Building for the Environment

Commercial building design trends evolve toward minimizing environmental impact.
Jul 1, 2016
Tammy Davis
Building for the Environment

The commercial building design process looks much different today than it did just a decade ago. Buzzwords such as environmental impact, energy efficiency and green design enter the conversation with increasing regularity, and clients with commercial building projects want to incorporate some form of sustainability into their design. Architects and engineers from design firms no longer consider “building green” as an alternative methodology; they integrate environmentally friendly concepts, practices and products into every project they undertake.

As pervasive as it is, each person’s interpretation of what it means to be green can vary widely. According to Jeremiah Hatfield, registered architect with Design Collaborative, geography can have a lot to do with interpretation. “In some parts of the country, water conservation is extremely important,” he explains. “In other areas, it’s energy use or waste or maintenance. In Indiana, we find that most clients associate environmentally friendly with energy use, building operation and product manufacturing.”

To ensure everyone is working toward the same goal, it is essential to define expectations early. Local firms Design Collaborative and MSKTD & Associates agree that the first step in any project is to assess a client’s needs, particularly with respect to budget constraints. The first question often asked is whether the client wants to achieve any level of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Even if a client elects to forgo LEED certification, this gives them a starting point for discussing environmentally friendly options.

Bob Patton, architect at MSKTD, explains, “Whether we are designing a LEED project or not, we always approach each project looking for every opportunity to incorporate environmentally friendly design strategies.”

While cost often presents a major concern for clients, incorporating environmentally friendly practices into commercial construction projects continues to become more affordable. Although upfront costs are typically higher for many building materials and systems with higher efficiencies, reduced energy usage can recoup these costs over time. Typically, a three- to five-year payback period offers enough incentive for most clients to make the decision to invest in such materials.

Green building encompasses more than just materials, however; it includes the overall design of the building. Jason Baker, principal and mechanical engineer for Design Collaborative, gives an example: “One of the biggest energy consumers in a building project is the HVAC system that is used to cool and heat the building. Building orientation, location, type of structure and glass type are all factors that can have a huge impact on HVAC energy demands.”

For example, orienting a building with more north facing windows can take advantage of natural light. Designing the building this way can reduce the demand for energy needed from artificial lighting without adding a lot of heat, thus potentially decreasing the demand for climate control.

Evolving toward environmental friendliness is not confined to new building projects. Many modifications can be made to existing spaces to enhance energy efficiency, reduce waste and improve the overall physical environment. MSKTD president Jim Kratzat suggests introducing water-saving fixtures, more efficient light bulbs and fixtures, recycling stations and low VOC (volatile organic compound) cleaning products. From a structural standpoint, property owners can invest in larger changes, such as upgrading roofing or windows, evaluating the exterior building envelope, and replacing HVAC components with higher efficiency products.

Jeremiah Hatfield offers a word of caution against making changes without a careful analysis, however. He recalls a project in which a client wanted to replace aging light fixtures with a more efficient light source. Even though conventional wisdom encouraged making this change, Hatfield found that it didn’t make sense given the cost of energy, lamp life and the initial cost of the new fixtures, particularly when the lights were still functioning well. “The payback would have been 77 years and we would have been depositing perfectly functioning lights into a landfill,” he clarifies.

His example illustrates that the true environmental impact reaches beyond a fixture or piece of equipment or even an entire structure. Green building incorporates a broad view of a project, from the creation of the materials used in it to the disposal of waste from them. It also takes into account the way the structure will be used and how people will access it. Bike paths and racks, for example, can reduce the need for automobile access and its corresponding emissions. As public awareness of the way buildings affect the environment continues to grow, thoughtful consideration of environmental impact will evolve toward becoming an essential part of every construction project. 


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