Improving Energy Efficiency through Human Building Interaction

Today’s green buildings go beyond environmentally friendly products and practices, taking human health into consideration as well. You may start to hear more about the idea of human-building interaction (HBI) as this connection between green buildings and occupant health/wellness continues to grow.

The concept of HBI focuses on the two-way interaction between buildings and occupants – not only the way that buildings impact occupants, but the ways in which occupants impact buildings in terms of energy use and other factors.

Understanding how tenants and occupants interact with buildings and the equipment inside can help facilities managers establish new energy-efficiency strategies, architects design better spaces, and occupants themselves realize how they positively (or negatively) impact their indoor environment. Think about some of the ways tenants and occupants may be influencing energy usage in your building right now:

  • Running space heaters or fans
  • Having more lights on than necessary
  • Forgetting to turn off computer equipment at the end of the day
  • Not reporting a leaky faucet or blocked air return
  • Covering up vents

By looking at why and how people relate to a building and its systems the way they do, we can discover several things: occupant habits that need to change or be accommodated for, potential problems with a building system, or aspects of the building that negatively influence productivity or comfort.

A very simple example to consider: To respond to a tenant/occupant request for more access to natural daylight, they’re moved closer to the windows. A few weeks later, you notice that the shades and blinds are closed each morning. Why is this happening? Are the occupants:

  • Too warm (or too cold, if it’s wintertime)?
  • Distracted by what’s happening outside?
  • Having problems seeing their computer screen due to glare?
  • Getting headaches from direct sunlight?

Until you take time to understand why the blinds are being closed, it will be hard to determine what’s really happening and find a way to fix it.

Human-building interaction may come down to designing a building for usability and sustainability. Instead of a building’s primary goal to be as water- and energy-efficient as possible, for example, incorporating the human-building interaction component would also take into account human needs, capabilities, habits, and behavior – then design a space to accommodate those things in an environmentally friendly, energy-efficient, sustainable way.

Making certain building functions or responses “intuitive” or automatic is another component of HBI. Instead of someone having to remember to shut off the lights, turn on the air-conditioner, or unplug a printer, the building and its systems “read” the surrounding environment and know when to perform certain activities.

To learn more about human-building interaction, and the research being done to support it, read about the Center for Energy and Environment’s HBI initiatives.

Are you focused on how your building impacts occupants, or how occupants impact your building? Or both?

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Over-Lighting: A Barrier to Energy Efficiency

With computers and tablets impacting the way we work, recommended indoor lighting levels have changed. As a result, lighting intensity levels in some commercial buildings are now higher than what’s necessary or appropriate for specific work-related tasks.

Beyond wasting energy and hindering efficiency efforts, over-lighting a commercial building can adversely affect tenant and occupant health. Indoor lighting that is too intense can cause headaches, fatigue, stress, and anxiety. Some research indicates that it can also impact natural circadian rhythms.

Over-illumination can also cause your building’s HVAC system to work harder as it compensates for the heat given off by artificial lighting. This uses excess energy, and causes wear and tear on your cooling system. As the system runs for longer periods of time – and more often – equipment lifecycle may be impacted.

So what’s causing over-lighting in commercial buildings? According to JLL, older lighting systems may be a big contributing factor. Originally intended for paper-based reading tasks, overhead lighting systems used to be designed with lighting levels between 750 and 1,000 lux. But the Illumination Engineering Society (IES)now recommends that overhead lighting levels fall between 300 and 500 lux in open office spaces. In areas that aren’t used as often, such as hallways and stairwells, 50 lux is recommended.

A light meter can measure your building’s current lighting levels. Once you compare those readings to the standards set forth by the IES, you’ll be able to determine whether your building is over-lit.

One way to reduce lighting levels is to eliminate unnecessary fluorescent lamps (delamping). By removing lamps and disconnecting ballasts in over-lit spaces, you can save energy while still providing enough artificial light.

