Recently, I attended a conference on sustainable design and was surprised at the number of participants networking, listening, and contributing in numerous discussions and seminars on energy and the environment.

At one of the seminars, the speaker addressed a concern that I also share, which is “Yes, we can do that.” He expressed his concern that the true energy and environmental issues facing us today may be overshadowed by those interested in being perceived as specialists, but with their focus on generating business more then striving to overcome the obstacles associated with our appetite to consume energy and negatively affect our environment.

Jumping on the Leed™ Bandwagon

When it comes to buildings and engineering, my fear is that green design and LEED™ certification will be a marketing albatross mirroring the 1970s, when many jumped on that first energy engineering and energy conservation bandwagon with the “Yes, we can do that,” attitude, too. Back then, you could pick up a trade magazine and read about another award-winning energy project, just out of the design phase. Today similar awards are being offered, but will these award-winning designs be sustainable?

While at the conference, I had the opportunity to speak with a colleague of mine from Brown University whom I consider “the voice of that university” when it comes to leadership in energy and environmental design.

His assessment for the need to provide a better building product is to not ask marketing phrased questions such as “What is your green design experience?” (or any other buzzword along those lines) when interviewing potential design and construction teams.

He prefers to ask for their responsible design experience. I thought it was a clever question, since it is often perceived that green design and LEED certification will be an additional design service requiring the expertise of those proficient in green design. This additional service attitude is analogous to designing and building an automobile and having the car salesperson ask if you would like the vehicle tuned up for an additional cost.

Green Designs That Keep Going and Going

At the end of this five-day conference I was asked by Goody Clancy & Associates, the architectural firm responsible for the design of the Massachusetts State Transportation Building (STB), to provide a tour of this 1970s “national example of energy conservation.”

This request to learn more about the STB seems to occur about every four years dating back to 1985 when it first came online. I wrote an article in 1990 in Engineered Systems magazine highlighting how this facility, after five years of operation, continued to exceed the expectations of Goody Clancy, the State of Massachusetts, and myself. Today, you could probably place it in the Energizer Bunny category; it’s still running and doing so in a very responsible and “green” way.

The STB was also probably one of the very first buildings to have its HVAC system commissioned. Because this building was a first-of-its-kind and used the heat gain from “people-lights-equipment” to heat the perimeter, as well as year-round use of the facility’s three 250,000-gal TES tanks, commissioning was crucial to HVAC system success.

Using two-way radios, the contractors (who also took keen interest in the responsible design), building management and technicians, myself, and others, we spent days methodically demonstrating each of the numerous modes of operation.

The results? Well we estimated the building to function at around 54,000 Btuh/sq ft/yr. The actual performance in the first five years varied between 42,000 and 45,000 Btuh/sq sf/yr.

Reflecting back to the responsible design experience statement, the STB is a facility that embraced green design long before there was such a phrase. Goody Clancy will highlight this late 1970s design in November at the US Green Building Council conference in Pittsburgh, where people can continue to learn more about this truly “green” building. If you took the time to fill out a LEED™ scorecard for this facility, you should reach the silver certification level. Not bad for a 1-million-sq-ft complex that was clearly ahead of its time and one of the first examples of responsible design. And it all happened before there was green design and LEED™ certification. ES