Designing efficient office buildings with visual appeal: Electrical/lighting/power

Office buildings can be highly complex, with complicated features and advanced technology regarding electrical, lighting and power. Experienced engineers share advice on how to handle these structures and identify trends impacting such structures now and in the future.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer February 9, 2018


  • Jason Gerke, Mechanical & Plumbing Group Manager, GRAEF, Milwaukee
  • James Hansen, PE, BEMP, LEED AP, Principal and Senior Mechanical Engineer, GHT Ltd., Arlington, Va.
  • Tyler Jensen, PE, LEED AP, Senior Associate, Environmental Systems Design, Inc. Chicago
  • John Yoon, PE, LEED AP, Lead Electrical Engineer, McGuire Engineers Inc., Chicago.

CSE: Describe metering or submetering in an office building. What did it include, and what best practices did you include?

Yoon: You need to have a clear idea of what functions are required by the client when designing electrical metering systems. Is it tenant-revenue recovery? LEED measurement and verification compliance? Power-quality monitoring or load management? Or maybe a combination of these? The temptation is to over-specify. Oftentimes, it may only seem like an incremental increase in the upfront hardware cost to add functionality, but it can dramatically increase the total cost of ownership.

Although some metering manufacturers promote their products as proverbial Swiss army knives that can do everything, there are usually hidden costs that affect the total cost of ownership. Taking advantage of increased functionality generally means going beyond simple hardware specifications to include additional stand-alone software/licensing, building automation system/BMS point programming, WAN/LAN access, etc. While the metering hardware may have a useful service life of 20+ years, what about these associated systems?

CSE: Are you seeing more smart grid or microgrid aspects on office building projects? If so, how have you served these needs? Are there any issues unique to these projects?

Yoon: While the local regional public utility companies are pushing hard for deploying new microgrids, we haven’t seen much in the way of implementing them in the Midwest. In general, the primary barrier is the availability of funding for new distributed generation and storage. While the U.S. Department of Energy offers grants as part of their grid-modernization initiative, the overwhelming majority of the funding still has to come from the local ratepayers. For example, in Illinois, the utility company serving the northern half of the state has attempted to attach funding provisions for microgrid pilot projects to rate case legislation. Those attempts have so far failed due to opposing lobbying efforts from various consumer advocate groups.

While microgrids offer the potential of improved electrical-grid security and resiliency, it’s hard to dispel the perception that these programs amount to corporate welfare by providing public funding so that a utility company can experiment with new technologies-technologies that can improve their profitability and circumvent laws that make a clear legal separation between the deregulated side of the business (power generation) and the regulated local public utility monopoly (distribution). Whereas the local utilities were often required to divest themselves of any power plants when deregulation happened, what happens when their new microgrids incorporate wholly owned distributed-generation assets?

Ultimately, the public good is served by having reliable and resilient electrical distribution infrastructure. There are various ongoing concerns: cybersecurity, the ability of utility companies to support their existing infrastructure with the overall decline in electrical usage/revenue, etc. The primary question is how utility companies in a regulated environment can reinvent themselves to remain economically viable and still serve the public good.