Innovations in Comfort, Efficiency, and Safety Solutions.
Thomas Hartman, P E
Itís hard to think of North America as a backwater part of the world, but in terms of our appreciation of climate change issues this may be an apt description. Hardly a day goes by without a report of new research findings regarding the perils of greenhouse gasses and the effects of human activity on climate change, but on this continent such news seems hardly noticed. A month ago the UK issued a devastating assessment of the situation and the need to act quickly to avoid almost certain disastrous consequences later in this century. More recently at the climate change conference in Nairobi, the discussions turned to the enormous costs that will have to be borne from global warming. And the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is working on a soon to be released major report that from early descriptions will offer similar projections of climatic and economic disaster by the end of the century if the issue is not promptly addressed on a massive scale. All this has been received with barely a ho-hum in our news.
Even more surprising is the fact that although the building industry is responsible for nearly 50% of the total energy consumed in North America, this industry seems even less affected than the general public by these dire warnings. Yes, ďgreenĒ buildings are all the rage in public construction projects and there are modest efforts to improve building efficiency standards. But considering the magnitude of the developing problem, these efforts, even if they meet all the stated near term objectives, will not make even a noticeable bump on the road scientists believe we are on toward social and economic calamity.
So whatís to be done by those who understand and appreciate this unprecedented peril and wish to truly make a difference at this critical point in human and environmental history? Well, it turns out there is much that can be done and the efforts of ALL who want to be involved are sorely needed. We are increasingly called by our professional ethics to become involved in a monumental push toward a more sustainable society. Much of what is in place now was conceived before we knew the immediacy of the required responses, and it has largely been shaped with far too much desire not to rock the boat. These current modest efforts neglect the reality that a genuine industry-wide transformation is required to adequately address climate change issues. The resulting lackluster performance of our industry to date and into the foreseeable future must be dramatically improved if we are really to make a difference sufficient to mitigate the potentially catastrophic changes to our planetís environment and societyís economic and social progress. So hereís a no-holds-barred laundry list of how each of us in various industry institutions and segments can think about changing what we do to become a positive force in employing the principle of sustainability in the fight against the perils of global warming.
1. The Green Building Movement: This is unquestionably the most positive force toward sustainability in the industry today. The green building movement has captured the publicís imagination with the idea that a non-earth-polluting building and indoor environment is always to be preferred, even demanded. But the green building movement has fallen far short in challenging our industry to make the needed changes in building design, construction and operation to achieve this end. The rating systems in use are inadequate and actual performance of many green rated buildings shows very little improvement over conventional buildings. The green building movement is sorely in need of a major overhaul. Like so much of our industry, this movement suffers from a lack of hard and challenging goals. Hereís one suggestion Ė the 50% rule. To be a minimally green building, a facility should use no more than half the non-renewable resources in construction and operation that any comparative conventional building would use. And green buildings need to walk the talk by incorporating monitoring that verifies over time they really do perform as projected. Thatís a tall order, but certainly one that is achievable. And it would for the first time give the green building movement real substance. If you are involved in the green building movement, itís up to you to encourage more substantial goals and help facilitate improvements in how the green building design and construction process is applied to ensure these goals are achieved!
2. Conservation Programs and Public Policy: The most generous characterization of North American energy conservation programs is that they are not realizing anything near their potential. Conservation measures have failed even to scratch the surface of conservation as a potential resource for future electric growth. In many areas, these programs are operated by electric utilities with the thought that utilities will support conservation because it avoids the need to build power plants. This is like believing that manufacturers will support measures that reduce sales because they avoid having to build new production lines. Utilities cannot fit conservation into their business model, a large reason for its current failed status. But consider that if effective conservation with newer technologies were applied to our existing building stock, it would have the capacity to eliminate the need for nearly any new electric power plants at least until the middle of the century! Conservation applied to our existing building stock is our best near term weapon in the fight against climate change. To realize its potential, the concept of energy conservation must undergo a radical change. The scattered, disorganized conservation programs that exist throughout North America need to be integrated into a more unified and coordinated approach to exploiting this valuable resource. The diverse ownership of this resource (existing buildings) along with a lack of financial incentives for its development makes this a critical area for governmental public policy change. Federal, and regional governments must step up to the plate and become involved. Public policy must be changed to shape an effective enabling business model for large scale conservation so that energy derived from it is as profitable as building new power plants. Utilities need to be able to acquire energy from conservation with the same or better cost, flexibility, reliability and dependability as from power generation plants. With interconnecting network technologies, it is not difficult to develop successfully, but to do so does require a dramatic change in the way conservation policy and programs are applied. Those of us involved in conservation programs or in public policy must work toward a complete turnabout to a unified, large scale approach that makes electricity conserved from our existing building stock available to meet electrical growth requirements with complete certainty and reliability.