Artificial overhead lights may also be dimmed or turned off to avoid unnecessary energy consumption. In fact, a collaborative study between the California Lighting Technology Center and the California Energy Commission PIER Program found that using LED task lighting as the primary source of lighting in offices may result in major lighting energy savings as well as improved occupant satisfaction.

If tenants and occupants have access to ample daylight, make sure it’s being taken advantage of – but also realize the potential problems associated with uncontrolled sunlight. When blinds and shades are opened to allow natural light in, glare and solar heat gain can negatively impact comfort, productivity, and satisfaction levels. High-performance, low-e window film can help reduce glare and control solar heat gain to keep interior temperatures comfortable.

Installing occupancy sensors can also help control the problem of over-lighting by making sure lights aren’t on in unoccupied areas (closets, restrooms, private offices, etc).

When was the last time you checked the lighting levels in your commercial building? Is your building over-lit?

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The Future of Energy Efficiency: Net Zero Energy Buildings

Increasing energy efficiency is a goal for almost every building owner and facility manager. But what if a building could actually become completely energy self-sufficient? That’s the idea behind Net Zero Energy Buildings (NZEBs).

The NZEB Commercial Building Initiative (CBI) was developed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in response to the Energy Independence and Technologies Security Act of 2007. According to the DOE, commercial buildings account for 20% of energy used in theU.S. The goal of the CBIi s to utilize public/private partnerships to achieve marketable high performance, Net Zero Energy Buildings by 2025.

These buildings are already quickly becoming a reality due to advances in retrofit products, construction, renewable energy systems and academic research.

NZEBs are designed to generate as much energy as they consume during the course of one year. This can be achieved by using both supply-side and demand-side renewable energy technologies – both of which a building needs in order to be classified as an NZEB by the CBI.

The power used to operate a NZEB will ideally be inexpensive, locally available, and emissions-free, supply-side, renewable energies – such as the energy generated from photovoltaic panels, solar hot water, wind, hydroelectric technology and biofuels.

On the demand side, energy-efficient retrofits using renewable energy technologies can greatly reduce energy consumption by existing buildings. Some retrofits can even save enough on energy costs to pay for themselves. Retrofits to consider include:

  • Using Light-Colored Roofing Materials – White rooftops reflect about 84% of sunlight, while black rooftops absorb nearly 95% of the sunlight that hits it. Painting roofing surfaces white can potentially save buildings with large roof areas around 10 to 20% on energy bills.
  • Installing window film – Installing high-performance window film helps reduce solar heat gain up to 84%. New generation low-emissivity (low-e) window films help improve insulating properties of single-pane glass to that of dual-pan glass, helping reduce heating costs. Reductions in total energy costs for the average building are 5-15%.
  • Upgrading to efficient lighting Upgrading to an ENERGYSTAR qualified high-efficiency lighting system can reduce heat output by 75% and drastically cut the energy consumption of both the lighting and HVAC systems.
  • Adding an Energy Recovery Ventilation System (ERV) – An ERV system uses recovered energy from building exhaust air to pre-condition fresh outdoor air to the correct temperature and humidity – reducing the workload of the HVAC system. In fact, the need for energy to treat outdoor air can be reduced dramatically – by up to 80% – a savings that can pay for the HVAC system to be downsized.

Other measures to consider include daylighting, water conservation, window shading with awnings and plants, passive solar heating, and insulation among many others.

Not only are NZEBs good for the environment and good for the bottom line, these buildings typically have improved reliability, increased value, and, due to the innovative technologies used, they can actually improve the comfort level of building inhabitants. The DOE CBI Websiteprovides more information on improving energy efficiency with the goal of helping buildings achieve a Net Zero status.
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The Most Awarded ENERGY STAR Building in the U.S.

Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized the only building in the United States to achieve a remarkable 15 consecutive ENERGY STAR certification labels: the U.S. Airways/American Airlines headquarters building in Tempe, AZ. Since the ENERGY STAR certification for buildings began in 1999, the building has met strict energy-efficiency standards set forth by the EPA.

This nine-story, 218,000-square-foot office tower was named as the 2000 Building of the Year by the Arizona Chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) right after it was built in 1999. Since then, it has benchmarked its energy usage and received an ENERGY STAR rating every year (and its score has increased almost every year). The building also earned LEED-EB Gold certification in 2009, with a recent LEED-EB re-certification in 2014.

The U.S. Airways/American Airlines building’s very first ENERGY STAR rating was 75. Today, the building’s current ENERGY STAR rating is 96. As compared to the average U.S. office building, it is 52% more energy efficient; according to Hines, the building’s property manager, this means that the building saves $1.53 per square footin energy costs. The building also uses 31% less water than comparable U.S. office buildings.

A few of the energy conservation measures being implemented at the U.S. Airways/American Airlines building include:

  • Energy-efficient lighting in the building and parking garage
  • High-efficiency air filtration and air-handling systems
  • Demand limiting program that monitors electricity demand on each floor and resets interior temperatures accordingly

The building also incorporates several water conservation methods, such as:

  • Xeriscape desert landscaping that requires little or no irrigation in order to survive
  • Low-flow aerators at each lavatory
  • Dual-flush valves on all toilets in restrooms

The building also practices high-performance green cleaning and recycles as much paper and waste as possible.

What is your building’s ENERGY STAR rating? How many years have you been benchmarking your facility’s energy use?


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Energy-Efficient Products with the ENERGY STAR Label

ENERGY STAR is a helpful resource when you’re looking for energy-efficient commercial building systems such as HVAC and lighting. The program outlines points to consider when investing in fixtures, water heaters, boilers, etc. All systems and products with the ENERGY STAR label are independently certified to save energy without forfeiting functionality.

But did you know that ENERGY STAR also now certifies smaller types of products that are likely being used inside your building?

Vending Machines
Although most building owners and facilities managers don’t have direct control over vending machines in their spaces (a vendor operator typically owns and maintains them), you may be able to request energy-efficient machines to reduce operating costs. ENERGY STAR vending machines have efficient compressors, fan motors, and lighting systems. During non-business hours, these machines can also be placed in “low-power mode” to reduce energy use. Just one vending machine that meets ENERGY STAR requirements can save more than 1,500 kWh per year, which is close to $150 per machine, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

VoIP Phones
Becoming increasingly popular in commercial buildings, VoIP phones convert conversations into data packets that transmit through an Ethernet connection. VoIP phones just became eligible for the ENERGY STAR label last year. They may not seem like major energy hogs, but one older VoIP phone may use as much energy as a desktop computer. ENERGY STAR labeled VoIP phones use less energy than non-certified phones and can power down during off-hours. According to ENERGY STAR, upgrading 100 VoIP phones can save between $700 and $1,200 in energy costs over the lifetime of the phones.

Mobile Devices
Are your tenants or occupants using desktop computers or laptops to stream or download data during the workday? How that data is being streamed or downloaded can affect your building’s overall energy use. An ENERGY STAR labeled tablet requires six times less power to stream or download data than a desktop computer and monitor.

ENERGY STAR is also set to announce ENERGY STAR certification requirements for climate controls this year; stay tuned for updates as more information is released.

Do you pay attention to the ENERGY STAR label when you’re selecting products and systems for your commercial building?


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Find Inspiration for Your Next Green Building Project

When it comes to implementing new green building initiatives, it can be overwhelming to decide which sustainability projects to tackle. But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel if you’re having problems coming up with your next green idea. Make it a team effort by asking coworkers, tenants, and occupants for their thoughts – and also take time to learn what other organizations have done to save energy and reduce their environmental footprints.

