James Scott Brew on Recession: With Existing Buildings "We Are Sitting On a Virtual Oilfield"


The LEED-certified Oregon Health & Science University's Center for Health & Healing
James Scott Brew, a principal architect with the Rocky Mountain Institute, the seminal green "think and do tank," knows a thing or two about sustainable design. He's been at it for the better part of three decades, designing high-performance buildings and consulting on projects around the globe. He's now working on projects in Asia, Europe and the US, and promoting a whole-systems thinking about green architecture. When I ran into him at the JUCCE conference in Beijing this week, I posed a few big questions that anyone passionate -- or not -- about green buildings might be asking now too.

How is the economic slow down going to effect green architecture?

Two projects I have been working on have been canceled. The financial side of the economy is going to affect projects whether they are green buildings or not. But people in America if not other places are waking up to the idea that they are sitting on an oilfield of efficiency opportunities. It's the same with existing buildings. Recently Adobe did its own renovations and retrofits [it became the first retrofit to achieve LEED Platinum]. They invested 1.2 million and are saving 1.4 million annually. They even got a $389,000 rebate check from their utility. So in 9 and a half months they had a simple payback and a 21 percent return on investment. Cities, campuses, communities are sitting on a virtual oilfield.

Of course, what we're doing as architects at RMI is not just changing the light bulbs but modeling the whole building and starting over. We can put in new windows, new openings, analyze cool weather data, based on building massing, and find opportunities for integrating strategies.

Like if you know how you use the space -- how many people use the building, when and how -- when it comes to the design phase, you can make a whole systems buildings analysis, and get to a fifty percent or more reduction in your utility bills. It doesn't effect lifestyle, not in a negative way.

At a time when people are very concerned about money, do you think building green still has a certain value, beyond the economics?

Until we appreciate within our economics that ecosystems services have value--that there's a value for clean air, a value for the avoidance of climate change -- until we realize the economic value of those things its' going to be difficult to sell those ideas of efficiency.

There's this joke I've heard. Two economists saw a 100 bill on the sidewalk. They both look at it, and keep walking. One says to the other, "Why didn't you pick it up?" The other replies, "Well, why didn't you?" The first one says, "If it were really there, someone would have already taken it."

That's it. There's a lack of understanding about whole systems building energy modeling.

Do people not know, or not care enough?

The clients who come to you at the highest level possible, those with great green ambitions to do something really serious, they've already come through a filter of sorts. They're committed to doing something well here. But if you're trying to drag a client on, that's different. That's harder.

I'd say 3-5 percent of buildings in the country are achieving annual energy efficiency. I'd say that a deep green building is one that is 50 percent efficient over code or over average buildings in that region.

It's a matter of tunneling through the cost barrier, and finding ways to save capital dollars in original design. At OHSU [the Oregon Health & Science University's Center for Health & Healing], we saved the client 4.5 million dollars by reducing mechanical electrical systems, doing integrated sustainable design, good daylighting, and so on. Then they invested a million of that savings in onsite sewage, photovoltaic panels, and other additional features. That was really cool.

James and I spoke at the Joint US-China Cooperation on Clean Energy on November 12.

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