Buildings use 40 percent of the United States’ primary energy. Advances in energy efficiency help curtail some of this growth, but we are building buildings faster than we are saving energy, which means that the actual energy consumption is increasing.

Growth is very hard to curtail, and the resulting increase in energy consumption impacts resource availability, infrastructure, climate, energy security, and other social, economic, and environmental issues. Want to see how buildings will use energy in the future? Look at what is being built today. Today’s buildings will be used for at least 20 to 50 years and the design decisions that are being made today will mortgage energy futures. To change this direction, we must construct buildings that are energy producers instead of consumers—that is, buildings must produce at least as much energy as they consume each year.

Every decision we make has a direct consequence on energy or our environment. Do we think about our decisions in this way? Consider the design and construction delivery process for a new building or retrofit project. Many people are involved in making decisions around delivering the project. For a medium-scaled office building, more than 1,000 people are involved somewhere in the decision chain from the owner, to the design team, to the contractor, to the subs. Are all the decisions made during the process based on facts, or are some elements of decision making emotional?

In designing a building, people make decisions that influence cost and energy performance. Start with a typical building—one that meets energy codes and is built for an acceptable cost. From this, energy efficiency is often considered by the engineering team. As energy efficiency strategies tend to increase the building cost, an analysis is done to determine the cost benefit of the energy savings—and terms such as payback and return on investment are used.

These are presented to owners for prioritization, as there is rarely enough money in the budget to add all the desired energy efficiency strategies.

At the same time, design decisions are made that may increase the building’s capital cost and use more energy. Often, these come in the form of amenities or other features of the building such as all-glass façades or fountains. These elements consume more energy and add cost, but they are based on the desires of the design team or the owner. Often, there is a battle between look and performance—with performance often taking a back seat. What happens now is the engineering analysis provides a basis for eliminating energy efficiency standards for items that have emotional appeal. Using lower efficiency equipment or downgrading insulation or glazing properties are common examples of “value engineering.” The key, however, is to integrate the cost of energy efficiency into decisions related to amenities or features.

The key to achieving zero-energy buildings is to find integrated solutions that save capital costs and energy. Computer tools that incorporate energy modeling and costs will always find optimized solutions. Simulations will reveal solutions such as reducing the glass area (energy savings and construction cost savings) such that the windows are just large enough for daylighting—this strategy does have a large energy savings compared to the heat loss or gain through the insulated opaque surface it is replacing.

These types of solutions are identified when owners, design teams, and contractors integrate their efforts to achieve a desired energy performance goal. Project teams have begun to employ more comprehensive and integrated approaches to cost justification and capital cost control that leverage innovative strategies in procurement, integrated design, streamlined construction, and operational accountability. Because owners are typically committed to spending a certain amount of money for a project, the value added comes when an energy-efficient building—which may save more than 50 percent of typical energy use—can be built for the same price as a building constructed to code. With today’s technology, commercial buildings can achieve a 50 percent energy savings if the design team, owner, and contractor put their minds to it—no additional funds are required.

The owner has the money, and is therefore the driver. The owner can set energy performance goals and a series of performance criteria that can be substantiated as completed by the contractor. He or she cannot solve the design problem, but needs to rely on the experts in the design and construction industry to deliver the highest value product for the price paid.

The easiest way to do this is with a single contract (such as design/build). This empowers the design team to work with the contractor to establish creative solutions within the budget constraint. It also moves technology to the marketplace by using it to solve problems. Often new technology is priced out of the market as it is “new” and could add risk to a project. Confusion increases risk and risk increases cost. The team is then motivated to solve these problems to reach the performance goals. Sustainability and technology will advance rapidly when energy efficiency is a performance goal, and if designers and contractors are motivated to solve problems for the owner.

Everyone needs to be part of solving the energy problems, because everyone makes decisions—the key is to make pathways to allow for creative problem solving, which includes advanced processes, use of new technologies, and even better technologies.

Paul Torcellini
Denise Nestor Paul Torcellini

Paul Torcellini is a principal engineer with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and is a recognized expert in methods and technologies to achieve substantial whole building energy savings in both new construction and major renovations. He has been at NREL for nearly 20 years.