Talking yourself up

Engineers have a reputation of being less-than-great communicators, but selling energy-efficient design requires a keen ability to paint a verbal picture about your capabilities. Here are some tips.

By Jenni Spinner, Contributing Editor November 19, 2010


  • Rich McKown, PE, FPE, LEED AP, Engineering Manager/Principal, Healthcare and Research Facilities, Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City, Mo.
  • Michael Waite, PE, LEED AP, Senior Staff I, Building Technology division, Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Waltham, Mass.
  • Mike Walters, PE, LEED AP, Sustainable Practice Leader, Affiliated Engineers, Inc., Madison, Wis.

CSE: Energy-efficient design often has a longer return on investment. What tactics do you use with clients to help them understand the long-term investment or big picture?

Michael Waite: Most clients are aware there may be a trade-off of an increase in initial investment for reductions in energy costs. The energy benefits of particular energy-efficient features can be evaluated, which can assist in the cost-benefit analysis. For clients who are not particularly interested in minimizing energy use, it can be helpful to emphasize the additional benefits of energy-efficient design. For example, building enclosures of energy-efficient buildings should be designed with attention to air barrier continuity and reducing thermal bridging (i.e., high thermal conductivity materials, such as steel, passing through low thermal conductivity materials, such as insulation). These improvements are typically hidden within the building’s skin and cannot be easily evaluated in a single nameplate-type rating, such as the seasonal energy-efficiency ratio (SEER) of a piece of cooling equipment. It is important to stress all benefits of a particular measure, including seemingly hidden ones.

Mike Walters: I wouldn’t call it a tactic, so much as a straightforward conversation. We work with large institutional clients making substantial capital investments in functionally intensive facilities. These conversations are in terms of “100-year buildings,” so there’s already a strong understanding and appreciation of longer ROIs. Accordingly, our role begins with the earliest project ideation, allowing long-term energy planning and performance modeling to take place in anticipation of immediate need and future growth. In any case, this is a balance-sheet conversation. Candor is the fastest path to a thorough and ongoing understanding of institutional needs, goals, expectations, and capacities.

Rich McKown: I like to show the owner the cost of doing nothing. By showing the cost of design, construction, utilities, maintenance, and future replacement costs for a 20- or so year period, then comparing that to more energy-efficient options, and then calculating the net present value of both options, the owner can better see the long-term value. This can be a powerful technique in talking to CFOs.

CSE: What energy-efficient product or system “sells” the best for new buildings, or for existing buildings?

Walters: Technologies and strategies are too specific to cite, program, and scale to make blanket assessments. For new and existing buildings alike, metering and submetering are already pretty essential investments and in the future will become inevitable ones. In this manner systems integration becomes an essential tool for long-term facility/campus management. This approach does not mean that buildings are necessarily more complex, but that they are much more actively managed for optimization.

Waite: Systems that “sell” are often improvements on the basic systems that do not significantly affect other project goals, particularly building appearance in most cases. High-performance mechanical systems and lighting control strategies are very common. Many projects also look for “statements” such as photovoltaics. In new buildings, we typically see more “trade-offs” than concentrated efforts to improve the energy efficiency of building enclosures.

McKown: It’s obviously easy to “sell” the product or system with the fastest payback, but larger items such as heat recovery units and condensing boiler systems contribute significantly to energy reduction.

CSE: How receptive are owners to building automation systems, controls, or energy dashboards?

McKown: The facility maintenance people love them and need them to do their job well. The bean counters may have a different perspective when focusing on the costs. Ten years ago, most cars didn’t have that digital gauge that gave you average fuel economy. Fuel was cheaper and no one really paid attention to how their car was running. These days, if you are averaging 25 mpg for a few years and after a few tanks of gas, you see that your car changes to only 18 mpg, you’re in a hurry to get to a mechanic to diagnose the problem and get it fixed. If you give your facility maintenance folks that same tool, they will act the same way.

Walters: Long-view owners are more receptive, as are owners of functionally complex buildings. With respect to "dashboards," I find owners are interested in the displays to convey a sense of awareness to building users, but substantial evolution of the technology and behavioral science in buildings needs to occur before these systems can be deployed for beneficial, predictable energy reductions.

Waite: In working on existing buildings and mechanical systems, improved building controls are often an easy sell. Investigations of excessive energy use are often coupled with thermal comfort problems. New controls generally improve both thermal comfort and energy use. If thermal comfort issues arise soon after a building opens or in a high-rent building, owners are quick to address the problem.

