Going beyond ‘comfort’ in HVAC construction
Why the conversation about indoor environments is changing
Over the last decade, a slow and steady evolution has been taking place in the commercial built environment. Building owners, architects, engineers and solution providers are moving to incorporate new technology that optimizes worker productivity, space utilization and the lifecycle efficiency of the built environment. They are also seeking to create workplaces that help companies recruit and retain talent.
Many commercial buildings now include such features as operable windows, smart windows (dynamic glass), smart metering, pre-fabricated construction and chilled beams all of which aim to optimize the indoor working environment for productivity, health and overall well-being. While a number of these technologies and approaches have been available for a while, many are moving from being the exception to the norm.
Developers, building owners and occupants are beginning to realize that these innovations improve productivity, creativity and the recruitment and retention of key talent. Many of these technologies also collect data which can be analyzed to develop a life cycle approach to optimizing efficiency over the life of the building. Today’s buildings must do more than just maintain a constant temperature of 72°F. They must take advantage of emerging Internet of Things and analytics technologies to provide owners, occupants and operators with actionable information that helps them achieve their goals.
One of the main factors driving the movement is the change in the way people work. Today’s buildings need to change both inside and out with working conditions. These spaces are expected to be “smart” and to change, depending on who is using the space, how many people occupy it, the position of the sun and the tasks being performed. In short, they need to change performance based on a variety of varying environmental input conditions.
New technologies have made it much easier to make buildings very energy efficient. But the actual energy savings achieved is often compromised by what is commonly referred to as “value engineering.” I call it “devalue engineering,” as it often entails reducing first costs while negatively impacting lifecycle costs and other key long-term benefits. As the cost of these technologies comes down and as the total life cycle costs and benefits become easier to track, making intelligent, long-term decisions (and avoiding devalue engineering) has become easier.
Providing safe, productive work environments means they need to be dynamically controlled. This includes natural light working in tandem with dynamic lighting systems, natural and/or demand-based ventilation systems and smart metering. These subsystems are then connected through enterprise-wide BMS and SCADA systems. The Edge, Deloitte’s office building in Amsterdam, was certified by British rating agency, BREEAM, as the most sustainable building in the world, and holds the highest rating ever achieved. The Edge is smart as well as extremely efficient, but the real news is that buildings like it are becoming less outliers. Since it opened in late 2014, smart, sustainable buildings have started to become the new norm.
The lighting industry has driven the evolution away from fixed light levels to a “choice of light,” based on the task at hand. This influenced many other demand-based approaches, from smart ventilation systems to smart glass. The result is a trifecta of benefits: providing the most efficient and sustainable buildings; maximizing productivity and worker satisfaction; and generating the feedback needed to optimize these benefits over the life of the building.
True return on investment
A new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University has found that improved indoor environmental quality more than doubled occupants’ cognitive function test scores. This proves that it is now possible to optimize energy efficiency and lifecycle costs, while also optimizing employee productivity. Supporting employee’s cognitive function may be the ultimate example of using facilities to drive the success of the occupant’s core business.
More than 25 years ago, Johnson Controls developed a technology well ahead of its time called PEMs (personal environmental modules). These were designed to let each cubicle occupant control temperature, sound and lighting according to their needs. It didn’t take off due to other system change requirements and the lack of real belief that indoor environments mattered. Today, these concepts are being put into action across the globe. Technology, owner demands and architect and engineers’ acceptance of office occupants’ true needs have converged to make these systems more prevalent. While earlier innovations and breakthroughs (like the PEMs and Lutron’s first whole building lighting controls) set the stage for these changes, they often were met with resistance and ‘devalue engineering’ death.
Recently, however, there has been a major spike in adoption of these technologies and examples abound:
●Apple’s new world headquarters in Cupertino, California, will feature prefab construction with natural ventilation.
●PNC Financial Services Group’s world headquarters in Pittsburgh, which opened in 2015, has operable windows and a chilled beam HVAC system.
●One Bryant Park in New York, completed in 2010, is the first LEED Platinum certified high rise.
●Public School No. 62 is the first net zero energy school in New York City.
●Even the expansion of the Grand Mosque in Mecca features a naturally conditioned open air design.
These buildings, and an increasing number like them, are being developed or expanded with a complete life cycle value approach that focuses on occupants’ health and well-being as the top design criteria.
Insight and intelligence
The “fault detection” industry is now approximately $3.3 billion. A portion of this — roughly 25 percent — involves first-time commissioning of buildings, but the much larger portion involves correcting building systems that are not working as designed and intended per design. While using data and analytics is key to keeping buildings working as intended, the commercial real estate industry needs to develop standards that will enable these buildings to work correctly from the beginning. The industry should also engage the domain experts in each technology area (airside optimization, lighting, etc.) in the initial commissioning process.
The commercial real estate industry is following a familiar path already taken by many others, including travel, investment and healthcare. The value in those markets has migrated from the service providers to the value providers: essentially, those who can quickly and effectively deliver on the overall end-to-end value of the service being provided, and not just focus on the first cost while sacrificing long-term value.
The sea change in the built environment is no different. The real value will be created by those who can provide indoor environments that are well beyond “72 degrees and sunny inside”. Developers must create, maintain and validate this value for owners, operators and occupants. How safe, productive, healthy is the indoor working environment? Do the occupants know? Do operators know? Is there an app for that? Probably soon.
How are all of these concepts tied together? The three primary stakeholders in the built environment can be categorized as owners, operators and occupants. Occupants are obviously the most important, but until recently, they were frequently overlooked by designers, engineers and contractors. Although this was often unintentional, the industry has had a blind spot regarding the importance of occupants’ needs. First cost and low value added designs that looked cheap initially, but provided little long-term value, tended to rule the day.
How does a marble entrance enhance worker productivity? How does it impact health, well-being and productivity when the occupants pass through it for less than five minutes a day? It doesn’t. Savvy developers, owners and operators are now considering today’s intelligent and connected solutions in terms of the efficient, long-term benefits they offer for occupants. How much do they cost to operate over their useful life? What strategic and competitive advantage will the owner/operator gain by implementing more intelligent and sustainable designs? These questions must now be at the core of building design going forward.
The most telling evidence of shift in building design philosophy is the fact that developers and real estate investment trusts (REITs) are now on board. They recognize that buildings with fancy lobbies don’t rent out quicker, renew better or attract top-tier tenants like they used to. Sustainable and productive designs matter more and are now at the top of perspective tenants’ lists of “must-have” features. This trend has become clear in owner-occupied real estate over the last several years. More developers are leaning this way, even for build-to-suit projects, suggesting that mid and even lower-end prospective tenants “get it.” They see the value of lower operating expenses in their rent bills and, more importantly, they see how more intelligent buildings can drive the success of their core businesses, helping them attract and retain top talent, and maximize productivity. The COGfx Study underscores the importance of this trend. Study participants received cognitive performance scores that were 101 percent higher when in the “enhanced green building environment” versus a conventional building environment.
The concept of “beyond 72 degrees and sunny” is about dynamic and productive work environments that leverage the first cost spend to maximize total life cycle value. It can result in lower “real” costs of owning and operating a facility. Even temperature control isn’t a static or “one size fits all” system, so why should other building systems be? As the industry embraces true total lifecycle value solutions, measurably better environments will become the new norm. Now is the time for the next evolution of indoor working environments.