Administration investigates technologies that promote green buildings

Other than new tools, sustainability requires changing design and construction processes, observer says.

Obama administration officials are investigating new technologies for building greener federal facilities and cutting energy costs, but they also will have to rethink construction processes from the ground up.

"The federal government operates on such a large scale that the decisions they make for attacking these problems will impact the entire market," said Phil Bernstein, a Yale professor, practicing architect and vice president with engineering software company Autodesk, noting the federal government owns and manages nearly 500,000 buildings. "But right now, they have a set way of building buildings, and it's not compatible with the outcome they're looking for," which is higher performance and greater sustainability.

Bernstein participated in a July 20 White House forum on energy-efficient buildings, and he has been invited to sit down with General Services Administration officials to discuss how the agency can develop greener construction methods.

Bernstein has pointed to technologies such as Building Information Modeling, which uses 3-D simulations, as a way to provide architects, engineers and builders a clearer picture of how design decisions could affect construction.

"In the building industry, we've used the same method for describing a design since the time of the Egyptians almost 3,000 years ago -- abstract, two-dimensional representations, written in 'our secret code' [of] floor plans and blueprints," he said. "That kind of information tends to be difficult to make complete, because of its abstract nature. And when you're trying to design a green building, there needs to be further analysis that just can't come from [those representations]."

Architects of sustainable buildings want to understand the ramifications of a building's orientation with the sun, for example, and the impact of a particular insulation on energy conservation. They want to compare the efficiency of using co-generation electricity, which produces both power and heat simultaneously, to natural gas or steam.

"All of these considerations require a lot of calculations that are nearly impossible to do working from a piece of paper," Bernstein said. "[Building Information Modeling] provides clarity and transparency in the process; everyone can see in three dimensions what others are doing, which creates new opportunities for how people can collaborate, and projects can be processed and approved. It's transformational."

Federal officials have expressed interest in the software, but they are hamstrung by its price tag. The Federal Acquisition Regulation compels agencies to award building design and construction contracts to the lowest bidders, which often offer cheaper, less efficient materials, Bernstein said.

"I can save [upfront] costs by installing a cheaper air handler that provides the same amount of cooling as the more expensive version, even if it will require three times more maintenance and use three times as much energy," he said. Building Information Modeling software would prevent that kind of irresponsible cost-cutting, he added, because "it allows agencies to start holding design and construction teams accountable for building performance. These buildings operate for 100 years or more, so we have to recognize that shortcuts can have repercussions."

Progress is being made, Bernstein said. Defense Department teams, for example, are trying to figure out how they can make one Air Force base, with more than 700 buildings, more sustainable. That can contribute to what he calls a bubble-up strategy, as other agencies follow Defense's lead.

"It's impossible to impose a top-down standard," because the building industry involves too many players, he said. "If the administration can get the government to line up behind this set of ideas that promote greater sustainability and be clear about expectations, processes will emerge that the private sector can adopt and advance even further."

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