Faced with a promising new year, we have an opportunity to start fresh and get fit — and that includes our buildings. Has your building become fat and lazy? Is it consuming more than it provides? Efficiency is cheaper than energy! Guidance is not coming from national policy makers. Tight competition for commercial tenants means you need to offer healthy, bright, sustainable spaces — with a green lease so everyone benefits. It’s past time for real people to get serious about building energy efficiency and start to move the needle. Here are 10 ways to go deep on energy efficiency in 2012:
1. Start at the bottom. Instead of reducing consumption, start with nothing and justify how much you actually need. Talk about eliminating waste! Do we install a high-efficiency air conditioner or retrofit the building so effectively that we don’t need an air conditioner? What does 20 percent savings mean, anyway? Compared to what? What if you could get your building to operate within 10 percent of its best technical potential? It’s like doing the limbo—how low could you go with no constraints? How does that change your approach to building energy performance?
2. Go retro. Retro-commission your building right now. With almost instantaneous payback, this one is a no-brainer. Make sure the building is operating the way it was designed to operate and hasn’t been sabotaged by well-meaning building engineers. Operating an uncommissioned building is like driving your car down the road with the gas cap hanging open and the blinker on; you look like an idiot.
3. Show me the money. Lobby hard for energy efficiency financing programs in your community, maybe even through your Business Improvement District. Exciting, emerging programs—often including third-party businesses—pay for efficiency upgrades through your property taxes (PACE) and “on bill” through your utility. These investors see the predictable, replicable and relatively low-risk value in energy efficiency. 2012 will likely see more of these programs popping up.
4. Tighten up. I know, it sounds like a broken record, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to seal the gaps. Like a gut that creeps up on a middle-aged man, air infiltration can sneak up on you over the years. Check the weatherstripping at doors and windows and seal those cracks. Construct a vestibule to reduce infiltration. Don’t know where to start? Get a building energy audit (through your utility) with infrared imaging to show exactly where the heat is escaping. You will be surprised at what you see.
5. Let the sun shine. Clear up the window clutter and take advantage of daylighting. If the clutter includes perimeter office spaces, consider a little selective demolition to open up the work areas, improve the space plan, and let the sun shine in. Consider a fresh coat of light-colored paint and replace those depressing yellowed ceiling tiles. It will improve daylighting and make your people feel better about coming to work.
6. Take control. Lighting and HVAC controls have come a long way, baby. Take advantage of it. Install light switches with built-in occupancy and/or daylight sensors in every room. Buy task lights so you don’t have to turn on those stadium lights just to work quietly at dusk. Think of it as creating a lighting landscape — you don’t want flat light. For that matter, you probably need only half the level of ambient lighting you think you do, so eliminate unnecessary overhead fixtures. The esteemed Victor Papanek once told me that human beings are most attractive in softer light anyway. And before we get too far off the subject of controls, if your HVAC system isn’t programmed, that is a 21st century must-have for homes and commercial buildings.
7. Retrofit windows. Window films have been transformed in the past decade. Gone are smoke and mirrors. We can now apply practically clear retrofit films to existing windows and achieve nearly 50 percent heat rejection—both keeping it in and out, depending on the season. Or maybe you do need a low tint so you can throw out those dusty vertical blinds from 1985 and enjoy the view. Combine this with sealing and retrofitting the windows in general, replacing single glazing with insulated panels. It’s cheaper than replacing with new windows and often results in the same performance.
8. Seal ducts. What if you made gizmos, but only 75 percent of them got to the customer? That’s unsustainable by any definition. Recent studies indicate that leaking ductwork is one of the primary construction defects in both commercial and residential buildings, with common repercussions resulting in 10-25 percent leakage in commercial buildings and ridiculously more in homes. It’s crazy not to inspect during construction and check existing ductwork for leakage. A number of terrific elastomeric products are available for addressing this, but it requires more than just duct tape, guys—sorry.
9. Add some bling. Sometimes a little bling is OK, especially if it’s working hard for you — like exterior awnings and shading devices, or maybe a green roof to reduce surface temperature and inspire people to say, “Oh, how pretty.” If you’ve accomplished ALL the energy efficiency measures you can manage, then now is the time to look at renewable energy. The cost of photovoltaics is coming down fast, and solar thermal has always been affordable. Go for it.
10. All together now! Human behavior has a huge impact on energy efficiency. In fact, various studies suggest people influence building energy consumption between 12-17 percent. It takes a village. Create a green team, install a real-time energy and water consumption display, monitor every aspect of the building’s performance and reward facilities staff for great management.
Are you investing in a whole-building retrofit while the market is down? Make that a deep energy retrofit and take advantage of right-timing for a compelling ROI. The more you know about your building and its energy efficiency potential, the more empowered you are to mitigate uncertain fuel costs and to recognize opportunities when they come your way in 2012. Have a great year!
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