World-class architecture? Definitely. Designed for energy efficiency? Not necessarily

Aug. 8, 2016

Architecturally significant buildings may be a pleasure to look at, but they can be a bear to work with (or in) from an energy-efficiency and comfort standpoint. 

When I started my business in 1979, I just happened to live in Columbus, IN, a community that gave me a unique opportunity to learn about buildings designed by some of the most famous architects of our time, including I.M. Pei, Richard Meyer, Kevin Roche, Cesar Pelli and many others. Nowhere can you see the works of so many great architects, including seven American Institute of Architects Gold Medal winners, in close proximity. There are now more than 70 buildings and pieces of public art in Columbus by internationally noted architects and artists.

When I say that I had the opportunity to learn about these buildings, I don’t mean that  I listened to a talk or took a tour. My company worked in nearly all of the buildings designed under this program. We operated more than 25 of them and were responsible for operation, control, maintenance, and comfort. We were on call 24/7. Our only fees were documented savings from low-cost, no-cost changes in operation and maintenance, based on comparisons with the five years prior to our involvement.

Our first step in all of these projects was to install a permanent energy monitoring system at our expense. It was connected to all of the utility meters, electrical transformer main panels, and major energy systems and equipment. During the design and installation of the monitoring system and ongoing building operation, we got to know every inch of these buildings: attics, above ceilings, basements, crawl spaces, and mechanical and electrical rooms.

The role of building design in comfort

A huge factor in comfort and in maintaining stable space conditions is the performance of the building itself – its design, materials, mass, glass and orientation.

Some of these famous architects did very well in designing buildings for comfort, and some failed miserably. Some designed structures that tended to stay comfortable with low utility costs regardless of what was happening outside. Others built glass buildings with little mass that experienced tremendous temperature swings, occupant discomfort, and high energy costs.

The role of mechanical systems in comfort

Most of these world-famous architects hired high-quality engineering firms to design the lighting and HVAC systems. It was obvious to us that some had included the engineers from the beginning of the design process, while others had given the engineers finished blueprints and told them to make the HVAC systems fit.

As a result, some engineers were forced to design HVAC systems for buildings where, by design, comfort was nearly impossible. The results were massive air conditioning and heating systems designed to attempt to overwhelm the thermal deficiencies of the design.

We operated and controlled all of these systems by the different designers. Some were high-quality mechanical systems, including chillers, boilers, pumps, etc., while others had electric rooftop units that obviously had been added after the engineer received blueprints from the architect that had allowed zero space within the building for mechanical systems.

Because we were responsible for comfort as well as energy efficiency, we installed temperature and humidity sensors at key points throughout each building. We remotely monitored them in real time, 24/7, and were in the buildings nearly every day. We found out what settings were required to keep people comfortable. We learned in the field, during all seasons, how different materials and the use of glass and mechanical systems affected occupants' comfort. What an education!

Case study preview

These architects were brought to Columbus through the generous donations of the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation, established and funded by the family of J. Irwin Miller, the longtime chairman and CEO of Cummins Engine Company.

My very first project designed under the foundation’s program was a mental health hospital. We ended up operating the facility for more than 10 years and in that time reduced the annual utility costs by 59% and improved comfort as much as we could, given the building's design. It was built like a bridge and spanned the creek below it. The building was beautiful and won several awards for design. But from my point of view, it was a total failure when it came to comfort and function.

More details of this project to follow in my next post...

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