May 2008

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Creating a Sustainable Building Industry Future
Our industry needs to show in the new buildings we construct that achieving ultra-efficient building operation need not be a convoluted, expensive, or hit-and-miss process.


Thomas Hartman, P E
The Hartman Company

Contributing Editor

In February, provided a link to a position paper I have been developing with the help of many industry colleagues on approaches that might bring our industry closer to the sustainable future many of us believe is an imperative.  Accompanying this link was an interview about the reasons this position paper is being developed. If you have not read the paper or the interview, I urge you to follow the links here and do so.

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One of the reasons for developing this position paper is that I am certain the public is well ahead of our industry on the issue of sustainability and our industry needs desperately to catch up. But while sustainability initiatives we have seen in the last year seem to have captured some of this growing public enthusiasm, rather than directing it effectively to really improve the energy performance and sustainability of new and existing buildings, these initiatives, because they are not well thought out, have largely been funnelled into predictable old approaches and processes that don’t stand a chance of achieving the magnitude of change required. If the industry cannot find a path to more successful initiatives soon, the proliferation of ill conceived measures is likely to diffuse the current public enthusiasm and play into the hands of those whose self interest is to avoid or delay the switch to sustainable buildings.

Meanwhile, the building industry is in an energy efficiency quagmire. Typical buildings constructed today too often require more than double the energy that would be necessary if design among disciplines were better coordinated and newer energy conversion and control technologies were employed. Design and construction processes are horribly inefficient and building operators are too often cut off from design intent so they often end up redesigning operations on their own just to make buildings work. Current discussions within the industry aimed at improved processes and approaches for the design and construction technologies and practices are a positive step, but only a small first step toward a solution. Wide scale implementation of any new approaches will be many years away unless some method of encouraging or enforcing change is implemented as a matter of public policy.

As outlined in my position paper, I believe the solution is for public policy to require a minimum level of monthly energy performance for every building based on building size, type, age and location. I’d like to see utilities working to create the type of database and energy reporting formats for each customer so that such performance can be easily determined each month. This approach is now being tested in limited areas

To support this vision of a much more sustainable future, our industry needs to work toward developing realistic weather and occupancy based standards for building energy performance along with the metrics to give building owners the tools they need to pinpoint efficiency improvements required when such performance standard is not met. And – and this is most important of all – our industry needs to show in the new buildings we construct that achieving ultra-efficient building operation need not be a convoluted, expensive, or hit-and-miss process. To do this we must significantly change the way the building design and construction processes are conducted.

Many years ago, when the processes we now apply to the design and construction of buildings were first being developed it was believed that if elements of the design and product specifications were sufficiently precise, the end product would have to meet design expectations. Whether or not that was ever the case may be an issue of debate, but as the industry exists and operates today it is certainly not true. While some of the “bricks and mortar” elements of buildings continue to be well served by the traditional detailed design/specification approach, most of the energy systems engineers work with do not. The problem is threefold. First, when specifications are too detailed, they tend to limit product competition and that too often results in elevated costs which encourages product substitution or value engineering processes that can compromise design intent. Second, because building comfort system products are very complex these days, it is almost impossible to keep generic specifications of critical equipment characteristics up to date.   

But the most important shortcoming of relying on a set of detailed design drawings and specifications for the design of a system is that it is almost always impossible to ensure the designed levels of building energy and comfort performance will be attained through such a process. Today’s building systems are too complex and too rapidly evolving to achieve a high level of performance simply by detailing precisely what each piece of equipment shall be and how is shall interact with the others. To the contrary, as the complexity of equipment – and the applications for which it is selected – increases, attempts to prescribe exactly how the equipment needs to optimally interact or be controlled often results in an increase in start up and operational problems. The fact is, because of the increasing system complexity, sound technical judgment is required more than ever to make systems operate optimally and effectively. And the application of sound technical judgment is not an element of the current approach to building system design specifications.

The answer to the problems created with the ever increasing complexity of today’s building systems is not to throw away the concept of detailed design drawings and specifications, but rather to place them differently in the design and construction process and to reorganize how each of these processes is conducted. In the design process, the focus needs to be changed from the specifics of equipment to the specifics of performance requirements. In the short term, this focus should be primarily aimed at comfort, energy and reliability performance of the building systems for most building projects. In this approach, the design stage employs somewhat less specific layouts and equipment specifications, but adds a new element that I call a performance specification section. Then throughout the procurement and construction process, the contracting team is responsible to provide the detailed product and equipment specifications for review with which the contracting team can ensure the project performance goals will be achieved. At this point in the process, the contractor is selecting specific equipment so the need to develop equipment specification around multiple suppliers is no longer necessary, and because the specifications are product specific they come directly from the manufacturer in a standard format that ensures they are completely up to date.

Changing the flow of the design and construction processes in building projects and revising the role of product and equipment specifications will not be an easy task, but it is an essential element to succeed in transforming our industry to one that meets the needs of society for a much more sustainable one. Working toward such change should be a cornerstone for industry activities toward sustainable building design today!


The S4 Group
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