Building Self-Sustainable Communities in the 21st Century

David Regen Jr. | Mar 13, 2003

It is time, once again, to pit American ingenuity and resolve against outmoded ways of living which have left our shores vulnerable. We are rapidly reaching the limits of our energy supplies and more world conflict will surely revolve around this issue. We speak of funding terrorism through energy dependency, but here is the irony. We have had solutions in our midst for decades. Many are a direct result of our historic investment in the space program. A larger understanding shows that public policy should reflect the connection between energy, environment, economics, and national security. Most importantly, we have a profound opportunity to shape a better future at the local level, by insisting on energy accountability in building contracts for public construction.

The United States has had the technology and engineering standards necessary to design and build super energy efficient buildings since the early days of the space program. If we had transferred what we learned then to the realm of building energy performance as an industry standard practice, our general state of affairs could be much different. There might be no energy crisis because twice as many homes and three times as many commercial buildings could be operating off the same electrical supply. Or conversely, each 10,000 square feet could reduce air pollution by 100 tons per year and coal burning by over 25 tons per year from the amount now burned to create the electricity to condition that same space. These may sound like outrageous claims, but all conclusions are based on commercial buildings that have existed for years and utility bills of record. But first lets look at a history of near misses in trying to bring energy accountability to the American people.

Apollo and the Oil Embargo were the first harbingers of modern self-sustainable architecture for all. During that time, President Jimmy Carter directed the Department of Energy to create better standards for energy performance in new buildings. These long forgotten programs could have been an ideal marriage of public policy with the needed supporting technology. But energy performance and accountability as standard practice was never adopted in the private sector and we now are faced with all the same problems thirty years later but worse. After Carter was gone and with no oil crisis, later administrations failed to see the strategic importance of these programs. America missed an historic opportunity to bring energy accountability to this industry. As a result, commercial buildings erected in the last three decades use at least four times more energy to heat and cool because advanced energy performance initiatives were never implemented.

Once we embrace energy accountability, it returns billions of dollars to the economy and eliminates billions of tons of air pollution. The challenge is how to replace "prescriptive standards" used for acquiring buildings with performance standards. Robert Southerlan, an aerospace engineer during the Apollo years, initiated a performance oriented, energy accountable approach to space conditioning in homes. Heating/air-conditioning (H/AC) systems and thermal envelopes for houses were designed and installed as a combined system. The maximum annual energy use of the H/AC systems was guaranteed not to exceed pre-determined objectives. Each H/AC system was separately metered to give a direct measure of energy used. Resulting data gave a straightforward determination of whether predetermined objectives were met and tracked on-going improvement of the technology. This was marketed as the Watt Count System and later recognized in the NASA publication “Spin Off” in 1981. The technology was transitioned to commercial and institutional buildings in the 70’s and trademarked by Energy Systems Inc. (ESI) as the SYNERGY SYSTEM.

Predictable results follow a systematic approach in assuring that technology finds full expression in the final product. The mechanics of acquiring a SYNERGY SYTEM follow this concept. First a building is given a quick evaluation of expected performance and first costs. If these numbers (accurate to within 7%) are acceptable, then a detailed design of a thermal envelope and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system for the building is completed. At he end of this design phase an exact quote of both first cost and guaranteed energy performance is provided to the building owner by ESI. HVAC energy use is then measured and should the guaranteed maximum energy use be exceeded, ESI will reimburse the owner 75% of the cost of the excess for two years.

If this concept had been pursued by utility companies, government agencies and others the country might be a much different place. What if several thousand super energy efficient commercial buildings had been built during the 1980's? They would have come under intense scrutiny as the performance data generated by the accountants was shared with the executive decision-makers in the boardroom. Local Governments and School Boards would have seen that certain buildings and schools operated at half the cost. Commercial Real Estate executives would have seen that certain buildings generated twice the profit per square foot of other buildings in their portfolio. This information would have been there to bug these people year after year with each subsequent report. Any discussion of budget crunches or income taxes would serve as another painful reminder. This could start a mandate from the consumer.

The main market barrier to energy efficiency is how prescriptive standards and the low bid process works in the acquisition of a building. The impact of standard practice virtually assures a more expensive building to own over time. No one in the building chain is accountable for its energy use. It is impossible to determine the true cost of owning a building unless capital cost for construction is combined with projected operating costs. This is something the industry is not accustomed to doing and those letting contracts are not accustomed to asking for, yet most states have laws encouraging them to do so. All future public building contracts should be required by law to include an energy accountability specification in the bid. This is where self-sufficiency must start.

