Sustainability assessments: an opportunity for new work
If the new federal stimulus package fulfills one of its promises—greening the built infrastructure in the United States—it will generate a huge amount of work for architects. Even while the depressed economy means fewer new construction projects, there will be meaningful work in building assessment and subsequent renovation, especially in the public sector.
Much of the energy analysis of existing buildings will relate to HVAC systems and therefore be more in the domain of engineers than architects. But owners may still see architects as their first point of contact for any work related to their facilities. And architects can deploy their skills in orchestrating complex projects by offering a comprehensive assessment, and hiring technical consultants when needed. In many cases, architectural renovations will be the logical outcome.
Though not as well known as LEED for New Construction, LEED for Existing Buildings: Operation & Maintenance (LEED-EBOM) is an apt framework for this kind of work. LEED-EBOM guides the evaluation of buildings that are at least two years old; certification demonstrates that they are at—or have been upgraded to—LEED levels of sustainability. Even though a building owner could go to an energy service company for mechanical and electrical upgrades, architects are better equipped to coordinate a multifaceted review of overall building performance. So says Muscoe Martin, AIA, principal of the Philadelphia firm m2 Architecture. Martin serves on the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Steering Committee and wrote a monograph on sustainable design published by the NCARB. He says, “All architects benefit from understanding what their clients need to do to maintain their buildings in an environmentally friendly manner. Considering ongoing operational practices during design can lead to better-performing green buildings.”
Like other LEED programs, LEED-EBOM is divided into six major categories, each containing potential work for architects. These include designing green roofs and low-maintenance landscapes (Sustainable Sites); upgrading plumbing fixtures and developing water reuse schemes (Water Efficiency); increasing daylight and envelope insulation (Energy & Atmosphere); improving interior acoustics and specifying nontoxic furnishings (Materials & Resources); establishing nontoxic cleaning programs (Indoor Environmental Quality); and developing 3D models for facilities management (Innovation & Design). To be certified, existing buildings must first satisfy a few prerequisites, such as asbestos abatement and real-data evaluation, based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star rating system. Then LEED points are assigned for additional achievements to earn certification or Silver, Gold, or Platinum ratings. The program has been used by owners interested in improving the sustainability and healthy indoor environments of older buildings. It has also been applied to buildings that were designed green, and deserve LEED recognition, but which predated the LEED program. Although minor renovations may be needed to upgrade the building sufficiently, LEED-EBOM is not intended for major renovation projects.
A few firms have already established sustainability assessments as a major portion of their work. One of these is the young, 14-person Re:Vision Architecture, also based in Philadelphia. About half its work is traditional—though sustainable—architectural design, and half is green building consulting. One of its projects, the Armstrong World Industries’ corporate headquarters building 701, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earned a Platinum rating under LEED for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB, an earlier version of LEED-EBOM). Project manager William Craig says the firm nearly always uses LEED for its assessments. They also use Energy Star’s free online portfolio manager tool. It accepts as input actual performance data, such as utility bills, number of occupants, and so on. Then it compares the building to others of its type around the country and gives it a rating adjusted for climate.
For technical HVAC analysis, Re:Vision works with engineers, but Craig notes there is still a good deal architects can do regarding energy-consumption assessments. “We can go through a building and, based on experience, understand where the thermal liabilities are, in a nonquantitative way. Also, we’ve begun to invest in diagnostic tools, such as a thermal camera and plug-in energy meters, which help us figure out how different appliances are performing. But we’re still architects, generalists, and we know who to go to for specialized work.” The firm also looks at a building’s envelope and makes recommendations that could range from window replacement to passive solar design. He observes: “Sometimes the charge that comes from the owner at the beginning grows or changes as the result of our evaluation.”
The Armstrong headquarters had a good head start when it underwent its LEED-EB evaluation. It was designed by Gensler to be green, with a narrow floor plate and light shelves contributing to ample daylighting, for instance, but it was completed in 1998 before LEED had taken off, and it lacked the USGBC’s seal of approval. When Re:Vision took a close look, they discovered a malfunction in the dehumidification system that was wasting 28,000 gallons of water a year. Even though its remediation did not count toward LEED-EB credits, it was a valuable discovery for resource conservation and for the owner’s budget. The architects replaced existing plumbing fixtures for waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets, for which the project did receive LEED-EB credit. They also acquired wind power, established programs for green cleaning, carpooling, recycling, and education, and they fully recommissioned the building.
Craig believes LEED-EB ratings are somewhat less stringent than those for new construction. This may be to encourage wider participation. “With the enormous legacy of poorly performing buildings,” he says, “even modest improvements, if applied many, many times via an appealing green building rating system, will have a substantially larger impact than a few new Platinum buildings.”
Another way architects can help owners improve their buildings is to advise about “right-sizing” facilities as companies grow, shrink, or otherwise change. This is the approach taken by RSP i-Space, a division of Minneapolis-based RSP Architects. Principal Mike Lyner, AIA, says that when their assessments include sustainability aspects, they often use LEED-EBOM as a framework. They evaluate a building’s current condition and tell owners what to change for LEED certification. They compute costs, explain benefits, and help the owner plan any renovations.
“For our clients doing any improvements right now,” Lyner observes, “this would be a good time to consider LEED. Even if they don’t follow through with certification, they can at least adopt some LEED-EB ideas.” He notes that the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes software tool has an Environmental Assessment for Existing Commercial Buildings module.
Lyner’s firm teams with engineers for HVAC assessments but still finds a good deal of architectural work, such as in replacing toxic materials and improving indoor-air quality. Some improvements require architectural renovations. Lyner suggests, for instance, “putting functions like photocopying and printing in a central location on each floor, and enclosing them in a room, so their fumes don’t circulate.”
Access to daylight also plays prominently in LEED-EBOM, and Lyner says a lot of his office-building clients are opting for “inboarding.” This kind of renovation places hard-walled offices around the center of a building, leaving the windows visually accessible to more workers. He says: “People who have offices are less likely to be in them than those who don’t, so with inboarding, they really aren’t as daylight deprived as those sitting at their desks all day.” He cautions, though, that worker access to daylight has to be substantial to qualify for LEED credit. “Just because there’s a sliver of light doesn’t mean it’s considered a window. The view through a window is as important as the light; it relates to mental and physical health as well as energy savings.”
As a final service to clients, Lyner’s firm sets up computer-aided facilities management (CAFM) files so the owner can continuously track data for future LEED recertification. Recently, RSP i-Space has begun delivering such data as 3D building information models (BIM) for better space visualizations and linking of data to model elements.
Both Re:Vision Architecture and RSP i-Space are already finding substantial work opportunities in assessing and improving the existing building stock. Other firms looking for recession-proof opportunities might do well to consider this kind of service to clients and tap into a mother lode of architectural work.