The Six Degrees of Building Efficiency

The Six Degrees of Building Efficiency

This essay is an exclusive excerpt adapted from Kevin Klustner's upcoming book, "Energy Efficiency -- The Future is Now," which will be released in October. Greener World Media, which debuted a previous chapter about energy efficiency in the information technology sector, will be publishing a series of excerpts from the book on our sites in the coming weeks.

When the Clinton Foundation announced its global Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program in May, it seemed the biggest sign yet that green buildings -- especially green building retrofits -- had reached a tipping point. The initiative will bring together experts from all aspects of the building business to dramatically reduce the impact our buildings have on the planet.

Under the program, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Siemens and Trane will perform energy audits and building retrofits in cities around the world. And the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and U.S. Green Building Council will help the cities develop programs to train local workers on the installation and maintenance of energy-saving and clean-energy products.

Meanwhile, five of the planet's biggest banks -- Citibank, UBS, Deutsche Bank, ABN AMRO and JP Morgan -- have agreed to provide $1 billion each in financing for both public- and private-sector building owners to perform these retrofits at no capital cost. The resulting $5 billion pot effectively doubles the existing global market for building retrofits.

The Clinton initiative is a breakthrough considering that buildings in the U.S. alone generate a $222 billion energy bill every year. All that brick, mortar, glass and steel draws down about 35 percent of U.S. energy demand, and rises to 40 percent if you add in the energy needed for construction and demolition. It surges to 50 percent when all energy-related factors needed to serve buildings and occupants are included. Sixty percent of energy use in real estate can be attributed to heating and cooling systems, with the rest going to lighting and appliances.

Some cities, however, are working independently to make a difference in energy efficiency. For example, a 93-year old Chicago factory will transform into the Midwest's first shopping center for environmentally focused stores and services, such as an electric car dealer and green building supply vendor. Rents - between $18 and $35 per square foot - fall in line with area market rates.

The Six Degrees of Energy Efficiency

On a micro level, there are six main areas of focus that will enable us to construct and maintain the most energy efficient buildings in the world.

First, there is daylighting, the use of natural light in a building. This reduces the need for electric lights and improves the visual qualities of a space. In a best-case scenario, it's possible for carefully controlled daylight to provide all necessary interior lighting with less heat emitted than is released by incandescent or fluorescent lights. Since electric lights create an excess amount of internal heat, they drive air conditioner use through much of the year.

Open-interior plans that enable natural light to penetrate to all parts of a structure are, therefore, especially important in commercial buildings, where electric lights are in the highest demand. Placing light-colored reflective surfaces close to windows will also allow light to bounce farther into a room.

Tight construction, a second critical piece, is critical to energy performance. The basic concept focuses on careful construction that eliminates any possible penetration of air into the building envelope. Going beyond local building codes for insulation will always provide savings through the life of the building, thus increasing its value to the owner and to society.

The Energy Crafted Home Project in Massachusetts, for example, encourages these building techniques through the training of builders to construct tight houses. A site test measures each building's tightness.

Indoor air quality, the third component, involves maintaining healthy indoor air quality in a tightly constructed house with half of the air or more being replaced once each hour. Energy efficient exhaust air heat-recovery systems should be used to replace air without losing heat.

Since the chemicals used in many building materials and furniture adversely impact indoor air quality, good air circulation is especially important because people spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors. Using healthy materials and energy-efficiency systems increases the amount of fresh air circulating through a building.

The fourth area, planning and landscaping, revolves around street layout for new building projects. Providing structures with unobstructed southern exposure gives the south side of the building as much unshaded exposure as possible between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. during the winter. Street layouts that run east-west generally achieve this design goal. Some parts of the country have solar access laws and ordinances that actually protect the south side of buildings. With little or no extra cost, a building can usually be oriented with its long face within at least 30 degrees of true south creating energy savings without changing the design.

Landscaping can maximize renewable energy availability to a building. Deciduous trees, for example, provide shade in the summer and permit sunlight to strike the structure directly in winter. Still, experts still do not recommend that they be planted on the south side of buildings. North-side evergreens can, however, provide an effective windbreak and weather barrier.

The most important design feature - and our fifth area of significance - is placing a high percentage of a building's windows on the south side.

Conventional buildings have about a quarter of their windows on the south side, and this generally averages about 3 percent of total floor area. In a perfect world, the figure would approach 7 percent.

This zero-cost option can save up to 25 percent of the building's conventional heating fuel and, with protection from a shading overhang, can help reduce summer cooling bills as well.

Rooftops, lastly, provide the full gamut of energy efficient possibilities. Electric utilities around the country are currently analyzing the cost of renting rooftops to place photovoltaic (PV) cell that will convert sunlight directly into electricity funneled directly into the grid. When the PV system produces more electricity than needed for the building, excess electricity flows back into the utility's wires for purchase by the utility at market rates. Conversely, when the building requires more electricity than the PV system can provide, electricity is purchased from the utility.

Roofs also can support active systems, such as solar water heaters, for which some utilities offer incentives.

The energy-efficient suggestions I'm proposing require very small cost increases. By spending a bit more on construction, good windows and insulation, mechanical systems - and energy bills -- can be smaller.

Energy bills in the developing world, however, may not decrease. Between now and 2020, 75 percent of energy demand growth in the commercial sector will come from developing nations and the broad expansion of their service sectors.

As the service sector grows in a developing economy, energy demand in buildings increases - first for the basics, like space heating, then for air conditioning as well as other power-intensive appliances and equipment such as computers and advanced medical equipment.

In China, for instance, space heating will decline from 50 percent of commercial sector energy usage in 2005 to one-third in 2020 but the share of power-intensive energy uses, such as air conditioning and office equipment, will double to 50 percent.

The Challenges to Efficiency

Three energy efficiency challenges face us. We must first convince commercial building owners in the developed world that energy efficiency is a smart financial move. A high turnover rate in commercial buildings reduces the payback time many consider acceptable when making energy-saving investments.

Second, more than a quarter of U.S. commercial sector energy demand comes from buildings owned by municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals. Capital constraints can prevent them from making energy-efficiency improvements.

Finally, despite the Clinton Foundation's global initiative, it will be a major - but not insurmountable - challenge to get developing nations like China to focus on building better new buildings and retrofitting older ones with energy efficiency upgrades.

But we must keep working at it. Constructing a clean and green future for the planet starts at the ground floor and continues all the way up to the penthouse – and the skies above and beyond.

Kevin Klustner is CEO of Seattle-based Verdiem, which distributes energy-efficiency software to public- and private-sector entities.