The following show economic impact and technical progress of the Synergy System on two buildings:

The 640 Spence Lane Office Building is a 20,008-sq./ft commercial building in Nashville, TN. It has used less than $100 of natural gas to heat the building each year for the last two decades. It was the focal point of a "comparative energy use study" by TVA with 13 other area office buildings of same approximate size and use in 1984. It received a National Award for Energy Innovation from the DOE. It also received a first place prize from ASHRAE, (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration & Air-conditioning Engineers), in their national energy awards competition as a commercial building entry. The property owner was initially attracted because a keen interest in having a low energy use building and also the fact that the cost of the SYNERGY SYSTEM was less than that of a conventional HVAC system. Since first capital costs were less than competing bids from conventional contractors, the property owner chose the Synergy System and enjoyed an immediate return on investment. The dollar value of energy savings turned out to be about equal to his profits from leased office space. Of note, when this building is occupied the heating system is not required until the outside temperature is below 14 degrees F. This building has rarely used its gas heat source since it went on line. Imagine how this type of construction would impact heating oil consumption in the Northeast winter.

Fifteen years later we have Boles Hall, an administrative office building at Centre College in Danville, KY. Energy Systems, Inc. provided a SYNERGY SYSTEM for this building. Boles Hall costs about seven cents per square foot per year to heat and cool. HVAC system energy use is less than half that of the Spence Office Building on a per square foot basis This may be the most energy efficient building on the planet that uses no renewable energy technology like solar or geothermal. The economic impact of these buildings is over a dollar per square foot per year. What would it mean if all the school buildings built in the last 20 years could operate in a similar manner? Most school buildings range between 80 cents to 2 dollars per square foot per year to heat and cool. DOE figures energy costs for schools at $6 billion per year. DOE estimates are 25% savings on retrofit programs. Through new construction $6 billion dollars in energy costs could be reduced to one.

If we wish to examine the effect of entire communities built exclusively with energy performance standards, we could compare two identical communities with identical power plants on separate grids. One could be built entirely with the above mentioned performance standards and the other not. If the conventional community saturates the electrical supply when 1,000,000 homes and 100,000 commercial buildings are on-line, the energy performance community could continue to build 1,000,000 additional homes and 200,000 more commercial buildings before an equal electrical demand would exhaust the same supply. With such a large customer base, the utility can raise the price of electricity and increase profits with minimal economic impact. If both are building at the same rate, the performance community will have a much flatter growth curve on the demand side which makes long range planning much easier. The utility in the other community must instead spend millions to upgrade capacity at a much faster rate.

Self-sustainable design and construction is the only realistic across-the-board Risk Aversion Strategy for the ratepayer. There are so many things that can cause a sudden electrical price hike in any given service region at any time. Drought has doubled the price of electricity in Prairie states. This will be catastrophic for many small business owners. Southern ratepayers and not TVA, will soon be footing the bill for environmental clean up. Or maybe you just live in California. Shall we count the ways? In the brave new world of deregulation and energy trading, endemic problems can have a systemic ripple effect. We are only one major event away from finding out. The economic impact of this risk aversion grows in parallel to the price of energy. Therein lies the beauty, no one is immune, and therefore everyone can benefit.

Environmental impact can be defined in tons of air pollution per year per square footage. Coal burning steam plants represent the main energy source of electrical production in America. If every building erected over the last three decades had the energy performance of SYNERGY SYSTEMS, there would be an average reduction in air pollution of 100 tons per 10,000 square feet per year. Global warming can not be solved without a group effort at the user end and cooperation from energy suppliers. Here people of Western New York have an additional opportunity to change their world by adding a few extra dollars to their electric bill. The ratepayer can choose to help fund capitol improvements to various renewable energy programs. Now that sounds like a future. While in the Southeast, TVA must spend the same amount to clean up environmental damage from strip mining coal as they spent to build the coal fired steam plants in the first place. Now that sounds like irony.

Building a self sufficient America can’t be done overnight but it can be done in one generation. Lets call it a 100-year plan, because by then there won’t be any oil left in Iraq anyway. There is no other industrial sector that could create more immediate jobs, both skilled and unskilled, than a massive federal building program. The performance engineering that begins here would certainly become an industry standard practice. And this could lead to one of the greatest economic booms in American history. One that would bring lasting rewards to those (taxpayers and property owners) with a stake in the American dream.

Self-sufficiency by design is fundamental to maintaining a high standard of living, if not our survival as a species. The technology exists. All you have to do is ask for it.

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Excellent article which is right on target about what is needed - a large-scale demonstration program showing what can be achieved through integrated design, construction and operation. If a case study of the Boles Hall building available on the web, readers might be interested in seeing it.