Architects Design, Retrofit Buildings to Save Energy

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Over the years, Gregg Strollo has been involved in numerous discussions about making buildings more efficient in their consumption of energy. The talks usually cover the standards of LED lighting, variable-speed HVAC systems and the quality of windows to be installed.

But sometimes the best way to use less energy, the president of Strollo Architects says, is to step away from the checklist followed so often and think outside the box.

Stollo refers to a dentistry office his firm worked on years ago. The southern wall of the building is almost entirely glass and the roof overhang extends out from the top of the wall. The result is that during winter, when the sun is low in the sky, light shines through the window and on to the black floor, heating the building. During summer, the overhang blocks most sunlight from the window, keeping the office cool.

“At a time when people have to run their air conditioners, they only have to run it to offset the changes from people coming in and out,” he says. “All we did was calculate the angle of the roof and the distance of the overhang above the glass. That has nothing to do with LEED design. It was and is – as is the case with most good architect firms – a few people thinking about how to position a building.”

Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, the certification better known as LEED, covers some of the measures that architects and engineers can take to make buildings more energy efficient. The standards are often used as guidelines, even if the building owners aren’t pursuing such a certification.

“There’s a lot of merit to the concept of LEED. It’s about saving resources, whether it’s manpower, energy, building materials or longevity [of the building],” says Brett Hendricks, vice president of BSHM Architects. “We tell people not to pursue a LEED building because you want the plaque on the wall. Do it because it makes sense.”

Chris Morrone, a partner with CJL Engineering, explains that increasing the energy efficiency of a building is crucial because of the inefficiencies in the transmission of power.

“To produce 10 units of energy, you need to spend 90 additional units at the power plant,” he explains. “At the plant, 70% is lost and then as you get through transmission lines, you lose efficiency.”

At an individual building, it’s typical that only about 70% of power that reaches a building is usable, Morrone continues. By improving things such as lighting, insulation, and heating and air conditioning, building owners can increase that number while putting less strain on power plants.

The biggest step, the three architects agree, is improving HVAC systems. Most new systems for commercial buildings feature variable-speed controls, Morrone says, which were just entering the market 15 years ago when energy efficiency began taking hold. Having variable-speed equipment allows for greater control over air temperature so systems operate at the minimum level required.

“If you have a building that will have 18 people working in it, but have a conference where 50 people show up, you need to design it so the equipment can modulate and stay efficient at all levels,” he says. “It needs to be able to move up and down to keep up with demand.”

When BSHM built a new K-12 school for the South Range School District, the school board chose geothermal energy. In the five years since, Hendricks reports, the costs of heating the building have dropped to $1 per square foot per year. And on top of that, the system is more reliable.

“One of the advantages of new technology is consistency, Hendricks says. “If you had a school building with 50 teachers, 49 would call a custodian saying their room is too hot or too cold. Temperature control was a nightmare.

“At South Range,” he continues, “the complaints from teachers over the past five years have fallen to almost nothing because of the new controls.”

Other strategies that can play large roles in energy efficiency are LED lights with adjustable ballasts or sensors that adjust the brightness – Morrone says energy costs on lighting can be cut as much as 80% depending on the age of the current lights – insulation and windows.

“Windows and glass are huge. When Youngstown was in its heyday, glass was single pane with no energy films or [low emissivity] transfer issues,” Strollo says. “If we do a building where the public will be involved, we do an airlock, vestibule, low-infiltration jambs and sills, and appropriate glass types for the direction it’s facing.”

When it comes to insulation, Hendricks has found that it’s easier to use an energy-efficient process with a new build rather than retrofit a building.

“If there’s already a block wall and brick veneer, you don’t want to tear that brick down to put in the foam. The best option is to add the insulation inside. You can retrofit a wall, but it’s not a game changer,” he says.

When the time comes to either renovate a building or put up a new structure, energy efficiency is often at the top of the discussion, Strollo says.

“If they’re an enlightened owner, it should be in the first paragraph of our discussion,” he says. “If not, maybe the second or we introduce it in the third, just because it’s our job to be an asset to the client.”

Shortly after, though, costs come into play. Most energy-efficiency improvements or methods increase the cost of a project, the architects agree. But the payback over the life of the equipment often offsets that extra cost. It’s just a question of how long a building owner is willing to wait and how much money he has available during construction.

“There are a lot of opportunities for energy savings and as time goes by, the technology increases and creates more opportunities,” Hendricks says. “But each one costs money. You have to evaluate what you’re spending and what you’ll be saving. That can be the difficult part to get across to some owners.”

Today’s building codes, Morrone adds, include several energy-efficiency requirements and set benchmarks for anyone who updates a building.

“That level far exceeds what was around even five or 10 years ago,” he says.

A study by the Smart Energy Design Assistance Center at the University of Illinois found that on retrofitted buildings, increasing the energy efficiency could reduce power bills up to 30% and that a $22,500 investment would be paid back within three years.

Beyond just the financial benefits is a performance benefit that many building owners see after they complete the renovations, Hendricks says. Employees are more comfortable in their offices, meaning they’re more productive and happier.

“There’s the intangible aspect of employee comfort. If you have an employee sitting in the office with gloves on, then they’re going to be working slower,” he says. “These improvements always have more than just the cost-benefit side.”

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.