How a holistic view of buildings can cut energy use and costs

Not only are energy-efficient buildings cheaper to run, but they also can be healthier -- and can even help companies attract employees and shareholders. That was the message from green building experts at a recent sustainability conference in New York.

"A green building is an efficient building," said Lisa Shpritz, senior vice president and operations executive for Bank of America. "It is a healthy and efficient place to work."

The theme pervaded remarks by green building experts at the Sustainable Operations Summit 2012 last week, inspired by statistics showing the need for additional energy efficiency across the existing portfolio of buildings operated by corporations and real-estate-management companies.

Andreas Schierenbeck, president of Siemens Building Technologies, cited data suggesting that 40 percent of energy is consumed by buildings. Much of the waste comes from inefficient operational choices, such as lights burning long after a building is empty at night or climate systems running 24/7.

"If we ran our cars like we ran buildings, we would run them all the time," he said.

According to U.S. Department of Energy figures, commercial buildings account for nearly one-fifth of U.S. energy consumption, with office, retail and educational space accounting for half of that amount.

Cutting that energy use can take a bite out of buildings' maintenance and upkeep budget, which makes up approximately 80 percent of the overall lifetime cost of the average building, according to Schierenbeck. (Construction makes up only 20 percent of the total.)

A few simple energy-saving strategies can lead to significant savings, he said, adding that the the biggest energy sappers are heating, lighting and air conditioning.

Energy efficiency is an ongoing consideration that needs fine tuning and recalibration on a regular basis, Shpritz said, but the reward is worth the effort.

John D'Angelo, senior director of facilities, construction and real estate for the Cleveland Clinic, said the healthcare sector isn't known for leading in green building initiatives because of concerns about the delivery of care.

But he offered several examples of how energy efficiency measures have had a direct impact on staff and patient satisfaction, saving the organization about $20 million annually in electricity costs over the past four years.

The most vivid example, D'Angelo said, involves the clinic's efforts to reduce power consumption related to its surgery rooms.

Surgical theaters tend to be a huge consumer of energy, he said. The bright overhead lamps throw off excessive heat, which requires surgeons to pump up the air conditioning. That, in turn, sometimes requires patients to be wrapped in thermal blankets to ward off hypothermia.

By switching to LED technology, the clinic broke this cycle of inefficiency, D’Angelo said. Because light-emitting diodes produce less heat -- and the heat dissipates above the lamps -- surgeons no longer need to keep the AC up high.

Staff also started dimming the hospital’s lights during the overnight shift, which saved additional power. This had the added benefit of boosting the Cleveland Clinic's "Quiet at Night" program, an initiative to help patients sleep better.

"It turns out people speak in more hushed tones when the lights are dim," D'Angelo said.

As Victor Olgyay, principal architect with the Rocky Mountain Institute, put it: "You get better results when you think beyond the savings and look at the holistic implications."

Photo of realtor on background of green building by Andrey Burmakin via Shutterstock.