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Practical ways to green an older building

At last year’s Green Real Estate Conference in Toronto, it was clear that the enthusiasm for green buildings was on the cusp of hitting the mainstream. This year, we seem to have passed that tipping point. However, no matter how enthusiastic a building owner or manager might be about greening their facilities, it can be a challenge with an older building. At this year’s conference, a few experts offered their suggestions on how to manage the process.


May 7, 2009
By Robert Colman

Tom Kovendi, director of portfolio operations for Cadillac Fairview Corp.’s Toronto office portfolio, started with some words of caution.

“Any owner has to make a decision between how green they want to be and how much profit they might have to surrender,” he notes. “It’s not a very palatable issue to discuss but I keep on explaining to people that what you’re going to embark on in greening your older buildings requires you to make some basic decisions. You need a corporate reality check. Quite often what we find is within a corporation itself, there isn’t an alignment as to what (senior management) is prepared to support in regards to greening older buildings.”

Sometimes, as Kovendi stresses, it may be nice to have a plaque on the wall saying how green your building is, but the cost would mean putting off important upgrades to the building. Unless there is corporate support for a bigger commitment, the plaque has to wait. Either way, key decision makers have to be behind green initiatives.

Ultimately, Kovendi reminds us, it’s about the clients – tenants in the building. What do they really want? They might like that plaque on the wall, but “perhaps what is important to them is to have a safe, clean, healthy working environment.”

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Green guidelines for building maintenance
A “green” approach to a building, of course, has environmental payoffs. Kovendi quoted a study that suggests more than 60 per cent of the value of green buildings comes from the productivity and health benefits to those working in them.

His main point was to not get caught up on rating systems. Use LEED and BOMA BESt rating systems as guides, but primarily be guided by what the client wants, and what your building needs.

Kovendi accepts that to make an older building truly green, you have to make some serious capital investments, but there’s still plenty that can be done without that physical structural renewal to make buildings work more efficiently.

“For instance, there are 15 LEED EB (Existing Building) credits you could apply to your property,” he explains. Implementing such things as building operations policies and tenant policies and guidelines can make building operations greener without a huge capital outlay.

Cadillac Fairview, in this same vein, has created what Kovendi referred to as the company “Bible” on greening, called Green At Work. Every CF property now follows this. In effect, every property is trying to be as green as possible without necessarily tapping into infrastructure spending.

“In (Green At Work) we have 300 standards that we mandate for each of our properties,” he says. “The intent is that the properties have to achieve certain target levels, and they have to improve on those target scores on an annual and ongoing basis.” Kovendi strongly encouraged others to consider a similar game plan.

An important point Kovendi made is that as “green” becomes more important to clients, having a way to demonstrate to clients what you’ve done to manage the issue will become more important as well.

Recommissioning
Both Kovendi and Herb Hunter, president of Hunter Facilities Management, stressed the value of recommissioning as a starting point for greening efforts.  “You’ve got to know your building, where it is right now, how green it is, how energy efficient, and if you don’t know you’re jumping in too early,” explains Kovendi.

Why do existing buildings need to be recommissioned?

“Many buildings limp along in terms of performance and unfortunately most of the owners don’t understand (the state they are in),” says Hunter. “As long as a building system’s maintained at a reasonably competent level nothing appears to be wrong. Many problems are only noticed when there’s a catastrophic failure or visible consequence.”

But as Hunter points out, equipment that operates properly tends to use less energy, requires fewer service calls, replacement parts, and demands less critical maintenance or crisis maintenance from onsight staff, allowing existing staff to concentrate on normal duties, and aids in long term planning and major maintenance budgets.

Hunter notes that even in newer buildings, poor practices mean that a lot of energy savings aren’t taken advantage of. For instance, he offers the example of variable frequency drives being placed in new buildings, and six months later “they are all running on manual.”

“Our experience has shown that, on average, we’ve never found a building where we haven’t been able to find 15 per cent in utility savings,” says Hunter. “We’ve seen numbers as high as 30 per cent.”  

Green retrofit tips
But once commissioning and maintenance practices are out of the way, where are some other potential big wins? Dermot Sweeny, partner at Sweeny Sterling Finlayson & Co Architects Inc., offered a few tips.

His first was to simply make the use of space in the building more efficient. “That increases the building’s value, and it’s critical in terms of accessing capital,” says Sweeny.

He offered an example of one project his company worked on, in which they removed six of seven staircases in the building, and reduced the amount of corridor space.

“We improved the amount of rentable space by 20 per cent,” he explains. “That gave the client the ability to invest capital.”

Once that has been taken care of, Sweeny suggests a few items that offer big bang for your buck:

  1. Lighting and lighting controls. Sweeny characterized this as offering dramatic energy reductions right away. Such options as controllable, dimmable ballasts and occupancy sensors can make a big difference quickly in any facility.
  2. Variable speed drives. “Typically in an older building, systems are on or they’re off,” says Sweeny. “A variable speed drive will save a tremendous amount of energy right out of the gate, and it’s often relatively inexpensive to do.
  3. HVAC controls. The more metering and measuring tools available in a building the more control you have. You may not be able to charge tenants for their use, but being able to explain to them what they are using can make a big difference.
  4. Central plant improvements. It can be a big cost to replace a chiller, but as Sweeny explains, the equipment today is much more efficient than what was available before that the payback can happen remarkably quickly. “Today’s best cooling systems will be 40-50 per cent better right out of the gate than most equipment installed 30-40 years ago,” he notes.
  5. Make-up air / free cooling. As Sweeny explains it, the more make-up air and the more free cooling you can use, the more pleasant and healthier the building is and the less the costs are. “Sometimes this can be done by leaving the central plant alone and adding a new make-up air system, a heat exchanger, and simply adding one riser through the building,” he says. In some cases, it may be possible to use a riser that’s underused – particularly in older buildings that needed that space in the past for telecommunications equipment, and now have lots of spare room.

Sweeny went on to explain the value of solar hot water systems, building envelope improvements (expensive and disruptive but a big impact), plumbing fixture replacement, storm water retention and green roofs – all very valuable measures that can be more expensive.

One of the critical messages that came out of this session is the importance of education. It’s important to understand what it takes to make your facility more efficient, effective and “green”. That means getting a good understanding of what a green building is, but even more importantly understanding how your facility can be made more efficient through better operations practices and recommissioning.

A further point that Sweeny makes is that tenants of a building may be willing to pay more for rent if they understand the value they will receive from certain upgrades. So whether your “client” is a tenant or senior managers in your own company that have to approve upgrades, it’s important to take the time to educate them and explain the value of the changes you are proposing.