CSE: When working with clients, what suggestions do you have to help them understand energy-efficient design? How do you educate them?

Waite: It depends on the client’s existing knowledge of energy-efficient design and construction practices, and on the project-specific goals. At a fundamental level, it includes explaining the origin and intent of the energy code provisions. At a design level, we work through building enclosure details at critical air barrier and thermal bridging locations to emphasize the need for and continuity at these often overlooked conditions and the substantive effect they could have on energy consumption. At a procedural level, we discuss the benefits of the integrated design approach and whole building commissioning process to help understand how building enclosure, mechanical systems, and lighting interact to optimize building performance. Equally revealing, and arguably more effective, we show the drawbacks and consequences of not addressing the issues we identify for consideration.

Walters: Anyone who answers to a balance sheet understands efficiency. That’s why our approach to these conversations is from an economic perspective. On day-to-day project engagement activities I strongly promote the use of sketches for system diagrams and design concepts. I’ve found this method of conveying technical information humanizes it in a way that makes it much easier to grasp for all project participants.

CSE: From your experience, what do clients expect when they’re making their existing building more energy-efficient?

Waite: The obvious answer is lower energy costs, but this can be difficult within the constraints of an existing building, particularly as it applies to improving the energy performance of the building enclosure. Seemingly simple measures such as adding insulation may create moisture problems where they did not exist before, and other modifications may alter the building appearance more than the owner would like. In the end, clients expect you to be honest about the challenges the team faces, work hard within the project constraints to try to achieve their goals, and understand the pros and cons of your recommendations from their perspective.

Walters: Energy conservation/efficiency work in existing buildings is clearly a growth area for professional service firms. However, I’ve seen a clear expectation for both a strong technical analysis of the potential options for increasing energy efficiency and also corresponding rigor on financial analysis. This expectation is unfortunately not regularly matched with sufficient funding to perform the upfront analysis and subsequent design detailing. I am seeing more clients expect whole-building energy analysis to support their decision making and a continued focus on relatively short-term financial performance expectations, e.g., less than a five-year payback.

CSE: Do you feel product suppliers provide enough information to you and the client to determine whether a product meets your energy-efficiency standards?

Walters: Some do, some don’t. We don’t see a lot scam artists, fortunately. When information is light, the reasons usually have to do with the technologies being very new, or a perception that the technology is fundamentally unique. We don’t rely on product information, however. We model any new technology very carefully—in some cases building physical mockups—and work closely with manufacturers on modifications before recommending that technology to a client.

Waite: Manufacturers and suppliers generally have the information required to exhibit energy code compliance and the results of common laboratory performance tests. It typically becomes our (the designers’) responsibility to understand how these products will function in practice, to determine how they will interact with other building systems, and to develop drawings and specifications that show how materials or systems should be installed to provide the best possible performance.

CSE: How often are energy-efficient products or systems commissioned or retrocommissioned?

Waite: Mechanical system commissioning is becoming more common as it is required by building rating systems (e.g., LEED) and owners begin to understand the benefit of an independent review of system design, construction, and operation. Whether or not a mechanical system is commissioned often depends on the building type; buildings whose operation is very dependent on a high-performing mechanical system, such as hospitals, are more likely to have the system commissioned. Building enclosure commissioning is not as common as mechanical system commissioning, but is quickly gaining popularity. However, it can prove very beneficial as significant repairs to in-place enclosure systems are generally quite expensive and often impractical after construction is complete and problems arise.

Retrocommissioning is still a fairly new term. It can often identify no- or low-cost energy-saving opportunities, but we typically find it is initiated following the identification of a problem with the mechanical system. This may change as owners become more familiar with the procedure and its benefits.

Walters: The short answer here is that we have a long way to go to get to the point where commissioning and continuous performance adjustments happen regularly. Because I deal with functionally driven spaces, I see a high percentage of projects receive commissioning work—perhaps as much as 75%.

CSE: Describe the process your firm uses to design energy-efficient buildings. At what level do you work with architects or construction firms? What types of meetings or planning sessions do you conduct?

Walters: Our role begins well before schematic design. The more functionally complex a building is going to be, the greater our proportional role will be, and a truly sustainable building can be quite complex regardless of traditional programmatic designation. We team with our architectural partners to define project understanding, then start to frame project goals applying an energy plan to that understanding. We generate initial design strategies using proprietary benchmarks, further refined with the client’s operational assumptions. More quantitative verification follows with performance modeling and component modeling to produce a composite model. We reconcile these outcomes with the program and institutional capacities, revisit the concepts for confirmation, and issue a basis of design.

