The cornerstone of high-performance buildings is energy efficiency. The operational costs of a building can consume 60 percent to 80 percent of its life-cycle costs — and energy spending tops the list.
“On the nonresidential side, the United States has 82 billion square feet in the built environment, consuming 75 percent of the electricity,” notes Ash Awad, chief market officer at mechanical contractor McKinstry Co., who oversees all the company’s energy retrofit work. “Fifty percent of the total energy in the United States is consumed by those nonresidential buildings, producing about 40 percent of the carbon. And McKinstry believes half that energy, half that operational cost, half that resource is wasted.”
Sustainability of buildings is part of the culture at Seattle-based McKinstry. Awad joined the firm in 2000 to head up the energy services division.
“For 60 years, McKinstry has worked to take the waste out of the entire design, build, operate and maintain continuum,” he explains. “Our industry is quite fragmented. So even on the first-cost part of decision making, we see significant waste there as well. So, an integration between design, build, operate and maintain — whether you’re building or retrofitting — completely changes how much money is spent after a project is done.”
That integration is a key step in delivering a high-performance building to a customer. Collaboration or buy-in from every part of the construction team — owners, architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors and building operators — ensures everyone understands and agrees on how the building will be built, operated and maintained.
The second step regards the total cost of ownership. “You cannot make decisions without understanding how these systems are going to truly operate,” Awad notes. “What is really going to happen? How much is it going to cost? If we deploy this new technology, do the operators of the building know how to operate it properly?”
If the operations staff doesn’t understand the new tech, mechanical contractors must factor in the cost of training beyond the end of a project, he adds. The training could be a half-day workshop or a year of training, depending on the technology. “You will achieve a high-performance building strategy if you don’t factor that training into the cost of what it’s going to take to get any new system to operate optimally,” Awad says.
The last step is determining who bears the risk to ensure the building will operate as designed. “If one of the team members, not the owner, isn’t willing to take the risk of transitioning from construction or retrofit to operations and standing behind and supporting the customers through how they operate their facilities, you will not get high-performing buildings,” he notes.
For mechanical contractors, it means stepping up and correcting any problems with systems they install in buildings. It’s committing to guarantee certain energy savings or cooling load — to stand behind your work, to take responsibility for the outcome. And the type of risk varies with every client.
“It’s not one-size-fits-all,” Awad says. “We take on risk in a variety of ways and it depends on what our client sees as the riskiest pieces of the proposition. But if we didn’t step in and take the risk on some projects, then the customer has a hard time deciding to move forward. It’s a safety net.”
McKinstry puts its guarantees in the contract it signs with clients. If something goes wrong, it could be a matter of fine-tuning the system. Or if the system is underperforming, equipment may need to be added or changed out. The object is to make it right for the customers. Otherwise, financial penalties could be imposed, although Awad notes it’s a rare occurrence for McKinstry.
“Clients want to know they’ve got one point of accountability, one entity to take responsibility for the outcome and do the right thing,” he says. “In our industry, that element of doing the right thing to achieve the correct outcome is how I best describe risk.”
One of McKinstry’s most recent retrofit projects was the Pacific Tower building, an 85-year-old Seattle historic landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was first used as a U.S. Marine hospital in 1933 and has had many identities since then, including offices for Amazon.
After Amazon.com relocated in 2011, Pacific Tower’s future was in limbo. Around the same time, Seattle Colleges submitted a budget request to the Washington state legislature to build a new home for its Allied Health program. Two years later, the project framework solidified as the college signed on as the anchor tenant and a collaborative team moved to gather funding to transform Pacific Tower into a hub for community service and innovation.
That transformation includes the Smart Buildings Center, managed by the Northwest Energy Efficiency Council, a nonprofit trade association of the energy-efficiency industry. The center serves as an innovation hub for the growing smart buildings industry. It includes event space that can be reserved and a library that loans out diagnostic tools for improving the performance of buildings.
Renovating a historically designated landmark posed unique challenges. The renovation project team, co-led by McKinstry and Mortenson Construction, strengthened the exterior without altering the façade, added insulation everywhere possible without gutting the entire interior and replaced the heating system without dismantling the existing ductwork — all while the building remained occupied.
One significant challenge was balancing the historic building requirements with the city of Seattle’s energy code requirements. When a project includes a “significant alteration,” such as the Pacific Tower upgrade, Seattle energy code states that the entire building must be brought up to the current energy code minimum. This includes dozens of prescriptive requirements that do not always align with historic preservation requirements.
As a result, Pacific Tower became the first existing building to follow the city of Seattle’s alternate energy code path. It allowed the project team more latitude to select which features to upgrade as long as the whole building’s energy consumption would be lower than if it were to follow the standard energy code requirements.
Although installing with double-paned glass windows would have significantly reduced the amount of energy needed to heat and cool the building, historical preservation guidelines required the team to repair the wooden frames and re-use the existing glass windows. The team checked each of the building’s 756 windows and replaced any rotting wood frames, sealed any leaks and maintained the exterior.
Other energy-efficient HVAC features include:
• Occupancy sensors “talk” to the building control system to provide the optimal amount of zone-by-zone heating, cooling and ventilation.
• McKinstry replaced the heating system that served the college floors with a high-efficiency heat pump.
• New smart carbon dioxide sensors constantly measure the carbon dioxide concentration (as an indicator of occupancy) in each part of the building and adjust the level of ventilation accordingly.
McKinstry is carefully tracking the building’s energy consumption. If there are unexpected spikes in energy use, the energy management team will step in to identify the root cause and adjust as needed to ensure the building’s energy consumption remains below its target. And many of Pacific Tower’s energy and water meters were made accessible to the Smart Buildings Center as a living laboratory.
Kelly Faloon is a contributing editor and writer for Contracting Business magazine, Contractor and HPAC Engineering. The former editor of Plumbing & Mechanical magazine, Faloon has nearly 20 years experience in the plumbing and heating industry.