When buildings bite, owners suffer


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I was discussing Michael Ivanovich's recent Viewpoint column “ When sheep bite, buildings suffer ” (May, page 5) with a few friends, and one of them, Dave, seemed kind of upset. I asked what was up and he related how facilities people know more about their building than the design engineer. Obviously, he took my casual remark about designing green buildings for uneducated, untrained, uncaring O&M staff the wrong way. After some back and forth, I realized the Viewpoint had two messages.

Dave knows how involving O&M staff and occupants in projects from the start makes the difference between a successful outcome and a mediocre one. In theory, it's a warm thought: Everyone works together to be the best they can be. Complicate that sunny picture with tight schedules, stressed-out staff, and a skimpy budget—in a scenario, however unlikely, where bringing more people into the overwrought fray is an avoidable complication. In the end, I agreed with Dave that O&M staff and occupants have much to offer, but on many projects, involving them simply isn't practical.

My take on Viewpoint was the polar opposite of Dave's. The following words jumped off the page and hit me hard: “When operators inherit new MEP systems, and BAS that are… beyond the capabilities of the operators, the systems are defeated soon after the contractors have left the building.”

So should designers let the tail wag the proverbial dog? Many HVAC engineers find themselves in an awful design dilemma. On the one hand, an engineer is trying to satisfy a building owner who wants a super-high-performance building—minimal energy cost, superb air quality, U.S. Green Building Council LEED rating—with a budget that a few years ago would barely cover the lowest-cost equipment on the market. Fortunately, today an engineer can turn to the latest technologies and cutting-edge control systems to meet lofty project requirements within a tight budget.

The only problem: That often leads to a dilemma, typically between the engineer and O&M staff. That's where my friend Dave became kind of upset.

It seems he took my remark as a personal affront to facilities people everywhere, when really it was directed at building owners. Specifically, it targeted building owners who won't send O&M staff to factory training courses or conferences; building owners who pay too little to attract skilled and experienced facilities staff, and rely on turnover to avoid raises and bonuses; and building owners who won't pay for preventive maintenance.

Often when we engineers are hired to design a project, the requirements are such that we must use the most advanced technology available so we can meet the owner's requirements. We can either design systems that require a highly skilled and educated O&M staff, or not take on the project. Operator-friendly does not necessarily mean simple, so designing for the O&M staff that's there is not an option. If we let the tail wag the dog, the building bites and the owner suffers.

Author Information

West's expertise is incisive solutions to puzzling IAQ, high energy cost, productivity, and comfort problems. He has authored more than 50 technical papers on HVAC design, energy efficiency, and indoor environmental quality. He holds a doctorate in thermal science from the University of Florida, and an engineering degree from the Glen L. Martin Institute of Technology at the University of Maryland.

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