporate operable windows for ventilation and exterior wooden rolling shades to control daylight. Throughout the day, occupants adjust the position of the artistically painted wooden panels to block excessive heat and glare from sunlight. In our offices, people also take responsibility for their environment. We don’t have daylight controls, but we have agreed to turn off the overhead lighting when the sun is shining to reduce energy consumption.

Degrees of Change
Once you have compiled a list of suggestions, prioritize your opportunities and measures. Some ideas are relatively inexpensive to employ. Change the thermal comfort range and add ceiling fans that occupants can control to create air convection. Consider adding lighting and/or HVAC controls that occupants can operate. A warm body radiates its heat to a cold surface like glass and absorbs the heat from a hot surface. Installing interior shades (see-through mesh shades maintain views to the outside) provides a thermal barrier between the glass surface and occupants to keep people warmer in winter and cooler in summer - or plant trees on the south and west side for natural shade.

More significant passive strategies can be incorporated as part of a renovation. If you are undertaking a glazing retrofit, that’s the time to install operable windows or exterior shading devices. Look at a passive cooling strategy with night flushing. Combine operable windows or louvers at appropriate locations around the building to provide ventilation across the building or stack ventilation through an atrium. Engage building occupants in the operation of these devices and explore how they can be most effective. This strategy allows you to cool your building with outside air for free, and you can add fans to assist ventilation for a very low cost.

Use passive features to become part of the larger solution to human needs. Make the stairwell a user friendly experience through better lighting, painting, signage, and keyless entry to promote physical activity. Provide bicycle parking onsite to encourage alternative transportation. Offer occupants an onsite fitness center so they aren’t driving to their workout. If feasible, have occupants bring in reusable items like cups, dishes and silverware and give them a place to clean and store these items. Create a shared kitchen for multiple tenants to foster social engagement and networking. Provide amenities like a roof garden, (one building owner created a putting green for tenants), outdoor areas of respite with opportunities for walking, hiking, Tai Chi or yoga to enhance connections to nature and improve well being. Install a reader board where you can post educational pieces, sustainability resources, and transportation options (such as carpooling).

This article covers only a few opportunities available for existing facilities. One of the best ways to generate ideas specific to your facility is to pull together a green team. Sponsor lunches or after hours events to show the green team that the building owner and manager support their efforts. The combination of passive buildings and active people can tip the scale, changing sustainability from simply “the right thing to do” into an engaging and preferable way of living.

Ralph DiNola, Associate AIA, LEED AP BD+C, LEED Faculty, is a principal at Green Building Services Inc. 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 [email protected].

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