Operations/Management / Retail and Hospitality Buildings

Runaway Building

Most buildings don’t work properly. Who cares?

February 3, 2012
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On Christmas Eve 2009, the peak of the ski season in Aspen Snowmass, all was not quiet at the resort’s new flagship restaurant, Sam’s Smokehouse. At 10,600 feet in the Colorado Rockies, the weather can be extreme. On that night, things got brutal. It was -8 F outside, and the wind was howling.

Unfortunately, heating equipment failed, so it wasn’t much warmer inside the restaurant (27 F), and as a result, two pipes froze solid and burst. It was a calamity, because managers planned to serve barbecue to 300 people the next day, with thousands more expected for snacks, toe warming and bathroom breaks.

The ostensible cause of the burst pipes was that the burner in the makeup air unit had gone out.* But the root cause of the problem was that the building’s mechanical systems simply didn’t work properly. The harsh reality is that Sam’s is not unique. Almost no building mechanical systems operate as they’re supposed to. But nobody knows, nobody checks, and life goes on.

“Broken” is Normal

The result is that the planet has a huge fleet of buildings that are badly built and running poorly. Fans run backwards. Vents remain open when they should be closed. Heaters run all summer. And this remains true for the life of the building — some 50-100 years. Most people accept this situation like they would a balky TV thirty years ago — smack it a few times, and the channel comes in. That’s how these things work. But the inconvenience masks a broader issue. Buildings use tons of energy: 948 quadrillion Btus in the U.S annually, to be precise, or the equivalent energy of 16 million Hiroshima-sized bombs. This comes at staggering dollar cost and climate impact: in the U.S. at least, these structures are responsible for about a third of total greenhouse gas emissions every year.  Can’t we do better?

At least half the answer is “No.” Buildings are mostly old, existing stock that was built to limited — or nonexistent — energy code. They are what they are, and you might put some lipstick on them, but in the end, they’re still pigs. Replacing them is out of the question, because it’s too expensive.

But the other half of the answer is “Yes.” Even a crappy building can be tuned and operated efficiently. My house — framed in 2x4s 50 years ago — is a good example. It’s inefficient, but I run it on very little energy by turning the heat off at night and making sure things run properly.

What I do in my old house illustrates two crucial elements that are missing in most commercial buildings. The first is energy use monitoring. The second is commissioning, a third party evaluation of the heating and cooling systems to make sure they are working to specifications.

Sam’s was actually slated for commissioning, but opened so late we had to delay the work. Noncommissioned, it became a prototype of how most of the buildings in the world operate.

Energy Monitoring: I am Six Tall

“Real time” energy monitoring — a sexy computer screen display of instantaneous building energy use — is considered state of the art in green building design these days. But it’s meaningless without a reference. What should the building be using? Without that data, it’s like telling someone your height is “six.” Six what? At Sam’s, we settled for econo-monitoring: we looked at the energy bills each month. We also had an ace up our sleeve: a computer model of the building that we could use as a baseline. It told us we were using twice the design energy. As they say in AA, admitting you have a problem is the first step. In this case, knowing we had a problem set us apart from the vast bulk of building managers. Now we were ready to ask why the building used much juice.*

Cutting a Bagel with a Chainsaw

At night, Sam’s runs two large barbecue smokers that give off “about three matches worth of smoke,” according to August Hasz, of Resource Engineering Group, the commissioning firm. And to deal with that tiny amount of smoke, Sam’s ran the equivalent of three window fans all the time, with the heat on. Running big fans to vent heated air cost us a fortune. It was also patently unnecessary, like using a chainsaw to cut a bagel. (Think of the upside: you’ll never encounter a bagel you can’t deal with!) This seems insane, but it’s actually standard practice.

Energy is so cheap that engineers can oversize heating and cooling equipment by factors of two or three. Their clients never run out of hot water, and don’t know or care enough to complain.  

At Sam’s, we were rare operational victims of oversized equipment. When the burner in the makeup air unit failed, we were still drawing in huge volumes of air that would normally be preheated. So the building froze.

“People were afraid of the building,” said Hasz. “It was so unreliable and working so horribly, people were scared to turn if off.” Managers bit their nails over the prospect of zero revenue during peak season. Snowcat drivers checked on the building through the night to make sure it was still warm.

Instead of offering refuge, Sam’s was serving up terror.    

Commissioning to the Rescue

Hasz, as part of his commissioning work, figured out why the burner in the makeup unit kept failing — it was a manufacturing fault in the controls. He also identified a fix for the smokers: a six inch chimney pipe connected to an oversized bath fan. This enabled Sam’s to shut off the enormous kitchen exhaust fans at night, and therefore radically cut the need for the makeup air unit, itself the largest energy user in the building.

What else did the commissioning agent find?

·  After the smoker retrofits, the kitchen hoods were now over ventilating for the needs of the cooks. Solution: slow the exhaust and make-up air fans down by 20 percent: less cold air brought in means less gas burned to heat it. Meanwhile, slowing the fans by 20 percent saves 30 percent or more on fan energy.

· An electric unit heater in the storage room had toilet paper stacked all around and on it. Solution: move the toilet paper, potentially saving the building.

· A design flaw meant extra air was being pushed out through the storage room, with cold air coming in a louver, causing the heater with the toilet paper           stacked on it to run all the time. Solution: board up the louver.


Sam’s restaurant is a niche building — a mountaintop restaurant at a ski resort — but the problems we found were generic to most buildings. Things were too big. Things ran too much. Things didn’t work right. Even the cost of the fix was prototypical: managers spent $30k on commissioning — about .3 percent of building cost and money that was part of the original construction budget. That investment resulted in $10,000 savings last year, a 33 percent return on investment.

This is fairly standard savings for commissioning, which studies have shown can save up to 40 percent in annual energy bills. Analysis by Southern California Edison showed that commissioning costs $.28 per square foot and saves anywhere between .3 and 3.4 kilowatt-hours per square foot. At the top end of that scale, that’s a 100 percent return on investment. What business wouldn’t make this standard practice?

Answer: Most. While there is no data on what percentage of new buildings undergo commissioning, most experts, and anecdotal evidence, suggest it is very small. In the future, however, as scarcity and carbon regulation cause energy prices to climb, it will be easy to tell which businesses have implemented basic, obvious, cost-effective measures like energy monitoring and commissioning: They still have the lights on.

* Makeup air units replace air vented through exhaust fans with warmed outside air.  

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