To reduce energy and operating costs, Branson Convention Center decided to shut off its escalators when no business is occurring within the facility. The facilities team estimates that the full-time cost of running the escalators is between $40,000 and $50,000 each year; the center plans to shrink this number significantly with their energy-saving strategy.

The Branson Convention Center is also changing its HVAC scheduling to better accommodate the number of people in the building. If there isn’t an event occurring within the space, the HVAC system automatically raises or lowers temperatures to reduce energy consumption. The facility staff is also pursuing composting to reduce the amount of waste generated by commercial food operations.

Most of these green ideas came from a new employee-led taskforce that focuses on reducing the building’s environmental impact. After spending time brainstorming and discussing possible green building options, the taskforce turned its ideas into a sustainability plan.

At Genentech in California, a staff-formed green team developed additional ways to reduce environmental impact beyond what the facilities management team had already put into place. The team created a web-based forum where every employee can suggest sustainability ideas like this one: Genentech decided to invest in filtered water machines and reusable beverage containers to reduce consumption of bottled water. They also conducted a water taste test to discourage bottled water use, asking employees to compare the taste of bottled water along with filtered water available from a machine. This green initiative has saved the company almost $200,000 a year.

Citi’s green team in St. Louis also came up with an idea that could be implemented within all kinds of organizations. By establishing an excess office supply exchange program, they reduced waste and saved approximately $10,000 for the St. Louis location. If a department had supplies they weren’t planning to use in the future (anything from filing cabinets to toner and file folders), they communicated this message to the rest of the organization. Other departments can then take what they need, possibly preventing an unnecessary purchase (and keeping these items out of the landfill).

What green ideas have been implemented in your building after seeing them in action elsewhere? Where do you find inspiration for new sustainability ideas?

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What Window Film Can’t Do

The right window film can improve the insulating capacity of existing commercial windows by up to 92% – an impressive and impactful number. Installing newer low-e films can offer single-pane windows the same insulating performance as double-pane windows, and provide double-pane windows the same insulating performance as triple-pane windows.

Despite what high-performance window film can do – reduce solar heat gain during warmer months, keep heat indoors during cooler months, decrease HVAC loads, reduce glare, eliminate hot/cold spots, lessen reliance on electric lighting, and maintain outdoor views – there are some window problems that window film isn’t meant to solve.

Before you decide that low-e window film is the right solution for your commercial building, make sure you’re not experiencing one of these issues:

  • Moisture/condensation/mold. Window film can keep solar heat gain and glare out of your building, but it won’t keep moisture out when window seals or frames are damaged, ineffective, or failing due to age or poor window design.
  • Air leakage. Drafts due to high winds, pressurization problems, or poor seals or gaskets often result in reduced comfort levels for tenants and occupants. While low-e window film may improve interior comfort levels as they relate to solar heat gain and hot/cold spots, it wasn’t designed to reduce or eliminate drafts or pressurization issues.
  • Cracked or failed glass. Security window film is designed to hold glass in place upon impact, preventing or slowing glass breakage when a window is shattered (whether accidentally or on purpose). However, if existing window glass already has cracks, applying window film over the cracks won’t solve the problem – the window glass still needs to be replaced.
  • Structural inadequacy. If the existing window system (including connections) isn’t structurally adequate, is deteriorating, or doesn’t effectively accommodate building movement and structural loadings, this can affect window performance (and safety). Window film does improve window performance as it relates to insulating power; however, window film can’t improve or repair the window’s overall structure. If your windows are structurally inadequate, you’ll need to look at solutions beyond window film to solve this problem.

If your facility is encountering some of these window problems, then window replacement may be the right answer. Make sure you identify the real reasons behind window problems before you invest in new windows or window film. Conduct window surveys, including a visual inspection of both the interior and exterior, to look for damage (or conditions that may cause damage in the future). Also talk to tenants and occupants about what they experience during the course of a workday.

Have you experienced any of these window problems? How did you determine the true cause?

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