Friday, May 6, 2011

The Promise of Deep Energy Retrofits

As an architect and designer I'm very interested in cultivating my knowledge of choices or strategies I can call upon in projects of various scales and types.  As we are collectively aging in place so are our commercial buildings, our schools, homes and service buildings.  In 2011 we face yet another spiking and upward trending in energy costs which increasingly drive up the operational costs of our buildings.  We look at our building energy bills each month, how much we're spending at the gas pumps and utter gasps of disbelief.

As the cost of gas goes up so to does Milk and on and on.

Those of you who run aging office building, schools, apartment buildings, college campuses, technology parks and manufacturing facilities with high energy costs and a longer view likely wonder how you're going to afford next year's fuel costs. Do you pass on the higher operating costs to customers? Or absorb these costs and seek to balance it elsewhere?

Will you defer yet again routine maintenance, any kind of capital building projects, or cut salaries or defer raises to staff to loosen up funds to pay for future unpredictable energy costs?  Well, you've likely already have been doing that with diminishing returns each time.

Many of you may not have the choice to look for a new building site in your community and build a much better more predictably performing building to insulate your business from escalating energy costs over the long term.  So what really are your options when really you only have one, live with your existing building and make the best of it.  Can that be good enough?  Seems like a sinking ship doesn't it?  

How long can you pass on those costs in the form of higher rents to your tenants until they decide to leave?  Or conversely, how can you attract and retain them when they ask you what your energy bills are, their eyes glaze over and they leave quickly?  What if you could cut your energy use by at least 50% or beyond 75%?  How would this effect your business planning, pricing and overall success of your business?  Now you could actually focus on what you do best, run your business and operations focusing on your business and planning goals not finding ways month to month to stem unpredictably changing energy costs.

Over the last few years the concept of Deep Energy Retrofits (DER) have stirred up media attention and grabbed headlines.  While deep energy retrofits defy definition they represent a promising way of redeveloping existing building infrastructure we can all benefit from learning more about.  

While the experts have differing opinions on definitions, generally they involve the substantial re-use and renovation of an existing building shell with significant investments in high levels of insulation or super-insulation, very efficient heating and cooling systems, higher performing windows and energy efficient lighting with controls.   The energy savings can run from 50% to over 75% over typical bad or baseline comparative buildings, the so-called "base case" code compliant building.  

Deep energy retrofits do something really special and low-impact environmentally.  Instead of building a new building you reuse in place an existing structure substantially reducing the project's global warming potential and cost picture in general.  A large cost center for any construction project is its structure, frame,  prep and final site work and central energy plant.   By not building the hard stuff there is cost avoidance and impacts elsewhere.  Some easy to measure some not so easy.  

Yes it is more complex to renovate often times requiring working with tenants and building occupants who remain in place during construction but ultimately I think it requires less resources and  money and by not building new outside of city centers and neighborhoods it helps keep communities together.

You may have read about the US Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ) system and wonder how it relates to Deep Energy Retrofits.  Well it does and it doesn't.  In the case of existing buildings (EB) , it can be very helpful as a tool to help guide the process and get everyone on the team on board sharing common goals along with the accountability which comes with meeting its requirements on down from the owner, design team, contractor and sub-contractor.  Plus, many municipalities, state governments and the federal government require following it to at least some level of certification.  Whether or not you go through with the LEED system, its very helpful to use the LEED checklists in the design process to structure thinking about the integrated design strategies and best practices to follow in your your project.  

But there is a bigger conversation.

It's about the values of your project and how you ensure energy cost predictability for your operations and ultimately the sustainability of your business model or enterprise.  This is where the Deep Energy Retrofit concept comes in handy for your existing building stock.  By spending a bit more now and thinking of your construction costs today as investments in a better more stable tomorrow you can transform the conversation away from first costs trumping everything else, kicking the "ball" down the field for the next generation to deal with.

Imagine telling your board of directors you only have to fund raise today for the building and its systems when its operational costs are slated to be really low in the future.  Fundraising for ongoing operations might become a thing of the past and instead can be refocused on supporting your key organizational missions, salaries and other benefits.  Perhaps this is overly simplistic but I enjoy thinking about this aspect.  Who wants to raise money year after year to pay for escalating fuel costs and mistaken short-sightedness in not going ahead with a high performing building while saving money today?

In the coming weeks, I'll be writing about some exciting Deep Energy Retrofit projects and initiatives I've been learning about putting these concepts into action.  It's critical we expand our thinking and strategies to fight global warming increasingly lack of cohesion in our existing communities.  Building new isn't always the answer.  Renewing and rebuilding certainly can be a vital part of it though.

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