Working on commission

When it comes to a green building, the proper functioning of systems and people matter. A lot.

SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

In an ideal world, we’d decide we want a green building, hire our dream green-design team (try saying that five times fast), then sit back and relax. But, apparently, it doesn’t work that way. Simply because a design, product or technology labels itself “green” doesn’t mean it will automatically perform up to par. It must be installed and operated properly. For quality assurance, building systems should be verified and documented as fulfilling the design intent, using a fancy little thing I like to call “building commissioning.” Because that’s what it is.

“Building commissioning is a ‘doctor’s checkup’ of the building systems to make sure they are working as designed and will provide the energy-saving measures as intended on paper,” said Ian Merker, a LEED-certified intern architect in Sacramento and associate of the American Institute of Architects. And by “said,” I mean he wrote this in a letter to the editor, which turned out to so informative I decided to shamelessly steal from it for this column (hope you don’t mind Mr. Merker!).

Just as a ship sails calm waters before being released to the rough waters of the open sea, a building should be tested to work out kinks prior to occupancy. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design guidelines actually require the completion of this component, and even if a building’s owner does not plan on acquiring LEED-certification, commissioning is recommended. According to the book Green Building A to Z by Jerry Yudelson, the cost to commission bigger buildings is less than 1 percent of the building construction cost, and more than 120 research studies have shown that energy savings increase 10 percent to 15 percent when a building is commissioned. In energy savings alone, commissioning typically pays for itself in less than five years, and other non-energy cost benefits exist, as well, including improved equipment lifetimes, early detection of problems and reduced maintenance costs. Commissioning agents should be acquired during the design phase so they fully understand the goals, systems and performance requirements of the building project before testing.

Commissioning is helpful and cost-effective. I can accept that. But Merker said something else I will never ever forget: “Ultimately, the most responsible party in this project is the user. The performance of the user is far more important than the performance of the building.”

OK, I’m pretty sure that by “user” he means you and me. He means the building’s living, breathing human occupants. Oh, lordy.

“Each individual must think about living closer to work and walking, bicycling and taking public transport whenever possible,” he said. “It means choosing meals with less packaging and having a kitchen with reusable utensils. If you don’t have the budget for a high-efficiency HVAC system, you must decide as an organization when to turn it off and endure the changes in temperature that occur naturally with the seasons.”

In one year, SN&R staff will leave our current office in Midtown for a building we purchased on Del Paso Boulevard in North Sacramento. We’re renovating this building using green principles as much as financially possible. Because preparation is next to godliness, we’re learning easy steps to green our lives now so when it comes time to move, these habits will be second nature (pun intended!).

“Several people have told us you can’t just design a green building and then forget about it,” said SN&R co-owner Deborah Redmond. All 50 of us on staff will be partly responsible for making sure the building really is “green” and not just a wannabe poseur.

We’re lucky because we happen to have a Treehugger and an Eco Warrior Princess on staff. I’m guessing most companies don’t staff these positions, which is quite unfortunate. You can either talk to human resources or become an eco-advocate yourself. It’s like the Chinese proverb that makes some profound point noting the difference between giving someone a fish versus teaching him to fish.

To help SN&R, Treehugger and I offered some advice to our colleagues: Unplug cell phone chargers, lamps, toasters and computers (all this stuff uses standby power), turn down thermostats, replace air filters, take shorter showers, open shades to increase natural daylight instead of turning on lights and Treehugger’s favorite tip for bathroom water conservation: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”

Clearly, Merker’s point—about the importance of users in the success of a green building—goes against the accepted, industrialized mentality that convenience should be our ultimate goal. Wait, now we actually have to think about our activities and lifestyles, and possibly adjust them? That’s not American at all. It took me a while to process this revelation. And then, as my friend Danny says, my head exploded.