November 18, 2004

Don't sacrifice green design to 'value engineering'

  • Many sustainable design features rarely survive last-minute budget transfers.
    CDi Engineers


    It's common knowledge that innovative mechanical designs result into lower energy and construction costs. And studies prove that "green" buildings also help people work harder, faster and smarter — and cut down on absenteeism, healthcare costs and employee turnover.

    Yet all too often, terrific mechanical designs are eliminated during so-called "value engineering" phases of construction. The result is owners, tenants and their employees miss out on important long-term benefits.

    Just the facts

    First, a review of the evidence. A study by the Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation (BOSTI) found that environmental improvements such as better lighting and ventilation systems boosted performance by a staggering 17 percent for administrative staff and 15 percent for supervisory-level employees. A similar study by Pennsylvania Power and Light proved that high-efficiency lamps and ballasts improved worker productivity by 13.2 percent.

    classroom/office building
    Photo courtesy CDi Engineers
    South Seattle Community College's new classroom/office building has temperature controls for individual rooms and operable windows.

    These numbers are significant because of the huge role employee costs play in any building's budget — about $200 per square foot, whereas the building itself costs only $26, according to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. BOSTI's figures are even more dramatic, pointing to a 13:1 ratio between people and facility costs for office buildings.

    The same holds true for academic facilities. The U.S. General Accounting Office found that 15,000 schools have poor indoor air quality, also known as "sick building syndrome," affecting more than 8 million children. Symptoms include irritated eyes, nose and throat, upper respiratory infections, nausea, dizziness, headaches and fatigue. The American Lung Association found that the nation's children miss more than 10 million school days each year because of asthma related to poor indoor air quality.

    Last-minute budget cuts

    The good news is that environmentally friendly technology is available today that is proven to increase employee speed and accuracy, decrease fatigue, increase creativity, promote a cooperative atmosphere and prompt workers to accept greater responsibility.

    So why aren't more buildings engineered green? The answer is that often they were — initially. But many sustainable design features rarely survive the last-minute budget transfers often urged by contractors in the name of "value engineering." Funds are shifted from design elements with long-term benefits to cover budget overruns in other areas of construction. Or they are sometimes cut to increase contractor profits. Mechanical innovations represent low-hanging fruit — easy to grab, and not readily noticed once they're gone.

    Personalized controls

    One area that typically gets cut seems to be a no-brainer — personalized controls. A surprising number of employees are not able to control the heat and ventilation in their work area, and must suffer with either a one-size-fits-all approach to the environment or the whims of the co-worker sitting nearest to the thermostat.

    Personal preferences concerning thermal comfort vary by as much as 10 degrees, hence the increasing popularity of environmentally responsive workstations (ERWs) and displacement ventilation systems.

    ERWs deliver air through a raised floor system, with floor grilles placed near workers' feet. Employees can change the amount and direction of airflow from the grille however they like. It turns out that slightly warmer air at foot-level can be distributed more comfortably and effectively than blasts from the ceiling, and ERWs have lower operating costs than typical HVAC systems.

    In a recent study, the West Bend Mutual Insurance Co. gave employees individual control over temperature and air flow, and found that total productivity rose by 3 percent. In addition, temperature-related complaints dropped from 40 per day to two per week. This generated a savings of $64,000 every week.

    Nevertheless, the ERWs engineered into the design of a large Seattle medical office building recently fell victim to value engineering. The administration was solidly behind ERWs. So were staff members. But when other aspects of the project ran over budget, ERWs were abandoned — an unfortunate decision, given the prospective savings and efficiencies they would have achieved for the owner and tenants.

    Natural ventilation at SSCC

    Operable windows provide another good example of eco-friendly design. Windows that open are common in European cities but have seen slow adoption in North America. They are particularly important in educational facilities, where there is less floor space per person than in the average office building. This means that carbon dioxide can build up, leading to headaches, drowsiness and an inability to concentrate.

    Research shows that teachers are "passionate" about being able to control environmental conditions in their classrooms, particularly temperature, and that lack of control lead to reduced effort, low morale and reduced job satisfaction.

    South Seattle Community College deserves kudos for selecting operable windows for its new Olympic Hall, a three-story, 47,000-square-foot mixed research, classroom and office building. Instructors can adjust airflow and temperature in their classrooms. In the University Center and Robert Smith buildings, the dean, other administrators and staff have similar abilities in their offices and interview rooms.

    Let there be light

    The jury is still out as to whether "full-spectrum" fluorescent lighting makes a big difference in student and worker achievement. But the scientific foundation linking daylight with higher performance is striking. The effects of daylighting are both positive and significant, with students in daylit classes progressing up to 26 percent faster on math and reading tests. Engineers therefore work with architects to maximize the amount of natural light penetrating interior rooms.

    Mechanical engineers have been applying these concepts to healthcare facilities, where studies prove that patients heal faster with natural light and windows that look outside. Like teachers and office workers, patients appreciate being able to control the environment in their rooms. Daylighting and operable windows are therefore being suggested during the design process for hospitals and clinics throughout the Pacific Northwest.

    The bottom line is that chopping eco-friendly mechanical designs represents false economy. Given the climate of concern about productivity and profitability, it's inevitable that more building owners will become knowledgeable about mechanical engineering innovations — and insist on retaining them throughout the construction process — to get more work out of their existing employee base, and decrease operational and utility costs at the same time.

    Jim Grimm is an associate with CDi Engineers, a Lynnwood-based mechanical engineering firm.

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