Energy Efficiency in Buildings: Are we doing enough?

By Don McLean on Thursday 27 June 2013

Energy efficiency is something that has been at the forefront of the construction industry’s conscience for some time now, but how seriously is it actually being taken? What truly effective measures have been introduced to reduce energy consumption? According to an article in Rolling Stone magazine last month, we are losing the battle against Global Warming because “we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in”. The same article reveals that our oil, coal and gas reserves have reached a figure that is five times more than climate experts think is safe to burn and in turn will inevitably lead to an environmental and/or economical disaster.

With buildings consuming 49% of all energy produced in the US, our industry really needs to stand up and take action. Governments around the world have introduced legislation and rating systems to try and address this. According to figures published by Architecture 2030, estimates of residential and building energy use have been dropping by almost 70% since 2005 and this is due to the considerable amount of action that the Building Industry has taken to improve design and efficiency. In the same report it is forecasted that American consumers will spend $3.66 trillion less on energy between 2012 and 2030 than was originally projected in 2005.

Campaigns like Architecture 2030 and rating systems such as LEED have helped to significantly alter the way in which we approach building design and operation. It is now widely recognised that in order to construct more efficient buildings, construction professionals need to take a much more holistic approach to the way they design buildings. From the earliest concept stages, architects, engineers, facilities managers and all others involved in the building life cycle must be involved in the design through to the operational stages. This Integrated Design Process has been discussed in detail for several years now but is rarely put into practice.

There are a number of technological solutions now available which aid this process. Building Performance Analysis software for example allows practitioners to create 3D virtual building models and from that analyse and test the efficiency and performance of different design options right from the beginning of the process. This feedback enables Engineers and Architects to communicate and work closer together through a common platform. For example they can now analyse daylighting, thermal comfort, cooling and much more plus test different mechanical, passive, hybrid or renewable systems to ensure that buildings are designed and built in the most energy efficient way possible, yet maintain occupant comfort.  Such technology compliments and integrates with the growing trend for Building Information Modeling (BIM) – a process and technology platform that supports integrated design and construction.

The importance of using technology like this has never been greater than it is today. With the need to comply with government regulations and the fear of global warming, the industry is seeing that energy efficiency is now their number one priority. This is proven by the rise in buildings that are achieving green building ratings via the many environmental rating systems which are now established all over the world. The USGBC’s LEED system is used in 40,000 commercial projects in 140 countries, totalling 10 billion square feet of space.

Two recent studies carried out by the New Buildings Institute (NBI) and the CoStar Group showed that LEED is not only effective but also increases property values. The NBI study found that that the median energy-use intensity for LEED buildings is 24% better than the national average for conventional buildings. The CoStar study discovered that LEED-certified buildings are selling for $171 per square foot more than non-certified buildings and rented LEED-certified properties fetch an extra $11.24 per square foot.

All of this growth requires new products and services that can support the construction industry in meeting their environmental targets. Green building products and services offer benefits to both the building owner and occupant in terms of:

  • Energy conservation/ clean energy production
  • Lower maintenance/ replacement costs over the lifetime of the building
  • Better, more intelligent monitoring of building energy and resource usage
  • Improved occupant health and productivity
  • Greater design flexibility

Green building is not only great for the environment but also the economy, but why has it taken us so long to realize this? There are a lot of positive statistics out there that show, yes we are starting to take notice and make a difference, but is it enough? Is it too little too late? There are many issues and concerns that still need to be addressed, not least the significant threat that fossil fuels pose on global warming. However according to green building trends, the use of fossil fuels in new and refurbished buildings is significantly decreasing and net-zero buildings are on their way in. Net-zero buildings produce their own power, so therefore consume zero energy from the grid and produce zero carbon emissions. Although still rare the fact that this movement is gaining momentum is very encouraging and gives us a much more optimistic outlook to a greener future. New innovations and cutting edge technology are at the forefront of the Green Building movement and the need for change has never been more pertinent, watch this space – the building design and construction industry is undergoing a green revolution.

Author Biography
Dr Don McLean is the Founder and MD of Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES).  He has 35 years’ experience in the use and development of building simulation analysis tools, including involvement in many landmark building simulation projects across the UK and Europe, such as Heathrow Terminal 5.  In 1994 he founded IES for the development of the Virtual Environment platform with the objective to overcome many of the commercial barriers to the uptake of energy efficient simulation practices within design firms.  Offering an integrated suite of performance analysis tools within one platform, IES continues to develop its tools making them more and more accessible to architects and the mainstream building sector.  Don holds a BSc in Environmental Engineering from the University of Strathclyde, and also spent nine years in the ABACUS unit, at the Department of Architecture in the University of Strathclyde, undertaking a PhD and Post Doctoral research.  During this time ABACUS was one of the foremost departments in the application of computers in the building design process. don.mclean@iesve.com