High-Performance Building Design Could Change the World

Sept. 25, 2008
If every building in the United States was adapted with high-performance design components, the country would be less dependent on foreign oil. Keith Lesser, partner at Fair Lawn, NJ-based Ives, Schier & Lesser Architecture, is actively involved in sustainable architectural design technologies, and he answers the following questions on what green architecture means for the commercial real estate industry.

Q. Can you elaborate on how high-performance design can lessen the United States' foreign oil dependency?
Lesser: With all the focus on improving energy efficiencies in automobiles and manufacturing, the tremendous cost and environmental impact associated with heating, cooling, and lighting commercial and residential structures is often overlooked. Yet, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, this country's buildings account for 39 percent of all energy consumption, 68 percent of all electrical consumption, 30 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions, 30 percent of raw material usage, and 30 percent of all waste. The time has come to change that.

Q. What is the current industry response to the push for green buildings?
It appears that the commercial real estate industry and public sector are jumping on board. Almost all new public RFPs we receive, as well as a growing number of our private-sector projects, have green components.

Q. What, exactly, is high-performance design?
It's important to note at the outset that a property does not have to be LEED certified to be a high-performance building. Many owners and developers are deterred by the costs associated with the LEED process. The term "high performance" refers to designing a building above the minimum criteria of the energy code. In essence, the incorporation of responsible technologies results in lower heating and cooling costs, and less energy consumption.

Q. What are some examples of the components of high-performance design?
Some of these projects feature high-efficiency HVAC systems and controls, and a highly insulated building envelope - including windows, walls, and roof - within a standard building format.

Lighting represents another major component in high-performance design. Daylight sensors can shut window-proximate light fixtures off on sunny days and turn them on in overcast or rainy weather. Similarly, motion sensors in restrooms automatically turn lights off when bathrooms are unoccupied. Both measures significantly reduce a building's draw on the power grid. Additionally, less lighting also produces less heat, which lowers cooling requirements and the associated costs.

Q. When it comes to incorporating high-performance design elements, is there a major difference between new construction and renovation projects?
Every building is unique. Part of an architect's role is to analyze each property on its own merits and construction methods before developing a plan to phase in energy-efficient options and systems.

New construction projects allow the designer to start from the inside out. This enables the consideration of basic climatic design - like solar orientation to provide the best sun exposure for winter heat gain and the best shading for summer cooling. It is obviously more challenging to renovate an occupied building for energy efficiency; however, it's being done in increasing numbers.

Q. What are some of the ways that high-performance elements can be incorporated into an existing building?
Roof replacement - which has little impact on building occupants - is a great time to add more insulation. It's also easy to re-clad a building and improve its "tightness" without disturbing tenants. Shading elements can be installed over windows to lessen the heat impact of the summer sun. While replacing mechanical equipment is generally more invasive, with the right plan, it can be done successfully as well.

Q. What role does green architecture play in attracting tenants to a property?
Lesser: Energy surcharges that used to be $1.25 to $1.50 per square foot at a traditional office building are now approaching $2 per square foot and more, and are projected to increase by 15 percent per year. Over the course of a 10-year lease, this is a big-ticket item. Because energy costs will continue to rise, the bottom-line solution to lowering bills is to use less of it. Buildings that employ high-performance design components not only are more environmentally friendly, but also are among the best positioned to attract and retain tenants.

Q. What is the next step for high-performance design?
New green technologies, materials, and products are constantly hitting the market to accommodate increasing demand. This industry will continue to evolve as energy audits and energy-efficient retrofits become an even higher priority for businesses. Ideally, the visibly increased efforts by developers and property owners to make their buildings more energy efficient will eventually be supported at some level by law makers with tax incentives for high-performance installations. This could create a huge number of jobs for the development and manufacture of high-efficiency products. In turn, this would provide a much-needed economic boost while helping to lower this country's energy consumption and dependency.

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