The Lawrence Berkeley National Labs (LBNL) recently released a year-long meta-analysis of costs and benefits of commissioning that more than doubles the number of building and project area on which the previous studies were based. The latest study, conducted in 2018 and released this summer, is an update to their previous reports:
The Building Commissioning Association (BCxA) helped collect data for the most recent study by reaching out to its members and asking for project data. As members of the BCxA, Taitem submitted extensive project data for the commissioning of new systems at a site in Brookhaven, NY. The request was for a substantial amount of data including a retro-commissioning audit, pre-construction utility bills to verify savings post-construction, information on equipment costs, change orders, schedules, and more.
We took a closer look at the 2018 report and compiled some key metrics for building professionals to consider:
Median building energy savings
14.5% Energy Savings
19% Energy Savings
13% Energy Savings
(not yet reported)
Median simple payback times
(not yet reported)
Median commissioning costs
$0.30 per square foot
$0.26 per square foot
$1.16 per square foot
$0.82 per square foot
Median commissioning costs as % of construction cost
Cx CONTINUES TO GROW
This collaboratively compiled data from certified commissioning agents shows, even more markedly, that commissioning may be the single most cost-effective strategy for reducing energy, costs, and greenhouse-gas emissions in buildings today.
Here are some other things we’ve seen that indicate growth in the field:
More incentive programs, codes, and standards are including or requiring commissioning.
Commissioning costs are decreasing for both new construction and existing buildings.
Non-energy benefits of commissioning are extensive and often offset part or all of the commissioning cost.
New tools are available to supplement commissioning, tapping into complex and digitized building systems to automate fault detection and monitoring and ensure persistence of savings.
Over the last 20 years, Taitem’s team has performed blower door tests on countless buildings. Blower door testing supports optimal system design and provides paybacks. Blower door testing is also required in New York.
New York State Energy Conservation and Construction Code (NYS ECCC) sets minimum requirements for air tightness. Both residential and commercial buildings are required to have a continuous air barrier to prevent air passing through the building’s thermal envelope.
BUILDINGS DEFINED (by NYS ECCC)
Detached one- and two-family dwellings and multiple single-family dwellings (townhouses) as well as Group R-2, R-3, and R-4 buildings that three or fewer stories above grade.
Any building that is not considered a residential according to the above definition.
COMPLY WITH CODE
To measure that the air leakage rate of the building thermal envelope is not greater than 0.40 cfm/ft2 at a pressure difference of 75 Pascals, commercial buildings must:
1. Meet a list of prescriptive requirements OR
2. Perform a blower door test
Residential buildings must be tested and verified as not having an air leakage rate exceeding three air changes per hour at a pressure difference of 0.2 inch w.g. (50 Pa), also known as 3 ACH50. Note: There are no changes in the 2018 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) regarding air barrier requirements, but we can expect enforcement of the NYS ECCC to increase.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
Blower Door Testing can help identify building air tightness issues which, in turn, can
• reduce energy usage due to air leakage,
• improve occupant comfort by reducing drafts caused by air leakage, and
• reduce moisture condensation problems.
While commercial buildings can comply with code without blower door testing, blower door testing ensures that the construction is adequate and can be key part of envelope commissioning.
CATCHING LEAKS EARLY
Blower door testing is an excellent diagnostic tool. You can locate and find leaks in the building envelope during the test so they can be properly addressed before these areas are covered. With higher levels of insulation, less heat is being driven through walls, reducing drying potential.
Air leakage is a major source of water vapor transport. Reducing air leakage is critical to ensuring that moisture doesn’t reach undesired areas in the building and thermal envelope.
BE PROACTIVE AND PLAN TO TEST EARLY
Get in touch with Taitem or your blower door consultant EARLY in the design and construction process so that a test plan can be developed to make best use of the technology and service.
Taitem was happy to be among the top green building researchers, educators, and practitioners at the New York State Green Building Conference in Syracuse, New York. One team presented on the progress of its RetrofitNY project, and another led a session on updates to the NYS Commissioning Code.
Lou Vogel, President, and Nate Goodell, Senior Engineer, presented “Shifting the Baseline: An update on Cx Construction Code in NYS.” As of October 2016, the New York State Commercial Construction Code was updated to align with international standards for energy efficiency and building performance. Part of this alignment added a requirement for certain buildings to receive commissioning per the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code. This change has shifted commissioning from an activity usually limited to high-performing buildings to one that will be part of many new commercial construction projects. With this shift comes the need for education and outreach to stakeholders who might not be familiar with commissioning or with the new code requirements. Lou and Nate explored which buildings are impacted by the new code, what commissioning entails, and why it is required. They concluded with lessons learned through their extensive field experience on how to make the commissioning process easier.
