August 3, 2006

Mechanical engineers hop aboard the green bandwagon

CDi Engineers

Two professional groups who normally don’t see eye to eye have joined forces to promote greener buildings. And it’s happening in part because of groundbreaking efforts by a local mechanical engineer.

The big news nationally is that the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recently joined with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America to co-sponsor development of a new joint minimum standard for high-performance green building.

Proposed Standard 189 seeks to balance environmental responsibility, resource efficiency, occupant comfort and well-being, and community sensitivity. It will be an ANSI-accredited standard, scheduled for completion in 2007, that can be incorporated into the building code. It is intended that the standard will eventually become a prerequisite under LEED.

Odd bedfellows

Co-sponsorship is a surprising phenomenon because ASHRAE and USGBC serve very different groups within the construction industry, and work toward very different goals.

Manufacturers of mechanical systems support ASHRAE. These are the systems that get replaced when a building is designed for sustainability.

Natural ventilation, for instance, reduces the need for mechanical ventilation systems. And positioning a building to take advantage of solar gain reduces the need for heating equipment.

USGBC, on the other hand, is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work. Members include corporations, federal agencies, state and local governments and nonprofits. USGBC is the creator of the LEED green building rating system, intended to drive green building into mainstream building practices.

Given that USGBC works to minimize the systems designed by ASHRAE’s members, it’s no wonder the two groups do not have much of a history of collaboration.

Jumpstart from Jonsson

Enter Leslie Jonsson, a mechanical engineer with CDi Engineers in Lynnwood. For years she has sought new ways to further green building practices. Her work on the Seattle Justice Center, for instance, helped the building earn its mechanical-related LEED credits.

Jonsson was also active in the local chapter of ASHRAE, and saw great potential for championing the cause of sustainability within the group. Her opportunity came when she began chairing the Technology, Energy and Government Activities (TEGA) Committee in 2004. Her self-appointed task was to forge stronger links with the Cascadia Chapter of the USGBC.

“It just made a lot of sense to me that these two great groups should work towards common goals of a better environment,” said Jonsson. “Sustainability is something that helps us all in the long run. The quicker that mechanical systems people get on board, the better.”

Jonsson organized a series of events around Puget Sound. She initiated workshops for local engineers on topics including technological innovations, new methods for air conditioning, code-related issues, government activities and changes in building code.

Joining forces

The first significant joint effort was an underfloor air distribution workshop presented by Fred Bauman last year. TEGA committee members initially started planning for this workshop in 2003. The wheels really starting turning in July 2004.

Word spread quickly, and Cascadia Region Green Building Council’s then-CEO Glen Gilbert committed his support to co-sponsor the event with TEGA and the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.

The event was a success, with more than 130 attendees.

Gilbert quickly realized the value of working with ASHRAE to co-sponsor LEED workshops, such as the commissioning workshop held in July last year.

“Many of the old-guard mechanical engineers are not actually against sustainable technologies,” Jonsson said. “Often, they simply do not understand the benefits. Or they are most comfortable designing with tried-and-true strategies, rather than trying out newer concepts. Our committee has made a point to educate members of our profession in any way we could, because we know that sustainable engineering is an idea whose time has come.”

Sustainability conference

As evidence of how far green awareness has penetrated ASHRAE, its national satellite broadcast this year addresses “sustainability in the building environment.”

Jonsson is also coordinating a technical mechanical engineering conference this fall through TEGA, the first in the region.

The conference is important because while the USGBC frequently offers workshops to educate designers in sustainability, it typically falls short of the mark for mechanical engineers, who urgently need practical resources to implement sustainable approaches in their designs.

The mechanical engineering conference will fill that gap, providing tools engineers can take back to their desks and use immediately. The conference will be a two-day multitrack event focused on integrated design, HVAC systems, and codes and standards.

In recognition of her efforts, Jonsson was the sole engineer honored with a Seattle BetterBricks Award this year, an initiative of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Julaine Fleetwood is director of business development at CDi Engineers, a mechanical engineering firm headquartered in Lynnwood.

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