July 25, 2002

BetterBricks program stacks up energy savings

  • Energy-effective design creates superior buildings
    Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance

    Port of Seattle
    Photo courtesy of Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance
    In addition to an improved work environment, the Port of Seattle is reducing energy use with daylighting in its facility.

    Dave Hewitt makes his living by helping people build more energy-efficient buildings and in the process improves the quality of life for Northwest consumers and businesses.

    The unfortunate by-product of producing electricity to power the buildings where we work, shop, eat and play is pollution, which ultimately lowers the quality of our rivers and air. But there are building design techniques that can help reduce the amount of electricity used by commercial buildings, thereby minimizing their impact on the environment.

    For a couple of years now, Hewitt and the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, the nonprofit organization he works for, have been encouraging the building community to consider energy-saving designs, including a technique called “daylighting.”

    Saving with sunlight

    Daylighting designs allow the diffuse light of the sun to permeate into the interior of a building, providing natural light, limiting heat gain, and decreasing the need for electric lighting and mechanical cooling. Daylighting certainly does cut energy use in commercial buildings — up to 75 percent of the energy used for lighting — but people have also noticed other, unexpected benefits.

    People who work in daylit buildings are sick less often. They are able to work more effectively. Companies with daylit buildings have seen their overall productivity increase and their health care costs and absentee rates drop. Somehow, the sun helps people feel better and work more efficiently.

    “It turns out that the natural environment is both outdoors and indoors,” said Hewitt. “When people have good air quality, when lighting systems work right, and when people are comfortable, they are able to produce more work.”

    Energy-effective design

    Hewitt and others are at the forefront of what’s called “energy-effective design,” which aims to construct buildings that are both energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. Commercial buildings house almost half the U.S. workforce and use 25 percent of the nation’s energy — the fastest growing sector of energy use.

    "When people have good air quality, when lighting systems work right, and when people are comfortable, they are able to produce more work."

    -- Dave Hewitt,

    Northwest Energy
    Efficiency Alliance

    Energy-effective designs, operations and maintenance techniques could potentially reduce a building’s energy use by up to 30 percent over typical buildings, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). U.S. organizations that employ cost-effective, energy-efficient designs and practices could save the equivalent in carbon dioxide emissions of pollution created by 20 million cars, the EPA estimates.

    BetterBricks can help

    Energy-effective design options aren’t necessarily obvious. For example, daylighting isn’t just about adding extra windows. Architects, engineers, ventilation experts and others tasked with building or remodeling should think through their options before a building is constructed or remodeled and be prepared to integrate energy efficiency into the overall plan from the beginning.

    It can seem like a daunting task, said Hewitt. “This stuff is not easy and you have to know how to do it right. That’s where services like BetterBricks can help,” he said.

    BetterBricks is a network of information and services for Northwest architects, building owners, building operators and developers, and others involved in building and remodeling. The goal of BetterBricks is to provide practical information and support for those who want to take advantage of energy-effective design.

    That support can take a variety of forms, including: a Web site full of research material and studies to help make a case for energy-effective design; a toll-free hotline where architects can get an answer to a technical question or find additional research; daylighting labs in Seattle, Portland and Eugene; and expert advisors who can visit you on-site.

    Sponsored by the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, BetterBricks services are available to building professionals in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington — and in most cases, are provided free or at little cost. “Our goal is to support professionals in the commercial building industry by getting them access to the best information and resources available,” Hewitt said.

    You don’t have to spend more

    Joel Loveland is a Seattle-based BetterBricks advisor who helps clients realize the human, environmental and financial benefits of daylighting.

    “The biggest misconception about daylighting is that it takes a lot more money than traditional design,” Loveland said. “Most building professionals don’t realize that you can have a building daylit for the exact capital cost of a building without daylighting. And if you look at the costs of running a building over 30 years, you can actually save money.”

    Studies show that more than 90 percent of a building’s cost over those 30 years is associated with the labor costs of salaries and benefits. In a typical office building, energy costs run about $2 a square foot, while labor costs run about $130 a square foot. Even slight changes in productivity can have a large effect on the bottom line: a 1 percent productivity improvement can pay a building’s entire utility bill.

    Research also supports the notion that energy-effective design elements can save organizations money and increase human performance. A 1999 study documented that retail sales in a daylit store were 40 percent higher than a comparative store without daylighting. Another showed increases in test scores among 21,000 schoolchildren in daylit schools. A study by an insurance company of its own workers showed that effective ventilation, adequate lighting, thermal comfort, good acoustics and superior indoor air quality boosted productivity by 16 percent.

    Start early

    “What’s most important to this process is that energy-effective design be considered early in the project, and that all parties involved should have a say in how the building will work,” Hewitt said. “That’s why BetterBricks should really be one of the first places you go for information. We can make what seems like an overwhelming task doable.”

    In the end, Loveland believes the most exciting thing about energy-effective design is that in addition to saving energy and helping the environment, there are true benefits to the humans who spend their days in these buildings.

    “How people live makes the world more or less friendly to the environment,” Loveland said. “We have to learn to live in ways that we like, in ways that we’ve somehow lost touch with.”

    For more information about BetterBricks, daylighting and energy-effective design, visit or call the BetterBricks Hotline at (888) 216-5357.

    Amy Cortese is a project coordinator at the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. She manages the alliance’s efforts to promote daylighting and energy-effective designs in new and existing commercial buildings. The Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance is a nonprofit group of electric utilities, state governments, public interest groups and efficiency industry representatives.

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