As the premier green building conference in the Northeast, the New York State Green Building Conference’s progressive advisory council has fostered growth by consistently bringing together top green building researchers, educators, and practitioners. Conference participants represent many industries including architecture, engineering, construction, consulting, deconstruction, landscape architecture, government, higher education, K-12 education, state agencies, real estate, and management firms.
The Town of Caroline building which houses its courtroom and history museum was the subject of a recent Taitem research project investigating potential water savings from the conversion of steam heating systems to air source heat pumps.
Steam heating systems are still quite prevalent in New York State. A study Taitem did in 2017 (PDF) found that over 30% of the heating systems in the state use steam. In some types of buildings, like multifamily, over 50% of buildings were heated by steam. Steam heating systems are very common in New York City and are still not unusual in our Ithaca area. For example, the old Caroline Town Hall is heated by steam and is in the process of preparing to convert to heat pumps.
We have always known that steam heating systems lose water through leaks, air vents, and condensate tanks. And so they consume water. If we convert these heating systems to heat pumps, we will expect to not only save energy and reduce carbon emissions, but alsoreduce water use. But how much water will be saved?
Another research project Taitem conducted in 2010, Steam Boiler Replacements (PDF), indirectly estimated water use as possibly being high. However, in that 2010 research project, we did not directly measure water losses. Instead, we estimated it based on total building water use.
The upcoming heating conversion (to heat pumps) of the old Caroline Town Hall presented a great opportunity to measure water use and so measure potential water savings. We installed a water meter on the water pipe that goes right to the boiler in the fall of 2017. In this way, we would be able to see exactly how much water is being consumed by the heating system, independent of other water uses in the building. Mark Witmer, the Caroline Town supervisor, diligently read the water meter and gas meter over the last two winters, and the results are in.
In the one-year period between January 2018 and January 2019, 4104 gallons of water were consumed.
Usage is clearly higher in winter. This means that the water is being lost when the boiler is firing, as we would expect. 1.5 gallons of water was consumed per cubic foot of natural gas burned.
Imagine over 4000 gallons of water being evaporated, per year, just to heat a small building. Caroline’s town hall building is just under 4000 square feet, so the water being wasted is approximately one gallon of water per square foot per year.
The water cost savings in a typical building would not be financially significant, just a few dollars per year, because water rates are so low at present. And at Caroline, the water comes from a well, so the savings will be even lower; just the electric cost savings for pump power. And as a fraction of our total water use, the savings are also not high. A typical person uses over 30,000 gallons of water per year, at home.
But still, the potential water savings are measurable and are another good reason to be planning to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
Do you have a steam heating system? We can tell a steam boiler from a hot water boiler in a few ways: by the pressure, type of radiator, and more. Take a few photos of your boiler, the boiler nameplate, gauges on the boiler, and a couple of radiators, and send them to Ian at email@example.com. He’ll be happy to tell you which you have.
Acknowledgment: Thanks to Caroline Town Supervisor Mark Witmer for his interest, enthusiasm, and contributions to the project.
Starting in October 2016, New York State and New York City codes require commissioning (known as Cx) on new construction and substantial renovation projects. Commercial buildings with mechanical capacities larger than 480K Btu/hr cooling, or 600K Btu/hr heating and service hot water must comply.
Building professionals are finding out the hard way that developing the necessary commissioning specs takes time and planning in the early stages of a project. Recently Taitem has fielded several calls from project teams, already deep into construction, who have just learned that they needed a building system commissioning plan but had not allocated any time or budget. Taitem’s certified Cx professional Nate Goodell has been able to help, but including commissioning from the start would have saved these teams time, money and unnecessary headaches.
Here’s a prescription so you won’t be caught painfully short on your next project:
Understand which buildings and renovations require code commissioning (Quick Facts sheet)
Develop appropriate commissioning specs. Include them in bid docs.
Include the Cx plan and agent in project kickoffs.
Factor into the construction timeline onsite Cx testing and issue resolution.
Review both your preliminary and final Cx reports promptly and file them on time.
The Ithaca Green Building Policy (IGBP) is being codified and will be a standard building practice in 2019 in both the city and town of Ithaca.
