by Angie Kippers
In a recent Huffington Post blog, sustainability expert Lance Hosey writes: “Because the built environment represents about half the annual U.S. energy and emissions and three-quarters of its electricity, arguably, architects are essential to achieving sustainability.”
Architecture may be a key component for change, but other factors are also pushing sustainable practices along. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program has become internationally recognized, offering prestige and notoriety for a company that incorporates measurable green strategies in its design projects. And federal- and state-run energy-efficiency programs, including Efficiency Maine, are offering cash incentives for new installations and retrofits using energy-efficient systems and products.
High costs of heating-fuel and electricity are also causing facility owners and managers to re-evaluate energy usage and strategies. In early October, Maine energy officials issued a press release encouraging businesses to prepare for a sharp rise in electricity prices this winter (more than double in some instances).
“Sustainable design options that once gave business owners pause are now not only feasible, they’re smart,” says Mark Chambers, senior associate and mechanical engineering designer at WBRC Architects • Engineers.
Improved knowledge and widespread adoption of green technologies in the industry are creating a competitive landscape for bidding.
Ten years ago, in Maine, there were only a few companies installing geothermal systems, Chambers says. Now, most drillers in the state are capable of performing the work. With experience comes skill and efficiency, a more competitive environment, and lower costs.
University of Maine’s Emera Astronomy Center in Orono, Kennebec Savings Bank in Farmingdale, and Pen Bay Healthcare’s Sussman House in Rockport all use geothermal systems.
“There are many benefits for commercial clients,” says Andrew Rudnicki, P.E., mechanical engineer for WBRC Architects • Engineers. “There’s little maintenance necessary on the field. You don’t have to check fan belts or compressors or clean parts. A geothermal field can pay for itself fairly quickly.”
Energy efficiency was a top priority for Kennebec Savings Bank when it was planning its new Farmingdale branch, near Augusta.
The LEED Silver-certified facility is heated and cooled by a six-well geothermal system. The bank sourced much of its material, including lumber and low-VOC-emission flooring, within a 500-mile radius, and it takes advantage of low-flow fixtures and motion-sensored lighting.
It also has an “incredibly tight building envelope,” Rudnicki says. “With R5 windows, spray-foam insulation throughout, and rigid foam on the exterior, it’s one of the tightest envelopes we have ever designed at WBRC.”
Andrew Silsby, president and chief operating officer of Kennebec Savings Bank, says he’s proud of the facility. It’s impressive in its functionality as well as architecture — it blends beautifully with other homes in the community, he says.
The intent was to build a facility that would be “LEED smart,” he adds.
“It was never about chasing points. We did things that we thought were smart, and we let the LEED certification land where it would land,” he says.
A solar domestic hot water system, for instance, was not chosen for the facility. With fewer than 10 employees on-site, there would be little return on investment, he says. Instead, Kennebec Savings Bank installed a heat pump water heater that uses the warm air created by equipment in the IT room.
The warm air is drawn into the heat pump water heater where refrigerant extracts the heat and transfers it to the water heater tank. In this exchange, cool air is created, which is released back into the IT room to provide cooling.
The facility, he says, is running about 8% to 10% more efficiently than the bank’s other more traditional buildings.
Especially nice, he adds: “We don’t have an oil truck coming with a delivery.”
Sussman House, Pen Bay Healthcare’s new seven-bed hospice in Rockport, Maine, also uses a geothermal system for heating and cooling.
“A challenge here was the facility’s proximity to the ocean and the abundance of water below grade,” Rudnicki says. Just 100 feet above sea level, the facility needed a higher quantity of wells (10) drilled at a much shallower depth (350 feet) to support the looped system.
The facility also uses low-flow water-conserving plumbing fixtures. Automated lighting controls and vacancy sensors also help reduce energy consumption.
The newly opened Emera Astronomy Center is the University of Maine’s first facility to benefit from geothermal technology. The 7,400sf planetarium uses a mix of packaged water source heat pump air handlers and smaller water-to-air heat pumps to maintain building temperature.
“Return on investment is a key factor,” Chambers says. “Whether it is new construction or renovation, clients want to minimize costs.”
Chambers cites the example of Main View Apartments in Orono. The 24-unit apartment complex for seniors relies solely on 28 solar panels, each with 30 vacuum tubes, to supply hot water throughout the facility. The system, designed by WBRC, was installed 27 years ago. Except for the occasional breakage of tubes, Chambers says, there’s little maintenance.
“The owner is very pleased with the overall operation of the system and the energy savings benefit to him and his tenants,” Chambers says.
“When you build, that’s your best time to invest,” he says. “It’s a one-time opportunity with long-term benefits.”
Angie Kippers is a new media designer/marketing communications specialist at WBRC Architects • Engineers.