Secrets of Building Performance

New technology isn’t always the answer. In many cases, simple is better—and cheaper

The secret to designing an energy-efficient building often lies in keeping things simple—and maybe even a little retro.

When LPA designers and engineers began envisioning the new Student and Faculty Support Center at California State University, East Bay they discarded the notion of creating a complex, sophisticated heating and cooling infrastructure. Instead, they installed packaged rooftop units, operable windows, efficient lighting and envelope systems, and a large array of rooftop photovoltaics, which offset energy use by about 25 percent, according to post-occupancy analysis.

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The building’s overall energy performance exceeds California’s Title 24 standards by about 38 percent, says Erik Ring, a Principal and Director of Engineering at LPA. And the center has earned more than $100,000 in utility rebates because of its calculated energy efficiency.

“Air-conditioning and lighting systems don’t have to be radical and innovative,” Ring says. “What clients really need is a simple solution that will be straightforward to operate and maintain.”

For years, project teams have sought to push the envelope, as the industry looks to create better-performing buildings. Sophisticated radiant cooling systems, dynamic glazing and complex controls can all help manage heat gain in buildings and limit energy used for cooling.

But complex new technologies are expensive. In many cases, starting the design with simple measures, such as orienting the building properly and taking advantage of shade trees, can be very effective, says Keith Hempel, Design Director and Associate Principal with LPA.

“The new technologies, the new tricks and shiny bells and whistles are expensive,” Hempel says. “If we can be smart up front about how we site the building and how it responds to its solar orientation, we can buy fewer bells and whistles.”

LPA’s design for the Environmental Nature Center in Newport Beach, California is based on simple ideas to improve performance. The first LEED Platinum project in the area, the 9,000-square-foot interpretive center features a rooftop photovoltaic system, drought-tolerant landscape and an efficient stormwater management system in a facility designed around the natural setting.

The interpretive center’s north-south orientation takes full advantage of natural daylight and cool coastal breezes.

“Each morning, I open everything up,” says Heather Johnson, the center’s Facility Manager. “When it’s cold, we close everything down.”

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Next year, the center plans to open a three-classroom preschool designed by LPA, which is also targeting LEED Platinum certification, along with Living Building Challenge petal recognition. Separate support and classroom blocks will be connected by a covered breezeway. As in the interpretive center, natural ventilation and efficient ceiling fans will enhance air movement. A floor heating system embedded in the slab will provide low-energy heating when needed.

Landscaping also plays a role in creating sustainable structures, says Travis Rice, Landscape Architect and Project Manager at LPA.

For Los Angeles Valley College, LPA designed the Monarch Center, a 41,000-square-foot building that houses a bookstore, dining hall, student health center and student lounge. The building forms a U-shaped courtyard with a high-roof canopy that helps to protect visitors from rain or harsh summer sun. The canopy collects rainwater into a gutter that sends the water cascading into a cistern.

The casual observer likely won’t notice that the entire site is devoted to stormwater management. Drought-tolerant plants blend into the landscape, while cutting maintenance and water costs.

“The goal is to make something more beautiful even as it’s performing a function,” Rice says.

The stakes are rising, as energy grows more expensive and owners and communities demand more efficient buildings. As an industry, designers are accepting more responsibility to develop sustainable buildings that don’t harm the environment.

LPA has signed on to the AIA-sponsored Architecture 2030 Challenge, which calls for all new buildings, developments and major renovations to be carbon neutral by 2030. The 2030 Challenge is a response to a growing awareness that architects and engineers need to focus on all elements of a project, including energy use and water, in addition to design.

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“The 2030 Challenge is talking about real reductions in energy use and provides a framework for carbon neutrality,” LPA President Dan Heinfeld wrote in a recent column.

A holistic design process, making performance a priority, can find new ways to create efficiency. Even in an area such as lighting, designers can find ways to save energy, beyond simply installing LED lights.

“It’s not just about using a calculator to cut watts,” says Debra Fox, Project Designer and Lighting Expert for LPA. “Natural daylight is the most efficient and least expensive light source of all.”

Lighting designers can improve energy performance by getting involved in the design process early to perform daylighting studies, Fox says. The results can provide valuable input on the building’s orientation, overhangs, glazing locations and skylight positions, looking for the balance between maximizing the daylight contribution and limiting glare.

The next step is to design the control system to capture that “free energy” when it’s available. Giving employees and managers control over the environment can produce significant savings, by turning off systems when they are not needed.

Post-occupancy studies by LPAred, LPA’s research group, often finds better results in facilities with more occupant controls, says Lena Luna, Energy Manager for LPAred.

“The user is a big part of a building’s energy success,” Luna says. Users should be engaged and trained in the design early in the process, to ensure they understand the intent of the design, she says. And owners should dedicate resources to track energy use and how the facility is operating.

“The human element is the missing piece,” Luna says. “At the end of the day, it’s about the people, not the building and technology.”

LPA’s energy design for the $50-million, five-story CSUEB Student and Faculty Support Facility, which is certified LEED Platinum, has won praise from Loralyn Perry, the campus’ energy and utility manager. The system allows for more control of interior temperatures, including sensors that cut back on cooling if windows are open.

“We get very few of what we call ‘hot and cold’ calls,” when employees are uncomfortable, Perry says.

Designers often must talk clients out of requesting the latest innovative, but unproven and expensive design solutions. “Conventional systems are typically easier to operate and can deliver great results,” Ring says. “We must match our solutions to the right context and the right climate and site factors.”

For Ring, the bottom line is, “The best solutions are simple, intuitive, and elegant.”