Nick Hill, Certified Energy Manager and LEED Accredited Professional, is Founder of Hill Energy Services LLC . Over the span of his career as an energy management professional, he has designed and implemented programs saving millions of dollars and a total of more than one trillion kilowatt hours for such clients such as IBM, General Electric Power Systems, Pfizer, General Motors, and Harvard University. I’ve spent the past 25 years in the energy world, with much of my career focused on helping clients make their facilities more energy efficient. In that time, there have been so many advances in technologies and materials. It’s been great to see the engineering, architecture and lighting design communities accept and even embrace energy efficiency and sustainability. However, we’re still overly focused on materials and technologies.

As someone who deals with existing buildings (as opposed to constructing new ones), I’m constantly reminded that buildings are alive. They grow and change over time, changing and being changed by their occupants. Think of the times you've heard about “sick buildings ” or “buildings that don’t work."

I’ve learned the importance of time in the design process. Building systems are not just physical objects; their performance depends on how they are used and abused over the days, weeks and years. In order to optimize this performance, we need to remember the most powerful tool in the dMASS arsenal - the human mind - along with our power to communicate. Even the most resource-efficient design will fall apart if we fail to think through the daily life of a building and its systems.

Working as part of a LEED commissioning team for several projects, I’ve been exposed to the pitfalls of practicing “green design” on a business as usual basis, as well as the potential to use commissioning as means to design a building to use its resources optimally. All too often we fall back on acronyms, prefabricated specifications, and templates. (I’m using buildings in the examples because that’s what I know. This basic idea applies to all manner of designs.)

We recently had a project engineer tell us that he had given the client “a lighting control system that could do anything." Unfortunately, no one had fully thought out what the system was supposed to do. We had a BOD (Basis of Design), an OPR (Owner’s Project Requirements), drawings and a specification, but the simple question, “When do we want the lights to go out and how do we want to get them on again?” wasn’t communicated during the initial design. If we hadn't asked the question during commissioning, the equipment’s default setting would have been used, the client would have been unhappy, and the system probably would have been bypassed.

We also see this problem a lot with variable speed drives on HVAC equipment. Variable speed drives are one of the great energy efficiency technologies of the late 20th century, but they only work when they’re set up. Far too often, we see drive systems that are left on a manual override, even in new buildings. Specifications can reference the manufacturer’s instructions and the owner’s requirements, but they don’t take the place of asking, “What’s this thing doing and when is it supposed to do it?”

Expertise without communication won’t get you very far. The good news is that the commissioning process can be a means to re-integrate our gadgets with our lives (or our clients’ lives). Building owners and tenants don’t have to engage in a complex commissioning analysis or project to start seeing benefits.

At the simplest level, building owners and occupants need to be aware of what their building is doing. It’s like shifting gears on a bicycle: few people understand their bike’s gear ratios and fewer use all the speeds, but every rider finds the couple of gear combinations that save them energy. In that spirit, here are some things that can help anyone who works in or with commercial buildings:

  • Ask questions of your design team and don’t settle for catch-all specifications. If you’re looking at new technologies (like LED lighting), make sure that the other design disciplines actually take those systems into account. (By changing heat load calculations, for example.)
  • Everyone can benefit from a conversation (or a thought experiment) that uses plain language to work through what’s going on in the building, how it needs to be set up, and what will happen when things change.
  • In your own space, look to see if the controls (like programmable thermostats) are set with the right time and day of the week. Use a portable thermometer to make sure the thermostats are reading correctly.
  • For larger buildings, include sensor calibration with your building maintenance program. The most advanced building management system on earth won’t help you much if the temperature, humidity, and light level sensors are malfunctioning.