Flipflop occurring in world of environmental building

June 18, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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A “sea change” in the green building market is under way, according to the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington. Several months ago, for the first time since LEED certification projects began in the early 2000s, the square footage of newly certified LEED projects in existing buildings has surpassed new construction built to LEED standards.

“Most times, when you hear of LEED, it’s usually for an NC,” meaning a new construction project, said Mark Zoeteman, senior mechanical engineer at Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber. Now, said Zoeteman, the situation has “kind of flip-flopped.” Where certifications for LEED-NC once far surpassed LEED-EB — existing buildings — LEED-EB has really picked up.

FTC&H, in fact, recently received LEED Gold certification for Existing Buildings at its corporate headquarters in Cascade Township.

Zoeteman said that at the end of last year, the total accumulated square footage now certified as LEED-EB was 673 million square feet throughout the U.S., while LEED-NC was at 650 million.

Rick Fedrizzi, president and CEO of USGBC and one of its founders, said that historically, the stock of LEED-certified green projects was “overwhelmingly” made up of new construction projects, both in volume and square footage. That began to change in 2008 with the onset of the recession, when the LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance program began experiencing “explosive growth” compared to LEED for new construction.

That trend continued in 2010 and 2011, and likely may continue as the construction industry waits for business to recover from the Great Recession. So far this year, it doesn’t look too promising.

In March, McGraw-Hill Construction reported that new construction starts in February dropped 7 percent from the previous month, at a seasonally adjusted annual rate, to $376 billion. The publisher said diminished activity was reported for nonresidential building in February, although residential building did register modest growth. For the first two months of 2012, total construction starts on an unadjusted basis came in at $52.9 billion, down 14 percent from a year ago.

A McGraw-Hill executive said renewed expansion for the construction industry “is still struggling to take hold,” with a distinctly weak market continuing in publicly financed projects, including institutional buildings.

For all of 2011, total construction starts slipped 2 percent, to $421.4 billion, following a slight 1 percent gain in 2010.

With so little new construction underway, attention is placed on existing structures.

“The U.S. is home to more than 60 billion square feet of existing commercial buildings, and we know that most of those buildings are energy guzzlers and water sieves,” said Fedrizzi. “Greening these buildings takes hands-on work, creating precious jobs, especially for construction workers. Making these existing buildings energy- and water-efficient has an enormous positive impact on the building’s cost of operations. And the indoor air quality improvements that go with less toxic cleaning solutions and better filtration create healthier places to live, work and learn.”

LEED-EB has already reduced FTC&H’s cost of maintaining and operating its 66,000-square-foot headquarters on Arboretum Drive, which was built in 2001 and is occupied by about 220 employees. FTC&H provides civil engineering, environmental services, architectural design/engineering and construction management to both public and private clients. With a total of more than 320 employees, it also has offices in Lansing, Farmington Hills, Kalamazoo, Cincinnati and South Bend.

LEED-EB addresses exterior site management, system upgrades, whole-building cleaning and maintenance practices, indoor air quality, energy use and water efficiency performance, recycling, lighting performance standards and more. The FTC&H headquarters’ LEED-EB certification is based on green operations and management practices that took about two years to sort out and implement. Factors leading to the LEED-EB Gold include:

**Green site and building exterior management.

**Dedicated car pool parking spaces.

**Water-efficient landscaping.

**HVAC systems commissioning.

**Switch to sustainable office equipment, furniture, supplies and building materials.

**Switch to green cleaning products, equipment and policies.

**Reduction of annual energy costs by 20 to 25 percent.

“Our biggest hurdle, I would have to say, was the energy consumption,” said Zoeteman. “That’s common with a lot of older buildings, even though ours wasn’t that old.”

LEED-EB standards include a minimum requirement pertaining to energy use, based on an Energy Utilization Index that is a ratio of BTUs per year and the square footage of the structure.

An energy audit showed that the FTC&H headquarters didn’t meet the minimum. “We had to lower our consumption,” said Zoeteman.

Energy audits are something FTC&H provides to its own clients, so FTC&H’s staff did it themselves at the headquarters. Now, he said, “we’re saving about $13,000 a year” on energy costs.

A big target came up in the audit: 160 small halogen lamps used to light walkways and illuminate art on the walls.

“So we switched to LED lamps, and that reduced our wattage like 88 percent, and we are realizing about a $2,500 electricity savings just by that one measure,” said Zoeteman.

“The interesting thing is, since you’re using less watts, the lighting gives off less heat — so there is less cooling load, so the cooling costs go down.”

Another issue were lights in stairwells that were on all the time, so FTC&H put in occupancy sensors. Now the lights only come on when someone is in the stairwell.

There were electric heaters at some entrance areas and restrooms that were on all the time, “so we put those on a programmable thermostat, scheduled to operate only when we were here,” he said.

A nighttime walking audit through the building turned up another opportunity to reduce energy use.

“We found there were a lot of lights left on that we could not turn off; they were on an emergency circuit,” said Zoeteman. The solution was to convert many of them to a circuit that could be turned off at night, while leaving a few on for emergency use.

“That was a big saving — just doing a nighttime walking audit, and that’s something anybody can do. Just walk through your office building and see how many lights are still left on that you can’t turn off,” said Zoeteman.

FTC&H found that it would receive some LEED-EB points without having to make any changes. For instance, it already had dedicated carpool parking spaces.

There was a change made in the landscape watering system, which worked on a timer. FTC&H installed a rain sensor that would override the timer if it was already raining. The landscape was planted with native plants with deep root systems that don’t require a lot of irrigation — and that counts, under LEED-EB.

The HVAC system also underwent “commissioning” — equivalent to commissioning a newly built ship — to test everything and ensure all systems function as designed. Again, this is a standard procedure FTC&H offers its clients that are trying to maximize energy efficiency, and in practice — especially for older buildings — it will turn up issues that can be remedied. Those include equipment that is running when it’s not supposed to and mistakes such as HVAC fans that are incorrectly wired and run in reverse.

“You find all sorts of things when you do commissioning,” said Zoeteman.

“Green cleaning” was another opportunity to reduce maintenance and operation costs, he said, and involved the firm’s contractors for cleaning: Century FloorSpace in Grand Rapids and Action Chemical in Comstock Park. Chemicals have an impact on indoor air quality — an important LEED standard, but one change at FTC&H was in regard to cleaning equipment. A more thorough vacuuming system, which requires less electricity, was installed and has increased filtration to more thoroughly remove dirt particles.

Less efficient vacuums don’t get everything, said Zoeteman, and the sand and dirt remaining in the carpet causes faster wear. Now the carpeting will last longer, and better filtration also can help improve indoor air quality, a benefit to employees and the company because it reduces absenteeism due to illness.

Right now, FTC&H is working on LEED-EB: Operations & Maintenance improvement projects for a Michigan university and a national retail chain.

The USGBC website lists almost 90 LEED-certified facilities in Grand Rapids, most of them for new construction. There also are a few LEED-EBs listed, including Campau Square Plaza (Gold), the Learning Community facility at Cascade Engineering (Platinum) and Progressive AE (Silver).

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