That 70s Show: Developers Still Don't Know How To Make a Building Green

glass box office building photo

Typical suburban office building.

Back in the last energy crisis in the seventies, the word came down to make buildings more energy efficient. Everybody started packing in more insulation, making the windows smaller, cranking down the lighting levels and reducing the air changes.

In no time at all, everybody was getting sick, mould was appearing on walls and everyone realized that this was a really bad way to design buildings to use less energy.

energy savings list image

How to save energy in 1974, slightly updated for 2009 by NAIOP, copy of study here

Now, in one of the dumbest studies that has crossed our screen in a while, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association says that green buildings don't save a lot of money. They did it by computer modelling a suburban office building and doing exactly what everyone did the last time. The New York Times reported uncritically:

A group of builders has issued a report arguing that the green-building vision may be more of a myth. You can make a building more energy efficient, the group says, but it won't come cheap, and it could take decades to pay off.

The report, released this week by the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, found that a 50 percent energy improvement beyond federal standards is technically impossible. A 30 percent target is achievable, but only by adding a million-dollar solar system that could take up to 100 years to pay for itself.

terry thomas building photo

Terry Thomas Building by Weber Thompson

Now I was going to make the point that we are never going to get to where we have to go by just handing the same stupid mechanical engineers more money to buy more expensive versions of the same old stuff for the same old dumb boxes that are built the same everywhere and that we are going to have to design differently, perhaps throwing ASHRAE out of our opening windows. But Edward Mazria did it already, in his article A Hog in a Tuxedo is Still a Hog :
mazaria hog image
They did not study changing the shape of the building, its orientation or form, or redistributing windows or using different windows to take advantage of natural light for daylighting or sunlight for heating (office buildings are day-use facilities). They did not study shading the glass in summertime to reduce the need for air-conditioning, using operable windows for ventilation (not even in Newport Beach with its beautiful year-round climate), using landscaping to reduce micro-climatic impacts, employing cost-effective solar hot water heating systems, employing an energy management control system or even study the impact of using inexpensive energy-saving occupancy sensors in rooms to turn off lights.

In other words, NAIOP intentionally kept out of the analysis all the readily available low-cost, no-cost and cost-saving options to reduce a building’s energy consumption.

window terry thomas photo

window opens at the Terry Thomas

Ed says "This disinformation campaign is obviously meant to stall, confuse and distort. The first salvo, a spurious study and press release, was issued two days before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on improving building energy code standards."

I think he is perhaps a bit harsh. Suburban office building developers build generic boxes, and their engineers make their living by putting in more equipment, not less. Until they are TOLD, by the government or the marketplace, to do something different they won't. I am surprised Ed expected anything more from them.

Ed Mazria: A Hog in a Tuxedo is Still a Hog (because you can't say "lipstick on a pig" anymore)

More on Green Design in TreeHugger:

Terry Thomas Building By Weber Thompson
"Smart Architect Builds Dumb Building."

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