September 2004

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Growing a Greener Engineering Profession


Thomas Hartman, P E
The Hartman Company

Like a successful forest, our profession and our industry
need to grow tall together.

This summer I attended the Engineering Green Building Conference in Cleveland where the agenda and discussions made very clear to any yet uninitiated attendee that the green movement has become much more concerned with filling out compliance paperwork than with the development and application of new, innovative sustainable technology solutions. Of course those of us who have been active in the industry for a long time know that this is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact is - much of the progress we have made in the last several decades toward achieving more efficient buildings has been due to advancing energy codes and regulations. At first, these codes and standards focused on higher quality building envelopes. More recently the focus has switched to the operating efficiency of components we use to configure building systems. The continuing development of codes and standards can be credited for a great deal of the efficiency improvements in newer buildings today. Presently, the green building movement is using this model, but expanding the narrow energy focus and tightening the compliance criteria of existing codes and standards to achieve a much broader and useful concept of resource sustaining construction and operation.

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From an energy perspective, the potential for additional efficiency improvements by following this path does have a limit and it’s rapidly approaching. As pointed out by one speaker at this conference, motors, chillers, fans and pumps - the basic elements of today’s building comfort systems, and the primary targets of many efficiency codes and standards, are now very near their ultimate theoretical efficiencies. Our industry has worn this component route to efficiency improvement in buildings pretty smooth. Until the industry understands and accepts the possibility of entirely new paths to achieving superior building performance, there really is not much room for further cost effective energy efficiency improvements in building systems. This was clear from the technology topics discussed at the conference as well as the case studies presented. There was not much new or that could be considered eye opening or particularly noteworthy.

The approaching limit on component efficiency improvement has made “Integrated Design” a hot topic among those active in the green building community. Integrated Design is a process whereby the design team members work closely together to coordinate design of architectural and building system elements. The goal of integrated design is to achieve superior performing buildings that cast a greener shadow by reducing their impact on the environment during construction, operation, and at the end of their useful life.

The team approach envisioned in the integrated design concept is an excellent and important step in the evolution toward a greener and more cost effective building construction industry. But early experiences with this approach have highlighted a problem that may limit our ability to deliver projects that are as sustainable as possible. This problem was not addressed at the Engineering Green Building Conference, nor is it being adequately addressed in other professional conferences or discussions. The problem is this; in order for such design teams to operate effectively, the team members need to really cooperate and support one another. My experience is that within the building construction industry, it is very difficult to achieve the level of cooperation among the various design and construction team members necessary to really “grow” projects greener by working together. How extreme this problem has become was brought home to me at the conference.

During the conference, one of the speakers – an engineer who is internationally known and enormously successful – asked if I had a few minutes to speak with him in private. I have known this colleague as a friend for some years and have enormous respect for his engineering talents, as well as his ability to articulate advanced ideas and work effectively as a team member to develop and implement them in effective solutions. I’ve been fortunate to see these abilities first hand from project design teams on which we have participated together.

It turned out the purpose of the discussion was to bring me up to date on a change in direction for his firm.

contemporary He began by relating to me that recently several clients had asked him to develop innovative solutions that would advance the state of the art of our industry for their upcoming showcase building projects. My friend’s conceptual proposals for these projects were then reviewed by other engineers (a prudent policy). Despite the fact that those who reviewed his conceptual work were professional engineers, the reviews were, in my colleague’s mind, of much lower quality than what one should expect. And they were critical of just about all features that were not in accordance with current “industry practice.” Fresh and innovative approaches were declared risky or suspect simply because they lacked demonstrated examples of success. In one case, after receiving a twenty page critique from a reviewing engineer, my colleague asked an engineer in his office to be a devil’s advocate and try to support the reviewer’s critique of his designs. His colleague found only one of the reviewing engineer’s points to be even partially technically valid. The remainder of the objections simply targeted the concepts because they were unproven in actual implementation and not in accordance with present day design methodology. Despite my friend’s international reputation for excellence and outstanding professional credentials, these reviewing engineers were content to advise against most of his innovative approaches without ever seriously considering their technical merit.

My friend calls this the “sniping” state of our industry. It has, he told me, been growing in recent years and is responsible for a loss of confidence in our profession by architects and clients, stagnation in the development of more efficient systems, and has led to the commoditization of engineers. This sniping, he noted, locks our profession in the present confinement of mediocre technologies. In this confined environment there can be almost no value to the special expertise the more experienced and knowledgeable members of our profession possess.

As my colleague related his story to me, his characterization of the state of our profession rang all too true in my experience as well. As one who has been encouraging designers to explore new paths to more effective energy conversion systems in buildings, I have found the criticism of this encouragement to be less focused on issues of the science and technology, and much more on what might be called simple nay-saying. Whatever the root cause of what my colleague believes to be an increasingly adversarial tendency within our profession, his conclusion that it is a significant reason why the technologies employed in our industry have been stagnating seems sound. He told me he has therefore made a decision to leave mainstream design work and focus his firm’s considerable talents and vast experience on special and unusual engineering applications.

His solution has brought him to some very interesting one-of-a-kind projects that require such extraordinary design technologies that they cannot be designed using conventional technologies. He related to me several of his projects that involve ultra low temperatures and ultra high and large buildings. It’s exciting, and it is good to hear that he is successful and pleased with this turn in his career and his business. But I am sad that a fellow of this stature, capability, and vision has been driven out of the mainstream of our industry. It’s unfortunate that innovations from his talent and experience are unlikely any longer to be applied widely in buildings or used to teach the mainstream building design community effective methods of improving the technologies and design concept we use.

contemporary I find this friend’s perspective an important consideration for those who wish to improve the performance and sustainability of projects in which they participate. We need to work together to address the “sniping” that goes on in our industry in order to become more successful with the team based design approaches many of us believe are essential to developing greener buildings. Being critical of designs or technologies is not a bad thing. Poor design is widespread in our industry today. Indeed, most of us have seen the results of poor design and applications. However, my friend believes poor design is unlikely the reason for the rise in professional sniping. It is more likely the result of such sniping. We owe it to our profession to work for higher quality designs. But failing to be supportive of new approaches, products or services solely because they challenge existing practice locks our industry in place. The current reluctance to accept new ideas simply because we have not yet seen them employed successfully in widespread applications is an extreme position to take, especially in this era of dwindling resources that demands our attention and extra care in improving the efficiency and performance of those we utilize.

Working on our professional etiquette is important to form cooperative design and construction teams in order to build on our individual experience and expertise. However, beyond this is a genuine need to reinvigorate our industry with newer and more effective technologies. As a result of this continual mutual downgrading among those with whom cooperation and assistance to make advances in the technologies we apply is necessary, our industry has slowed nearly to a stop in moving ahead with applying effective new energy conversion technologies. It’s time to restart the technology process.

To do so, let’s try to think of the green building movement as the development of a new forest. Trees cannot grow to their full potential unless they grow together. Otherwise windstorms will regularly knock down those few that do grow tall. Like a successful forest, our profession and our industry need to grow tall together. Otherwise, none of us can ever reach our full potential. Unless we work to be more supportive of new ideas and approaches, we all will find both our individual and collective value diminished well below what it could be if we do find ways to cooperate and grow green together!


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