The promises of a high-performance building seem endless. It will save the owner money. It will conserve energy and reduce the environmental footprint. It will make the occupants happier and healthier.
While all of these promises can come true, achieving high performance is easier said than done. There are many obstacles contractors face when working on these types of projects, including everything from educating owners to following through on building operation.
Despite these challenges, commercial HVAC contractors are finding success in this sector. Jeff Farley and Jack Floyd are both veterans of high-performance projects, and possess a lot of knowledge and exhibit a number of best practices on the topic. Farley is a senior mechanical engineer at TDIndustries Inc. (Dallas) and Floyd is an energy and automation specialist at AirTight (Charlotte, N.C.).
The learning curve for high-performance buildings begins with gaining an understanding of what the term entails. While there are standards and rating systems centered around this, according to Farley and Floyd, high performance is often more broadly defined in practice.
Farley provided this simple definition: “a facility that is exceptional at providing business results or community service.”
He added, “Certainly, energy efficiency and comparisons to ASHRAE 90.1 baselines are a component, but the measure of high performance goes far beyond these metrics.”
Floyd also shared a broader take on high performance.
“I consider a high-performance building any building that is taking action to implement any and all projects (within reason) to conserve energy,” he said.
He continued, “To define within reason, any upgrade or change that affects the capital expenditures with less than a three- to five-year ROI, and any upgrade or change that affects the operating expenditures with less than a five- to eight-year ROI. Any building owner that is following this guideline is, in my opinion, doing all they can do to be energy efficient and high performing.”
Floyd admitted, “This is a bit more lenient than any standard that is currently published; however, I am taking into consideration the current market which we live in, and the lack of spending our economy is currently experiencing.”
And the economy always does figure into high-performance projects, especially since the costs associated with high-performance buildings tend to make owners hesitate instead of move forward.
“The idea of saving money by conserving energy is commonly known and acknowledged as an efficient way to proceed, but is not commonly understood,” Floyd noted. “Most building owners, or landowners building a new building, do not understand energy management. Therefore it is typical for an Energy Management System (EMS) to be value-engineered out of a project or pushed off until next year’s budget due to cost.”
Overcoming these misperceptions is only possible through education.
“Strive to understand new technologies and educate others,” Farley said.
Floyd noted that this begins with contractors educating their own salespeople and technicians on the value of an EMS and how to calculate the savings it can provide. Plus, he said, they need to have the “skills to properly present the facts to a customer.”
“Too often I have seen a project canceled or valued out because the end user did not understand the facts that were presented to them, or worse, the facts of an EMS were presented as a cool or convenient feature of the building,” Floyd said. “Obviously, the cool and convenient features are the first to go when budgets are concerned.”
To help business owners defray capital costs for investing in high performance, contractors can educate them on local and federal incentive or rebate programs.
“Another option we are currently pursuing is performance financing for customers who can benefit from energy projects but do not have the budget in place to cover the cost, no matter what the ROI,” Floyd said.
Another common challenge with high-performance buildings is that after they are built, they are not operated and maintained properly to realize the predicted energy savings.
“The promised efficiency is only as accurate as the assumptions made in the energy model. If those assumptions are not valid, then the building performance will not reflect the true operational efficiency of the facility,” Farley said. “You can’t build it and forget about it.”
While he said that high-performance buildings are not currently living up to their promised efficiency, he believes that the industry is moving in the right direction.
“These types of facilities need a high-performance staff to keep on top of operations and maintenance,” he said, adding that TDIndustries offers customers lifecycle solutions for this reason.
“We can offer design-build services, and operate and maintain those systems, as well. I think offering a total package helps remove some of those challenges from an owner standpoint.”
In his experience, Farley has also seen high-performance buildings underperform.
“More often than not, end users are not properly educated on how to operate their EMS. So, the override becomes the normal. Schedules are set to 24 hours a day instead of tweaked to what works for the tenants. Set points are set for occupied times and then replicated for unoccupied times, so the schedules show an unoccupied time but actually don’t do anything when the time change takes place,” he said, adding that this is not done to be deceitful but to prevent complaint calls from tenants.
Again, education is required to improve the operation and maintenance of high-performance buildings.
“Your car requires quarterly oil changes; your HVAC system requires quarterly filter changes and inspections; your home computer requires updates and occasional reboots. Your EMS is a group of several computers networked together, which require maintenance and updates,” Floyd said. “You wouldn’t fire your IT guy that you rely so heavily on. Why would you fire your EMS guy that keeps your system up-to-date and functioning properly?”
While the education of building owners and others involved in the construction process may seem daunting, there are ultimately many advantages to pursuing high-performance buildings. And some sectors have been successfully achieving high performance.
Farley pointed to education and government as two areas where high performance is gaining acceptance and being pursued.
“This is exciting because these types of buildings have traditionally been cookie-cutter facilities,” he said.
Floyd added health care to the list.
“Health care has always been an innovator in this area — and will continue to be — because they are one industry that has lots of money no matter what the economy is like.”
Plus, he predicted that the industrial market will be next on the forefront of high-performance buildings. “Once people understand what an EMS is and how it really works, it is a no-brainer,” he said.
SIDEBAR: ASHRAE Webcast Examines Performance
ASHRAE will host its “Assessing Building Energy Performance: From Principles to Practice,” 1-4 p.m. EDT, Thursday, April 18.
The webcast will feature industry experts who will explain the importance of building energy performance and its far-reaching implications in both new and existing buildings.
Viewers will also learn about the various tools and approaches that are available, as well as the many opportunities that assessing building energy performance presents. The webcast is free to attend.
For more information, visit http://bit.ly/WpItR1.
Publication date: 3/25/2013