GMB Digs Warm Niche For Itself

April 4, 2003
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HOLLAND — A high-efficiency energy system designed for Zeeland’s new high school generated a new business opportunity for a Holland engineering and architectural firm.

GMB Architects-Engineers now receives regular inquiries about the geo-thermal heating and cooling system used at Zeeland West High School.

According to Steve Hamstra, GMB’s vice president, the system — in use for 14 months — heats and cools the new high school at a third the cost per square foot of the same functions at Zeeland East High School that opened in 1995.

The success of the project has provided a model for GMB to use to generate awareness for the technology. The firm says it has helped create an emerging market niche for the company to engineer and design energy-efficient systems for public and commercial buildings.

“We’re getting a great deal of interest in this type of technology,” Hamstra said.

The Zeeland West High School project was the first geo-thermal system GMB designed. Hamstra said it is one of eight projects the firm has completed or started in the last 18 months using the technology.

Including the Zeeland project — which involves 20 miles of underground piping — GMB has engineered geo-thermal systems for more than 1.1 million square feet of space.

The smallest project is the 48,000-square-foot Macatawa Bank Corp. headquarters in Holland. The largest is the new Caledonia High School, a 300,000-square-foot structure.

Engineering geo-thermal systems now represents a small portion of GMB’s overall portfolio.

Hamstra expects the use of the technology to snowball as people come to understand it better and become more aware of the cost benefits of a geo-thermal system.

Driving interest thus far, he believes, were spikes in natural gas prices during the last two years and turmoil in the Middle East that has made businesses much more energy-conscious.

“We’re getting more and more calls from people saying, ‘We’re concerned about our long-term energy costs. What can we do?’” Hamstra said.

He explained that geo-thermal heat pumps use the heat of the earth to warm and cool buildings.

In the winter, the system pumps water deep into the earth, where it’s warmed by the earth’s natural heat, and then is used to heat the building. In the summer, heat is extracted from the water, which is used to cool the building.

GMB engineers spent a few years learning about geo-thermal technology before presenting the idea to Zeeland Public Schools administrators as they planned the new Zeeland West High School.

The success of the Zeeland project gave GMB a comfort level to begin suggesting or recommending a geo-thermal system to more clients when appropriate, Hamstra said.

Heat pumps have become far more reliable in recent years, making them much more viable in large-scale applications, he said.

“We’re comfortable using them in large commercial installations where we’re going to have a lot of them and they’re not going to become a maintenance problem,” Hamstra said.

Beyond the geo-thermal systems, GMB of late has seen a growing number of clients interested in pursuing sustainable designs for their facilities. That includes buildings that are designed to reduce energy costs, conserve water, and use environmentally friendly construction materials and alternative energy source such as wind turbines and solar panels.    

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