In honor of Earth Day, we sat down with a group of engineers at RTM Engineering Consultants to answer a few questions about sustainable and energy-efficient design.
Brant Holeman, QCxP, LEED AP O+M – Project Engineer
Marcin Jakubowski – Principal
Matt Zega, PE – Principal
Dan Sebastian, PE, CxA, LEED AP BD+C – Project Engineer
Kathryn Duytschaever, PE – Principal
What does sustainability mean to you?
Brant: Phrases like “environmentally-friendly” and “biodegradable” have been tossed around for some time now and have since lost some luster. Something that is sustained means that it lasts and continues on, inexhaustibly, without end. The term is a bit more focused than many others and says a lot very succinctly. Sustainability can be used in many contexts such as water, materials, energy, and waste.
Marcin: Sustainability means the responsible use of energy and resources. Long-term planning plays a critical role in sustainable design.
Matt: Sustainability to me is the act of being thoughtful with our resources and being creative with solutions in the act of energy conservation and material resources. The role we play as MEP/civil engineers is a large one, and we have the capability to further push the envelope through sustainable design.
Dan: Sustainability to me, means designs that are resource-efficient (energy, water, waste) and that will outlast a “typical” design.
Kat: To me it means being responsibly sourced. This can be anything we deal with daily, not just our natural resources. Purchasing fair trade and fair wage items to keep communities and democratic countries sustained. Using water turbines to naturally capture energy from flow without damming up rivers that ruin ecosystems. Ensuring our recycling methods aren’t more toxic than destroying old and generating new. We have a whole world to look after with sustainability, both for mankind and our planet.
Do you think the AEC industry can play a bigger role in being sustainable/energy efficient?
Brant: In my experience, the AEC industry has been doing a great job incorporating products and designs into buildings, but it varies greatly by market and by region. K-12 schools have different opportunities and stakeholders than strip malls and movie theaters. Laboratories aren’t necessarily going to use the same strategies and products that a casino or restaurant would use to save energy or be more sustainable.
The most influential areas of interest are products and materials that every building uses like glazing, insulation, wire, conduit, concrete, piping, and lighting. Owners and developers have a responsibility to their customers and tenants, just as AEC firms have a responsibility to their clients to understand and spread the knowledge when it comes to better ways to do their business and meet their goals.
Marcin: We can and we should. Wasting energy is never smart, no matter how attractive first cost savings may be. We should always make an effort to educate our clients and bring sustainability goals into the discussion early on.
Matt: I think the AEC industry has made tremendous strides in an effort to be more sustainable and energy efficient. Where I personally feel the AEC industry can improve is better enforcing energy efficiency and code-required sustainability.
Dan: Yes, of course! Things in this industry tend to be driven by legislation and code requirements. States with more stringent energy codes, such as California, don’t blink an eye at certain requirements like commissioning, whereas other states haven’t quite caught up. As soon as energy and sustainability measures are required by code, it forces the AEC industry to develop and provide products, equipment, designs, and installations that meet or exceed these requirements.
Kat: Absolutely. Buildings are one of our largest energy consumers. Codes have come to enforce energy savings, and with that, more efficient equipment and ideas have come forth in the last decade alone, and we haven’t seen a slow down. There are constantly new ideas for how to bring buildings to the net-zero threshold for energy, and with it, how we live our lives daily comes into play. There is a big movement towards longer lasting batteries everywhere.
The more batteries can store, and the smaller they get, the more likely that solar power can be used and stored. And with energy companies looking to solar, panels have become reasonable enough that homes are starting to use them. We are constantly looking to improve. Building materials, LED lighting, daylight harvesting with controls – lots of equipment is becoming more efficient.
What do you think is up next for sustainability in the AEC industry?
Brant: I think state and local energy codes will continue to get stricter and more energy conscious. I think the demand for efficient and sustainable buildings will continue to grow over time. Healthcare, government, and higher education projects will adopt products with an attractive payback. I’d like to see more involvement by end users early in the design process, as commissioning and building rating programs suggest, but it’s not always feasible. I think we’ll see more net-zero buildings getting built and more homeowners considering solar as battery technology improves and more electric vehicles are available.
Marcin: Thermal storage and on-site energy production – wind farms, solar systems, and ice storage technology are readily available and will have a huge impact on clean energy production, transmission and distribution infrastructure, and energy cost.
Matt: As the International Energy Conservation Code increases the levels of energy efficiency every year, I think following in the footsteps of some states to move toward net-zero is the next code required target for the country as a whole.
Dan: With competing certifications popping up, like Green Globes, the sustainability organizations will move toward a simplified approach in terms of flexibility of points/rating systems and the required documentation.
Kat: Something that most don’t think about for sustainability – as it doesn’t usually have a monitored utility bill – but affects mankind daily is water purification. This is talked about more and more as it hits the news about both foreign and domestic issues. Why is it so difficult to provide clean drinkable water? Because the systems are expensive on a large scale. Chlorine can only go so far to treat water. There are companies already installing their own filtration systems.
If code started enforcing purification of water standards like they do for air filtration, we would see an initial increase in energy cost for buildings, but with it would trigger the demand to develop the technology.
Learn more about RTM’s sustainability expertise.