The Optimistic Futurist: Public buildings can help save energy

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 2, 2012

By Francis Koster
Taxpayers own lots of governmental, educational and non-profit buildings in this country. Studies show that nearly one-third of all energy used in public buildings is wasted. We are not talking small dollars here — for example, in most school districts, energy costs are the largest expense after salaries.
There is a reason for large energy waste in newly constructed public buildings — not everyone involved in the process of building them has the same goal at every step.
First, the people paying the bill for the new building want to be fiscally prudent and often set a conservative dollar amount for the builder to work with. On the other hand, the end user tenant of the building wants as much space as they can get within that budget. Want to build a big building cheaply? Cut out extra insulation, for example. Or don’t put in the best air-conditioning system.
Local public organizations do not build buildings often and therefore are not up to speed on the latest techniques for getting a good energy efficiency deal for the taxpayer. Instead, they rely on “lowest bid” architects and design firms often selected with no consideration for their expertise in building low-energy consuming buildings. Sometimes, the building owner forgets to put energy efficiency on the goals list for the new building or is assured that the plan is “to code,” rather than “the best we could do.”
Our federal government started insisting on energy efficient construction in its buildings decades ago and has raised its standards several times. In 2007, acting out of national security concerns, President Bush signed a law requiring new federal buildings built in 2015 use 65 percent less energy than a similar building built in 2003.
Effective January 2012, North Carolina has a similar law, although it only requires newly built state-owned buildings larger than 20,000 square feet to be 30 percent more efficient by 2015, not 65 percent as the feds require. These standards apply to all new buildings owned by the state, the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina Community College System. It should be noted that these standards are minimums — not the best that can be done.
For all the good these new regulations can do, they do not apply to local governments. Most cities and counties have not required these standards be met for local public buildings. Energy waste in buildings at the municipal and school board level is now a national problem that can only be solved locally.
One technique the building owner can use is to specify for the building’s designer a tough “not to exceed” annual energy consumption budget. It is a budget for the amount of energy to be used, not its cost. Setting conservative energy-use targets challenges the design firms’ creativity and forces them to look for models of success they otherwise might not have put into their thinking.
Many success stories at the local level exist that can be imitated.
In Statesville, the 90,000-square-feet Third Creek Elementary School was designed and built to make full use of daylight, as well as making good use of off-the-shelf technologies for heating and cooling. Space was also reserved for more advanced solar and geothermal energy in the future. The building was designed to operate with 24 percent less energy use than a comparable school, for 1 percent more construction cost. This investment earns a 20 percent rate of return. Compare that to the rate of return on your bank account! And using the natural light saves more than energy costs. It saves instructional costs, according to a major study conducted in 2003 by the Heschong Mahone Group, which found that on average, use of natural daylighting improves learning by 21 percent.
The state of Massachusetts conducted a review of 30 schools built to high energy conservation standards all across the nation. After studying five years of use, it found on average that the initial construction cost was no more than 2.5 percent higher than a non-energy conserving school, and these extra investments paid for themselves in one year — a 100 percent return on investment!
While these examples are of schools, the lessons apply to all public use buildings. The bottom line is that we can use well proven techniques to save the taxpayer operating money in public buildings while contributing to a cleaner environment. All that is needed is for leadership to set aggressive goals that will set in motion a lot of creativity on behalf of the citizens. A better future for all will result.
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Francis P. Koster, Ed. D., lives in Kannapolis. For more information, visit his website: