Rice Fergus Miller Is "Designing for Off"

©. Rice Fergus Miller

There are different approaches to a green building; there is the Gizmo Green approach where you add all those cool looking solar panels and heat pumps and wind turbines; there is the minimal approach where you leave all that stuff out and use only natural low tech. The former is expensive; the latter doesn't always work, particularly in the hottest weather.

Bremerton's Rice Fergus Miller takes a different approach and coins a phrase that I think I have been looking for, that positively nails what we have to do. They call it Designing for Off. Their own offices are an example of it and are described in High Performing Building Magazine.

The Rice Fergus Miller Office and Studio building achieves its low energy use by “designing for off”; that is, designing efficiency and simple intelligence into the building so that systems can be turned off for the majority of the year.

High Performance Building/Public DomainThe most important way of doing this is with the building envelope: Lots of insulation in the walls (to R-32) and not lots of glass (only 16%). This is an obvious solution that almost nobody does; even LEED Platinum buildings are often 100% glass, and then have air conditioning that is "designed for on."

Then the building has what they call a "passive-active" system; when the temperature outdoors is between 55 and 75 degrees, the building goes into a passive mode where occupants use the windows to manually tune the building.

Large red and green lights signal the building mode to the occupants. Green indicates passive mode when operable windows can be used for ventilation. Fifteen ceiling fans throughout the space are controlled by occupants and provide additional air movement and mixing for thermal comfort.

© Rice Fergus Miller

Air quality is important:

The building is located a few blocks from the waterfront with fresh breezes tempered year-round by the inland sea. When the building opens up during passive mode, fresh air enters the space and provides several air changes per hour of outdoor air flushing throughout. Occupant feedback about indoor air quality and control of thermal comfort has been very positive.

There are lots of green gizmos for when the building is in active mode, including heat pumps, but there are also energy recovery ventilators with enthalpy wheels so the heat pumps are off for 70% of the time. It is all controlled by sophisticated monitoring with a Direct Digital Control System that " provides occupants instant feedback on building energy performance and status" and turns those red and green lights on and off.

©. Rice Fergus Miller

© Rice Fergus Miller

To top it all off, it is a repurposing of on old Sears automotive centre.

Rice Fergus Miller have used the most sophisticated controls and equipment but designed them to be used as little as possible, integrating it with passive systems like good envelope design and natural ventilation. No doubt it costs a lot more than a typical "design for on" system, but the operating costs will be far lower and the equipment should last far longer.

"Designing for Off" is a brilliant concept and a great name. I hope we see a lot more of it.