McKown: We create an energy model of the building, then use the model to compare different equipment and system types. What makes sense for one building may not make sense on others.

Waite: We typically work either for or directly with the architect, but working as a team is essential. Everyone must be cognizant of the decisions and recommendations made by other members of the design team, and everyone needs to understand the overall vision of the architect and the expectations of the owner. Small team working meetings are valuable, as are in-house analyses and discussions. But, larger meetings or charrettes are also beneficial and sometimes essential, and all relevant design professionals (architectural, structural, HVAC, enclosure consultant, LEED consultant, commissioning agent, etc.) should participate. It is also essential that the construction team be on board. The contractor should be made aware of the project’s energy-efficiency goals, but also understand the additional benefits of the design. It can be helpful if particular design approaches being used are not presented as abnormal or entirely new, but as improvements on past practices.

CSE: Which software or modeling tools do you use to help your clients “see” the energy-efficient design? Do these work as communication tools?

McKown: We use Trane trace 700 and eQuest as our basic building modeling tools. It definitely adds a degree of trust with the owners if you have a computer model of the building—especially when you can show the effects of different building orientation, shading devices, occupancy schedules, and system type and equipment selections can have on the total energy use.

Walters: We use a variety of off-the-shelf tools such as eQuest and IES Virtual Environment, but typically find these insufficient and regularly augment with several custom-built internal tools. These allow for very simple information graphics to display important data and give a sense of real-time tweaking of design strategies and/or project goals so that iterative conversations can be efficiently facilitated.

Waite: We use energy modeling software, 2D and 3D thermal modeling software, and computational fluid dynamics. Energy model results are a good communication tool as all of the nuts and bolts are reduced to a single number: annual energy usage. However, equally important is a client’s understanding of the limitations of energy models, what the models do not capture, and what aspects of your design cannot be adequately evaluated by the model. Energy models can be helpful in comparing design options, but there are typically too many unknowns to accurately predict actual building energy use.

CSE: Describe an alternative energy system you’ve recently specified into a building. Provide us with the story behind the engineering project.

Walters: We saw a terrific opportunity for chilled beam application in a damp lab setting at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. Such an application is largely without precedent, especially in the U.S. We identified and worked with one manufacturer to model and mock up the technology. It’s been operational for a year and is performing to expectation. It has represented such a success to the manufacturer that they’ve started production in the U.S. They’re the first chilled beam manufacturer to do so.

CSE: Which tools do you use to help you in your design, such as Energy Star, U.S. Green Building Council LEED, Green Globes, etc.?

Waite: LEED itself is not intended as a resource for specific energy-efficient design techniques, though it provides a guideline to help some clients understand the benefits of improved energy efficiency, energy use monitoring, and building system commissioning. Energy codes and American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) publications, such as Standard 90.1 (Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings) and the building-type-specific Advanced Energy Design Guides, can take you to the next step. The best resource is past experience and lessons learned, including staying up-to-date on what other designers have found to be successful and what existing high-performance buildings have incorporated into their design and operation.

Walters: I don’t know that these tools so much help us in our design as represent a means to document the successful outcome of our design. As such, we value them and have a great appreciation for the role they have played in educating the public about the imperatives we’re all facing. However, such tools largely mark achievement only relative to known industry standards, whereas we use absolute metrics (such as Btu/sf/yr) to provide a definitive basis for assessment and planning.

CSE: What trends do you see for the future of designing energy-efficient systems in buildings?

Walters: Conceptual phase energy planning/budgets; quantifying heretofore qualitative considerations (i.e., reputational costs, recruiting appeal, etc.); enhanced life cycle assessment and carbon accounting; and system- and building-level measurement and verification.

Waite: I think we will continue to see shared progress from designers, manufacturers, contractors, and building owners as everyone involved in new and existing building projects is needed to produce an energy-efficient building. New products will continue to be developed and design practices refined based on collective experience. The most significant trends may be in measurement and verification of building energy performance and understanding the importance of ensuring quality throughout the construction process. Hopefully, this will result in better anticipation of the challenges to minimizing energy use early in design and incorporating solutions into the design documents, enhanced commissioning practices throughout construction, and continuous improvement over the building’s lifespan.

CSE: Anything to add?

Walters: Time is not on our side as we pursue the goals of sustainability. Doing "more" to address these issues isn’t sufficient if not done in the immediate term.