VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Green building not over when construction finishes

“Green” has fast become the metaphor for that new world we want to live in. We’ll have green jobs, drive green cars and live in green buildings made from green materials.

The link between the environment and the color may seem obvious, but most artists will tell you that green is, by far, the most difficult color to master. Green isn’t one color. It’s made by mixing yellow and blue. Different proportions of yellow to blue produce a wide range of greens, which may be right or wrong.

We want buildings that use less energy to construct, cost less money to operate, consume fewer non-renewable resources, spew fewer emissions and offer more comfort. But reaching those goals isn’t easy, and sometimes even our best efforts result in shades of green that don’t meet our expectations.

That’s because we don’t always understand the new green products, systems and operational methods as well as we should. The new products may or may not be effective, the systems may or may not work, and the operations may require additional training. We don’t always think about the potential liabilities that could arise or the new forms of risk management that should be considered. And we don’t always realize that expectations and promises about energy savings, maintenance costs and potential tax credits must be carefully defined and verified.

An editorial in the July 14 issue of Engineering News-Record suggested that increased litigation is a possibility as “green buildings” with promises of energy savings begin to flourish. Recently, a few lawsuits have been filed over the failure of a building to meet energy savings, get a final LEED rating or gain tax credits. “There’s one way to kill a good idea: sue it to death,” the editorial said.

The two recognized certification programs-LEED and Energy Star-require specific performance requirements and involve a rigorous process of certification and metrics which, in turn, place a new layer of responsibility on the owners-users as well as the design and construction team. But with either program, certification is just the beginning, and is no guarantee of energy savings. Here’s some background on each program:

The LEED rating system (as administered by the United States Green Building Council) has gained recognition in the public’s understanding of sustainability and energy conservation.

Energy Star, developed by the EPA (www.energystar.gov), is less well-known. Commercial buildings that have earned the Energy Star will use, on average, 35 percent less energy than similar buildings and generate one-third less carbon dioxide.

Today’s buildings are complex living, breathing, thinking ecosystems. The growing sophistication of the systems can overwhelm the operational and maintenance team. To ensure that that the systems are used properly and performance meets potential, a green building does require more attention than a conventional building.

Making buildings work

Did you actually read and completely understand the operations manual for that new television or your new hedge trimmer? Imagine receiving several file cabinets full of the operating and maintenance manuals for all of the systems in your new $50 million laboratory about a month before the building goes into operation. That’s the wrong way to plan for operations and maintenance!

The right way involves a process to ensure goals for any building-particularly “green” buildings-are actually met. It’s called commissioning, a term that took root in the construction world during the last 10 years. It means getting all stakeholders in a building together at the beginning of the project to decide on their goals for the building, then monitoring how well each step of design and construction meets those goals, even after the building is built.

Commissioning should begin during the design process, when the initial design decisions are made. It should continue during critical phases of the final design as well as during the construction and postconstruction periods. This is how it works:

The owner’s representative, the designer and the commissioning agent (usually a third party) collaborate in determining and understanding the functional requirements for the project and the expectations of the building’s users.

The designer provides the basis for design and incorporates commissioning requirements into the contract documents.

The commissioning plan is then developed, implemented and documented for the contractors and staff.

The LEED certification process expects and recommends development of a training program, confirmation that training is ongoing, and a follow-up check of the systems within 10 months after occupancy.

A well-developed commissioning process will assure that design goals are met and that expected energy efficiency is achieved. The indirect benefits will range from improved maintenance programs, more efficient operational efficiency and better staff training to better records, reduced warranty issues and greater maintenance-staff efficiency.

The cost of these services will vary, but a full commissioning program has been proven to yield an immediate return on investment in the range of four times its cost in terms of reduced energy and maintenance costs. Insurance and legal issues should also be reduced.

Like everything, the issue is communication and follow-through. But when a building is properly commissioned, the right shade of green will be the color of money.

Altemeyer is vice chairman of BSA LifeStructures, the Indianapolis-area’s largest architectural firm. Views expressed here are the writer’s.

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