When asked to design to a particular standard, it’s expected that building professionals will react with a bit of resistance and uncertainty. Building owners and developers likely have concerns about the potential time and cost associated with building to new standards. Architects and engineers will need to study the new building code and will also need to educate local clients about the different “paths” they can choose under the new policy.
To gain a better understanding of the policy, we decided to take a close look at a couple of projects we completed in the past two years and see how they would measure up under the IGBP. The exercise gave us the opportunity to review the standards, understand the differences in the residential and commercial point system, and document some questions that we reviewed with Ian Shapiro (Taitem founder and co-creator of the IGBP).
Here’s a list of what we used as a reference:
The Ithaca Green Building Policy Guide and Final Report. In particular, section 2.14 “Pulling it all together: Recommendations.”
Comcheck. We reviewed two commercial projects and found the majority of information we needed to complete the “Easy Path” right in this report.
Project drawings and history. These were brief recollections shared verbally by the project manager.
We also created a few building calculation templates that we bounced back and forth among team members at Taitem and STREAM Collaborative. It was an exercise that didn’t take much time and helped us answer some questions about compliance. Here’s what we found:
In 2017, New York State (rather quietly) adopted the EPA’s high-efficiency “Water Sense” requirements for residential faucets, toilets, and shower heads. Note the water use numbers in this screenshot of section 2.39 from the NYS Building and Standards and Codes Supplement.
The gallons per flush (GPF) for toilets was previously 1.6 GPF and is now 1.3 GPF. Showers heads were previously limited to a maximum of 2.5 gallons per minute (GPM) and are now 2 GPM.
Many building professionals are not yet aware of these new standards. Continuous code development is essential and we can all take responsibility for sharing the news on improving standards.
Let’s spread the word. And for building professionals who want to improve efficiency even further, we might consider going with California’s flow requirements: 1.28 GPF for water closets, 1.8 GPM for showers and 1.2 GPM for faucets.
Learn the latest on energy efficiency for the NY multifamily sector. This annual conference is the place to update your knowledge of new technologies, design approaches, energy codes and guidelines, and financing options. Taitem founder Ian Shapiro will speak on developments in standalone heat pump hot water heaters in apartment buildings. Betsy Jenkins Parrington, Senior Energy Engineer, and Tim Allen, Senior Energy Analyst, will share results of a pilot program that is testing a new way to meter fuel oil in multifamily buildings. Senior energy analyst Evan Hallas will present and lead a discussion on small packaged heat pumps. Network with the Taitem team and other industry thought leaders and doers. Register Here.
Domestic Hot Water Distribution: Two Approaches
In multifamily buildings, domestic hot water can represent as much as 50% of the fossil fuel load and therefore must be addressed as we move towards higher and higher performing buildings. But upgrading domestic hot water equipment to more efficient technology can be challenging. Two DHW experts will explore different approaches. Karla Butterfield of Steven Winter Associates Inc. will discuss central distribution systems using case studies which demonstrate new requirements, solutions and measurement of performance. Ian Shapiro of Taitem Engineering will discuss air source heat pump hot water heaters, including both energy benefits and factors to consider for implementation in a multifamily building.
Piloting Ultrasonic Technology to Meter Fuel Oil Ultrasonic tank level meters are promising to revolutionize the metering of oil in multifamily buildings. Taitem’s Tim Allen and Betsy Parrington will describe a NYSERDA pilot program testing the accuracy and usefulness of these new meters. The 5-year pilot is approximately half way to completion, and the presentation will include preliminary results, lessons learned so far, and a comparison of ultrasonic meters and in-line flow meters.
Small Packaged Heat Pumps
Heat pumps are a key strategy for eliminating fossil fuel use, but split system heat pumps are costly. Multifamily per-room heat loss is becoming so small, whether through deep energy retrofits or high-performance new construction, that a small packaged heat pump might really be JUST what’s needed for widespread adoption. Evan Hallas will lead this lively discussion based on Taitem’s recent study of existing and emerging technology that’s shrinking heat pump size and cost to fit growing market demand.
Learn skills, gain expertise and make connections at this NYSERDA event
Hear about new and innovative net-zero and passive house design strategies
Acquire deeper understanding about changes in the energy code and federal guidelines for new construction
Expand knowledge on integrating renewable technologies in multifamily building upgrades
Meet energy financial and planning experts
Learn about new technologies for multifamily contractors
In the building industry, projects depend on many different minds working together toward a common goal. There are technical experts, designers, government planners and inspectors, and interested members of the public, to name a few. Learning how to provide technical information, project timelines, financial guidance and so much more to all parties involved, takes practice, patience, and a lot of smart communication.
