The NEWSinterviewed three contractors from around the country who are involved in high-performance building projects to find out more about their experiences. Here they share how they define high performance buildings and lessons they have learned from their projects.

Defining Moments

Bob Helbing, president, Air-Tro Inc., Los Angeles, said that the way he defines a high-performance building is “a building that meets the needs of its occupants while minimizing its impact on their budget and on the environment as a whole. In particular, a high-performance building will keep energy use (and water use and waste) low without compromising building utility or comfort.”

Helbing added, “The buzz of activity, and the slightly different approaches from each of the many players involved, can cause some confusion and duplicated effort. But the end goal of better buildings is well worth it.”

Ken Bodwell, Innovative Service Solutions, Orlando, Fla., has a rather different take on what high-performance building is. He noted that a lot of acronyms can be tossed around — like USGBC for U.S. Green Building Council and LEED for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — but all of that can just become “more bureaucratic mumbo jumbo.”

“As mechanical contractors, it’s already our responsibility to identify and implement cost-effective, resource- and energy-saving products and procedures,” Bodwell said. “So my definition [of high-performance building] is to find opportunities to help our clients operate more efficiently with minimal damage to the environment.”

Ellis Guiles Jr., vice president, TAG Mechanical Systems Inc., Syracuse, N.Y., admitted he has become more pessimistic about high-performance building projects. “If anything, working on these types of commercial building projects has left me more skeptical rather than optimistic that we will truly take the steps we need to, as a community or nation, to truly transform the built environment.”

Guiles explained that this is due to a general push to cut corners to get below budget rather than get the job done right. He continued, “What is perhaps most disheartening is that, in most instances, what it would take to do it right is no more expensive than the processes we normally follow. Doing it right — or perhaps even better — does require an attention to detail, a willingness to learn new processes, and a willingness to integrate quality control and assurance processes into our construction cycles.”

Lessons Learned

In Helbing’s work on high-performance building projects, he’s realized that minor and low-cost changes can make a huge difference in increasing performance. “Today a single 24-V thermostat can incorporate many energy-saving features once reserved for large-scale controls systems,” he said.

He sees some positive signs in the HVAC industry and construction right now. “It’s very encouraging that our industry, and construction in general, is moving away from a first-cost mentality. Buildings last decades or generations, and a little extra investment at the start can pay huge dividends over the course of the building’s lifetime.”

Guiles noted that Tag Mechanical performs both commercial and residential work, and he has found that working on the residential energy-efficiency/green projects has been much a much more positive experience.

“Working on residential projects, where the builder has a commitment to Energy Star, LEED, Green Build, etc., in the organization has proven to be more beneficial. At least with the few production builders we’ve worked with who made this commitment (and it was at times challenging), it eventually resulted in a team of well-trained builder staff and subcontractors who are achieving consistent, outstanding results, without cost penalties or sacrificing production schedules.”

In Bodwell’s experience in the current economic climate, trying to market high-performance buildings or going green doesn’t work. “Our clients want us focused on quality maintenance and keeping the equipment operating at optimum performance levels. If new technologies are available, they want an opportunity to evaluate and budget to determine return on investment. In situations of equipment failure, they want the options: minimum SEER replacement or higher efficiency. In component failures, we typically attempt to replace with more advanced technology.”

Bodwell said that one approach that has worked at Innovative Service Solutions is that the company has a senior technician, who is now in sales, assess a “client’s equipment to identify opportunities to retrofit or modify the operation. This has been very successful because the technician speaks directly to facilities managers and engineers, and by demonstrating potential savings, they become the driving force within organizations. The byproduct of this new position is quality control over the performance of our technicians.”

In terms of training, all three contractors — Helbing, Guiles, and Bodwell — said that there was no special training that their personnel in the field had to go though for working on these projects, except, pointed out Guiles and Helbing, for learning how to do the associated paperwork.

Codes, Regulations, and Standards

Another aspect of high-performance building projects is dealing with the myriad of governmental and other organizational codes, regulations, and standards.

Helbing pointed out some standards and regulations get in the way of a building working as well as it could. “The California Energy Commission [CEC] requires the refrigerant charge on a new rooftop unit be checked and adjusted in the field. Rooftop units are factory-checked for leaks and then provided a measured charge there on the production line. The factory is much more likely to get the charge right than a field tech, so the field adjustment required by the CEC is almost certainly going to result in degrading performance rather than improving it.”

Guiles thinks that it would be better to enforce “existing energy codes, and we wouldn’t need standards such as ANSI/ASHRAE 189 or certification processes such as USGBC’s LEED.”

For example, Guiles said, “There have been LEED projects we’ve been involved in where there have been, in the end, items missing, which resulted in the building not operating quite right. Perhaps more importantly, these buildings aren’t maintained to ensure they continue to perform as originally intended or described in the owner’s basis of design.

“I am, at times, frustrated by the pronouncements of how a particular standard or code change will result in significant or substantial improvement in energy use or indoor air quality when I see, on a daily basis, existing codes not being properly enforced.”

He stated that there are three things that need to be done to improve the built environment: build to energy codes that already are on the book and check that those codes are met, formalize preventive maintenance procedures that test and document how the systems are working “versus their original design intent or manufacturer’s requirements,” and recommission buildings so they work the way they were initially intended to perform.

Simply put, Guiles said, “Sometimes, the answer is painfully obvious and overtly simple. In this case, trust but verify (i.e., design it to code, verify it was built to it) and then require periodic and regular maintenance to ensure it continues to work correctly.”

Helbing agrees that high performance buildings need maintenance to keep performing at a high level, and that a building may need recommissioning.

“High performance starts at the design level, and requires constant attention during construction and commissioning. High performance never ends; proper maintenance is required, and if the building is extensively remodeled or its function is changed, the building should be recommissioned.”

Publication date: 3/19/2012