July 2007

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Are Industry Groups The Solution or the Problem?

Thomas Hartman, P E
The Hartman Company

Contributing Editor

In the year that has passed since ASHRAE announced its sustainable building design initiative, some big changes have occurred, just not where I would have expected. From a sustainable building perspective, the most encouraging and important change has been the overwhelming acceptance by the public that climate change due to human generated greenhouse gasses is an issue that requires immediate attention and correction. But in our twenty-first century society, people do not want a lot of hand wringing and guilt trips about wasteful lifestyles. What people want today are straightforward solutions so they can get on with their lives without seriously degrading the environment. The problem is that I donít see our industry positioning itself to provide this desired ďpackagedĒ approach to sustainability. And thatís whatís needed because there isnít enough time or money to educate and fund every individual to become responsible for his or her own carbon footprint. Such an individual based approach is unworkable; itís tantamount to doing nothing and that is where we as an industry seem to be.  As the writer and columnist Thomas Friedman recently said, ďClimate change is not a hoax. The hoax is that we are really doing something about it.Ē

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The more I attend industry meetings and forums ostensibly aimed at moving us to become a sustainable industry, the more I believe Mr. Friedman is right. Our industry and its organizations seem to be fixated on the one-on-one approach. Every building, every designer; every person will be individually responsible for solving this global problem. This approach is doomed to failure, and it begs the question; are industry organizations that promote it contributing at all to solving the problem, or are their activities really just creating an illusion that something significant is being done when it is not?

Those of us in this industry know that straightforward paths to a carbon neutral society are not easy to come by. But it would seem that we could and most certainly should jumpstart the process right now by implementing a revolutionary new focus on energy efficiency in our building projects and systems. Those active in building energy conversion system efficiency issues know that it is not difficult to construct buildings that operate with significantly lower energy use than is typical of buildings today. But current designs and processes in use cannot achieve that goal. Whenever I have the chance, I like to talk with my colleagues about how relatively easy it is to build or upgrade buildings with systems that are orders of magnitude more efficient than those being constructed and in use today. If we replace the outdated concept of conditioning entire buildings with the concept of focusing environmental conditioning on the occupants themselves, and if we develop new technology systems that provide comfort and environmental quality to those occupants whenever and wherever they are in the building on a real-time basis, we can easily reduce building energy use by more than half below what is required today Ė while keeping occupants far more comfortable than they are now. And if we include a robust network that connects these buildings to a larger communication network integrated with the utilities serving the area, we can easily extend our existing energy distribution system to accommodate thirty to fifty years or more of unfettered growth and at the same time reduce energy use and the generation of greenhouse gasses. When I discuss this with colleagues, and explain how easy it is to achieve technologically, itís interesting to see the reaction. About one in ten are genuinely engaged and enthused about the prospect. The remaining look as if Iíve been talking in an alien language.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] It is that one in ten that I think is the key to a sustainable future. At this point in time the question of whether industry groups are part of the solution or more the problem may be a moot one, because what is really needed is leadership to develop large scale integrated ďpackagedĒ sustainable living and working solutions. Developing and promoting such a turnkey solution is beyond the scope and capacity of current industry organizations. Technologically itís not difficult to accomplish, but it will take leadership from people in positions of authority who are technically savvy and understand what realistically needs to be disrupted and reorganized to make the changes necessary.  Right now our industry is not prepared to deliver sustainable buildings. We made an error decades ago by putting utilities in charge of energy conservation and efficiency improvements. Itís akin to placing oil companies in charge of improving auto gas mileage. Added to that, we have design and construction processes in place that have virtually no accountability for system performance. These and other characteristics of our industry need to change dramatically to succeed, and to do so will take widespread innovative leadership throughout our industry to reorganize it for success in sustainable building concepts.

I am convinced that it is this synergy of leadership among the many groups within our industry that will allow us to succeed in the quest for sustainability, not industry organizations. So if you are the one in ten who becomes enthused when you participate in discussions about how much more efficient our industry can be by effectively engaging in new technologies and approaches, then you need to step up to the plate and join in accepting responsibility to help lead us forward. The very best industry groups can do is encourage this type of change. For the most part, their role during changing times is to step back and let it happen. What is really needed right now is leadership from the private and public entities that own and operate buildings and leadership from those involved in utility operation and regulation. But most of all we need leadership from the designers, contractors, and equipment manufacturers that design, construct, and upgrade buildings. These leaders need to work together to show how easy it can be to construct buildings and systems with verification that demonstrates comfort and energy performance orders of magnitudes better than buildings achieve today. This is not simple but it is possible. Bill Coad, past President of ASHRAE, has been lecturing for years that engineers must take responsibility for the problems that result from our good works. Now is the time to make the commitment to work together and do it!


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