Oct. 13, 2009

Sustainable projects can best prove their value by delivering on their performance promises.

Beyond the third-party certifications, ratings and awards, it’s the actual performance of a space that matters most. And our profession is increasingly being called to task to prove that our sustainable work lives up to its potential.

Everyone from the federal government to corporate CEOs to The New York Times are scrutinizing completed projects and asking whether they are performing as they were planned, designed, modeled—and promised.

The increased scrutiny is understandable. Research from the New Buildings Institute suggests that many LEED-certified buildings do not save as much energy as their designs predicted—and that energy consumption is often not tracked once they’re occupied.

This unfortunate reality doesn’t align with the growing number of metric-driven challenges, such as the American Institute of Architects’ 2030 Commitment. Adopted by many design firms, AIA 2030 is a pledge to develop the means to achieve at least a 50 percent carbon emission reduction by 2010 and carbon neutral buildings by 2030—and to track performance.

Measurement, of course, is a vital component for achieving these ambitious targets. And our interior spaces play a more important role than you might think in helping us to get there.

While it’s true that many key decisions influencing energy use have already been determined by the time an interior designer is engaged, significant opportunities still exist.

Up to 40 percent of heat generated within a commercial office space is attributable to lighting. Accordingly, some of the most effective strategies for driving down energy use in an interior space involve lighting: daylighting, lighting controls, task lighting, and the reduction of plug loads.

But there are also some surprising strategies that can have a profound impact on lighting demand. For example, a slight slope of a ceiling can allow for a more effective distribution of daylight throughout the space. This strategy will reduce bright spots and the perceived need by people to turn on lights in an attempt to “even out” the light levels.

Recent Department of Energy studies conclude that even if an existing building wasn’t originally designed with a daylighting strategy in mind, work spaces can be configured to significantly access natural light to reduce lighting loads. By placing open workstations within 15 feet of the perimeter and providing low partitions beyond, you can maximize natural light and provide a higher quality, more productive work environment for occupants.

Designing high-performance interior spaces is about recognizing and making connections. Understanding the link between paint color and A/C load, for example, can guide your selection of colors with a high LRV (light reflective value) that could reduce lighting load as much as 20 percent to 25 percent—which, in turn, could contribute to reducing A/C loads by up to 10 percent.

Being able to modify space temperature controls to be more in tune with outside air temperature in the summer could potentially influence A/C loads by another 5 percent to 10 percent. This also has the advantage of improving occupant satisfaction, since many spaces are cooler than recommended standards.

In fact, just by implementing very simple, pragmatic interiors solutions, you can reduce energy demands by nearly 25 percent.

We’re fortunate to have a growing number of innovative interior products and materials that contribute to reducing energy waste and inefficiency while increasing user comfort and satisfaction.

Recent commercially available products include computer monitors that integrate occupancy sensors; low-flow showerheads that trickle until the water is fully heated; a device that turns vending machines off during off-hours; and wireless charging mats that transmit power to electronic devices placed on them.

These are exciting novelties; however, in evaluating potential new products, it’s important to look beyond the “cool factor” to the issues that will best serve the project and its overall performance goals.

Although most clients are faced with budget cuts and the need to do more with less, you can help them justify the additional upfront cost of premium products if you connect them to bottom-line performance issues. A classic life-cycle cost illustration may also be helpful in assessing the true cost of a product over time.

The better we understand the occupancy patterns and work habits of users, the more effectively we can design a space that accommodates their needs and preferences most efficiently.

We’re all aware that a large percentage of a typical office is unoccupied because of the increasingly transient nature of most jobs.

Having the ability to control and regulate an environment according to needs, preferences and occupancy patterns is an enormous benefit for optimizing the space’s overall energy and resource use.

Energy management systems provide real-time data on energy consumption within a space, allowing personnel to measure, monitor and track savings as it is occurring.

And knowledge is power (to use less energy). Metering brings owners and occupants a level of energy-use awareness that often increases the organization’s overall conservation ethic and commitment to waste reduction. Giving occupants access to this feedback loop at the workspace level can impact up to 20 percent to 30 percent of energy savings, according to recent studies.

Having the ability to measure energy use can also lead to some healthy competition to reduce energy consumption among departments, floors or buildings.

We’ve got a long journey ahead of us to reach the aspirations of the 2030 Challenge. But the only way we’re going to get there is to measure our progress. As the axiom states: You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

At HOK, we’ve been experimenting with the challenges of designing a zero-emissions project by hosting a series of virtual charrettes alongside a few consulting partners. Our goal is to create a zero-emissions design for a typical office building in midtown St. Louis. We also want it to be affordable (10-year payback), marketable, buildable, and flexible. Although it’s purely a prototypical exercise at this point, we believe the process will equip us with the knowledge and experience to design a large-scale zero-emissions project when one of our clients is ready to commit to such a goal. And it is greatly expanding all of our minds and perspectives—regardless of experience level, discipline or expertise.

As the design professions continue to advance sustainability, we need to recognize that actual performance is the true measure of success. Good intentions are no longer good enough, particularly in the current economic and environmental climate. The best way of proving the bottom-line value of green is through cold hard metrics.

We are grateful that the increasing scrutiny on sustainable projects is holding designers accountable to deliver on our intentions—to owners, to occupants and ultimately, to future generations.

Mary Ann Lazarus, AIA, LEED AP, is sustainable design director at HOK, a global design and services firm. She can be reached at [email protected]. Gerry Faubert, C.E.T., LEED AP, is director, integrated design at HOK. He can be reached at [email protected].

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