A good project leader can figure out the strongest forms and timing of communication for the team they are managing, while communicating equally effectively with the client and owner. Communication about design details among the architects and engineers on a project may look different than communication to the end client. For example, your team knows that COs slow things down in the construction phase, but your end client might not know that “CO” stands for “change order.”
The tone and sense of professionalism you wish to convey applies to all audiences; there are tools that support effective communication no matter who you need to share information with. Once you have a few proven techniques for delivering information, there are no “difficult clients” and there are fewer instances of lost time or money on a project. As design consultants, we strive not only for timely and efficient communication, but also for straightforward ways to share our expertise as we move through a project. An educated and empowered client will go on to advocate for architects and engineers — and their smart building practices.
Taitem staff members are always working to improve the way they deliver engineering expertise and seeking new forms of communication among building industry professionals. I sat down with two of our top project managers to learn how they are communicating with their teams. Beth Mielbrecht is a Partner and Senior Engineer at Taitem, where she manages contracts for statewide energy programs and research. Her projects and the teams she manages typically grow and change over several years. Evan Hallas is a Senior Energy Analyst who manages the Aeroseal department and communicates daily with building owners, developers, contractors, and other building professionals.
These conversations have led to the insights I’ve shared below. I’ve also included some GENERAL TIPS that I’ve overheard while working alongside other outstanding engineers at Taitem. Check out what we’ve shared and please reach out with any of your own techniques for effective communication.
Know your audience
Evan says that a key component for communication is knowing who on the team already understands the value of his work and the technology he is presenting — and who needs more information. You don’t need to spend time convincing the person who already supports your work; you need to give them the tools they need to convince their team. Know your role in the decision-making process. If you are the technical expert, show up and give them the technical expertise they need with confidence. Each project has a decision-making team, and some have one final decision maker. Support the team by understanding whom each person reports to, and ask yourself, “What does each team member need to understand the information? Data sheets? Visuals of the final product in place? Financial documents?”
GENERAL TIP: Ask your client if they have any upcoming meetings where they will be delivering information that includes your services or potential project support. Offer to format your materials in a way that they (your contact) thinks their team will understand. They may not think you can help with that aspect of delivering your value and they will appreciate you taking that extra step.
You need more than one form of communication
Beth uses a blend of email and phone communication to deliver messages to her team. Some people prefer one over the other. The best way to determine what works? Ask! Decide on the best form of communication at the project kickoff meeting. If your client says they appreciate phone calls, find time for the occasional call to check in or deliver news.
Beth notes, “If I have a meeting over the phone, I’ll send an email as a follow-up to the phone call. I have a general format in my mind that I use to provide an overview of what was discussed. I’ll summarize our talk, offer some bulleted action items, and close with a reminder of our next meeting. This is great for documentation. I also send regular project updates via email no matter what communication platform is preferred. This keeps the team up to date.”
GENERAL TIP: Put the project name and phase in the subject line and apply it to all email communication for the project. This will make finding the right email thread quick and easy.
Evan likes to over-communicate with brief updates throughout the project. He shared, “I call all the time. Good and bad news. I over-communicate so that if something does go bad, the clients knows that you have control over the project. Delivering good news builds confidence. They understand that things happen and situations arise in buildings that you don’t necessarily have control over. If they hear from you all the time, they know you’re not being negligent. It might be a voicemail that doesn’t need a response — just an FYI — and I’ll let them know they don’t need to take the time for a call back.”
GENERAL TIP: Tell your client how much you will communicate so they are aware of your routine. You might have 20 projects going on, but for them, this is the only one they are working on right now. I bet they want to know how it’s going.
Lists are important
You might already be using a shared list that for managing communication among teams during the design and construction phase of a project. Identifying the need for additional lists among trades in different phases of a project could help with project efficiency and provide the end client with a strong sense of what you need to keep things moving forward.