3. Engineers, Contractors, Manufacturers and Property Managers: This is the heart of the industry and an area most in need of change. Many of the elements in need of change here have already been discussed widely. Here is my list of what needs to be addressed by all of us that are employed in this industry segment:
a. Design Variations: This is a fragmented industry. Each engineering firm applies its own unique set of design criteria to standard systems such as heating and cooling plants, distribution systems, and VAV systems. Many of the configuration variations are entirely unnecessary and, in addition to reducing system operating efficiency, lead to differences in how equipment must be configured and how systems must be controlled and operated. So, although the basic systems applied are quite universal, there are wide variations in performance and operating characteristics, and special training is needed to design, install and operate all the variations of the same systems.
b. Procurement Problems: The requirement that most equipment is purchased by a bid process stifles product innovation and advancement because unique or single source products are disallowed from the bid process. The rule is generally that equals need to exist for a product to be specified. As a result, there is a disincentive for manufacturers to innovate with new products because unique new products will be left out. As a result, manufacturers are typically boxed in around product lines that remain relatively static.
c. Lack of Continuity: Not only is the industry fragmented, but the process by which systems are implemented is fragmented as well. Once a design is complete, designers have too little authority or responsibility as the process continues into construction and startup phases. As a result, substitutions or interpretations are often made that are counter to the design intent and compromise the performance of the system. At turnover, the operators often have too little direct connection to the original design intent to ensure the system is operated properly.
d. Imbedded Inefficiencies: Some of the work designers perform on projects is not of value and leads to confusion and inefficiency in later project steps. For example, most contractors today have specific estimation and construction software that provide 3-D layouts of piping and ductwork to determine cost, develop a bill of materials, and then to direct the construction. Designers also develop operating regimens or control sequences that are incompatible or inefficient when applied to the equipment specified. The result is that portions of typical design work are often duplicated during construction or, is not compatible with equipment selected which leads to equipment and configurations operating less efficiently than anticipated.
Those of us who work in this segment of industry need to openly scrutinize these and other aspects of what we do that act to retard the advancement of system efficiency. We need to openly discuss and experiment with new approaches that allow us to participate in design-construction-operation processes that lead to more efficient systems. This is a huge area of potential improvement that begs for more attention. We in this segment need to give it some!
5. Professional and Trade Associations: Because this is a fragmented industry, professional and trade organizations are critical to our moving ahead in a more effectively coordinated and standardized fashion. The good news here is that industry professional and trade associations are beginning to develop an understanding that leadership on the issue of sustainability is critical to their success. The flip side is that no one seems to have much of an idea in what direction to lead. Most associations appear to have adopted a ďmore of the sameĒ approach, but this will not succeed in meaningful change. An alternate approach with merit is to look at the endpoint goal and work back from there. Itís been suggested that a carbon neutral building stock by the end of this century should be that goal. Itís a good place to start. Certainly that will require the development of new technologies unknown to us now. But rather than wait for them to magically appear, we need to push what we already know much harder to force our inventors and entrepreneurs forward. Furthermore, a sustainable building industry will not only require new technologies, but also a vastly improved process for designing, constructing, and operating buildings as described earlier. Those of us involved with professional and trade associations need to wipe our slates clean and work back from where we need to be in twenty or thirty years. Incredible changes must be pursued in the next months and years for our current professional and trade organizations to maintain their relevancy through a period of enormous industry change. Like other industry segments, it is certainly possible, but it will be challenging and stressful to the organizations that are successful in leading our industry forward at this time.
So thereís the list. No matter what segment of the industry we occupy, if we accept the growing scientific consensus that resource depletion along with greenhouse gasses and other pollution from human sources are tipping the delicate environmental balance toward potentially catastrophic environmental and social consequences, we need to dedicate ourselves and our careers to work with others in the industry that share our concern to bring about a genuine change. This is a historic moment for our industry, and one that calls for each of us to play an important role.
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