When the building design components start to get laid out at meetings, there are always questions that come up from supporting trades as well as the end client. Questions to help clarify the design come up when you’re outside of meetings too. In an effort to keep things organized, it makes sense to list questions in a shared place. You could create a list of all of the questions that arise (stored in a cloud such as GoogleDocs that supports live editing by several people) with columns that clearly identify when and whether the question is answered, what the answer is, and who best person to answer the question is. When the question is resolved, you change the color of the row (I vote for light purple, but gray is easy on the eyes). The most important part of creating this type of list is sharing it with the entire team, including the end client, and including a simple email message that explains how you will work within the document.
GENERAL TIP: Email the team (or only those who have questions that need attention) at a set time each week. For example, on Monday, the team gets the list and is asked to review questions that need answering.
To meet or not to meet
Beth shared, “Periodic project meetings are very common. I prefer to have meetings when there is set agenda of items that need to be discussed. This makes the meeting more important and much more productive. When I have an outlined agenda, I also don’t get nearly as many cancellations.”
She continued, “Because I am the key liaison for my projects, I personally communicate with the entire project team. All members of the project team report to me, and all of their reports and updates come to my inbox. When an issue arises, after careful evaluation, I invite the people on the team who are involved in the problem to the meeting to work on the resolution. Depending on the size and scope of the issue, I inform key stakeholders of the communication, resolution and milestones once they are achieved.”
GENERAL TIP: Before you use the CC fields, ask yourself, “Does this person really need to be part of this communication?”
Clear and concise with a dash of feeling
Beth believes that using bulleted lists and simple spacing between paragraphs, can go a long way. Technology threatens to overwhelm us with information, which makes it hard to find and process the information we need. There is so much information written in so many different ways, and standards for clear writing are often overlooked. Beth shared, “Through years of managing different teams and various projects, I have learned how concise and clear communication builds trust and confidence in everyone. This informs my work now. My emails need to be simple and clear. My goal is usually to state action items and deliver the message effectively without additional noise.”
GENERAL TIP: Always include a deadline. Whatever the action items include, even if a definitive deadline does not exist, provide a date.
Leverage your firm’s brand
Your firm has its own mission and key values that help to develop its brand. Use that to your advantage when you are developing your communication plan at the project onset. Allow that to inform how you’re talking to the team, and keep it in mind when you’re crafting emails and presenting options. If your firm focuses on dependability and sustainability, for example, then use words that reflect this position and apply those words in your emails.
Evan shared, “I communicate Taitem’s responsibility. I make sure the client understands that Taitem is a responsible firm…that we are expert engineers with years of experience. I let them know that they don’t have much to worry about because I have the weight of Taitem behind me and that even though the client may not know me personally, I stand for Taitem as a whole. We will make things correct and work alongside the client to deliver expert service. I’m super confident when I communicate that. It goes a long way.”
GENERAL TIP: Don’t be afraid to use and repeat the words directly from your mission statement and website.
Debrief to review successes and shortcomings
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s tough to take the time to do this after a project is complete. Establish a process for closing out a project that includes an internal debrief with your team. This debrief is the opportunity to revisit successes and where identify tasks and people might need support moving forward. This builds morale, makes it easy to share ideas, and improves the design process. If you’re comfortable getting feedback directly from the end client, have that ready to share internally when your team comes together. Celebrate your successes as a team and acknowledge where you can improve.
GENERAL TIP: Don’t delay. Get some feedback from the client as soon as the project is complete. Then meet internally before a month goes past. It’s important to share best practices and potential for improvement when the project is fresh.
Today, Taitem Engineering was recognized among B-Corporations worldwide as a 2018 Best for the World honoree for the environment.
What does this mean?
It means that Taitem is creating the most positive environmental impact based on an independent, comprehensive assessment of 2,400 other certified B-Corporations administered by the nonprofit B Lab. B-Corps around the world were evaluated based on the environmental performance of their facilities, materials management, GHG emissions, and resource and energy use. Honorees like Taitem scored in the top 10% and set a gold standard for businesses that are a force for good around the world.
Taitem Engineering made the list thanks to its mission-driven business model, embodied in its name, “Technology As If The Earth Mattered.” We stand proudly among other B-Corps which were honored, including Patagonia, Etsy, Seventh Generation, King Arthur Flour, and Ben and Jerry’s.
Thanks to support from our clients, the strength of our community, and the service of our dedicated staff, we are walking our company talk to benefit the planet and its people. Taitem is an Ithaca-based firm, rooted in their local community and is being recognized internationally as an environmental steward. Check out the official press release here.
Look for videos with some fun info on our Facebook and LinkedIn pages today and throughout the week. Here are the direct links to the videos in the series if you want to take a sneak peak.