Saving Energy, Water, and Money Through Design
- Elizabeth Eason Architecture, founded in 2003, uses creative architectural strategies to save energy, water, and materials in the buildings they design.
- On average, the firm’s buildings exceed energy efficiency code standards by 30%, and also use 30% less water than comparable buildings.
- Elizabeth Eason Architecture works with other professionals in the building industry who are increasingly involved in and knowledgeable about energy and resource efficient building practices.
High-Performance by Design
Surveying public buildings, a 2007 study by construction consulting firm Davis Langdon found that high-performance building is no more expensive than traditional construction when high-performance practices are integrated into the design from the start. Projects become expensive when firms design traditional buildings and then attempt to add high-performance measures at the end. “The first question in budgeting,” according to the green building report, “should not be ‘How much more will [high-performance design] cost?,’ but ‘How will we do this?’”1
In 2003, Elizabeth Eason founded the full-service architecture firm that bears her name to incorporate this sort of integrated planning into building projects. The Knoxville, Tennessee-based firm provides architectural services from initial planning through completion, making residential, commercial and public buildings that save energy, water, materials, and money a reality.
Today, the firm employs five designers in its office, which is located in a historic building overlooking Krutch Park in downtown Knoxville. The employees’ commitment to efficient design and building practices extends well beyond the confines of a typical job description. The firm retrofitted their own office to conserve water and electricity and achieved a LEED Gold certification.2 In addition to the energy-saving features of the building itself, employees often bike to work and recycle obsessively, and the firm offsets 100% of its electricity usage with renewable energy credits. Being a good corporate citizen is also part of the work ethic at the firm. At least 1% of Elizabeth Eason Architecture’s efforts every year are committed to pro bono nonprofit work, including designing facilities for community gardens and inner city housing districts.
Energy, Water and Materials: Doing More with Less
Elizabeth Eason Architecture’s expertise, high-performance building design, has important implications for energy; in 2009, residential and commercial buildings accounted for 29% of the nation’s energy use.3 Much of that energy is consumed by heating, cooling, and lighting, which can be significantly reduced through creative design and the use of energy efficient technologies.4 Buildings are also large consumers of physical materials and water; construction materials account for the majority of materials use in the United States, and while agriculture is the biggest user of water, buildings use a significant portion.5,6
Elizabeth Eason Architecture designs its buildings to use these resources more efficiently. For example, the company uses 3D modeling to analyze orientation, daylight, and shading features of a design. By positioning windows carefully, a design can achieve a high level of natural daylight without unwanted heat gain or glare. High quality natural lighting with minimized solar heat gain will also reduce air conditioning requirements. When natural light provided to a space is adequate, daylight sensors on light fixtures can dim the lights, saving energy and further reducing interior heat loads.
To reduce heating and cooling costs, the firm designs airtight building envelopes in tandem with mechanical systems designed to bring in fresh, filtered air. Often, they use occupancy sensors to determine when fresh air is needed to maintain comfort and accommodate occupancy levels. Many of these occupancy sensors function by measuring the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the room – if a room is occupied, the level rises from breathing, signaling the need for more fresh air. When rooms are unoccupied and CO2 levels drop, the vents are closed automatically and the air is recycled to cut down on heating and cooling costs. In this way, the design saves energy and money without compromising occupant comfort.
Elizabeth Eason Architecture’s designers also look for ways to apply these same design principles beyond the walls of a building. For example, in redesigning a commercial district of Vestal, TN, the firm established greenway connections and sidewalks to make the neighborhood more walkable by enhancing pedestrian safety and reducing vehicle use. For rainwater management, the firm uses permeable paving materials, which reduce flooding and erosion, and native landscape plants that require little or no irrigation. Many of the firm’s residential projects also collect and filter rainwater to reduce the amount of potable water needed from the municipal water system.
Using these and other efficient practices, the firm designs buildings that exceed energy efficiency code standards by 30 percent on average, and use 30 percent less water than comparable buildings. Because of the firm’s commitment to sustainable and efficient practices, their designs also use materials with lower environmental impacts, such as recycled and local materials requiring less energy to manufacture and transport to the construction site. This also keeps more money in the local economy.
Designing for LEED Certification
One big business opportunity for the firm is designing buildings for LEED certification. The most comprehensive study on LEED certification, done in 2009, found that LEED buildings use 18-39% less energy per square foot than conventional buildings, but results vary widely by site.7 To date, the USGBC has certified nearly 9 billion square feet of building space under the LEED rating system globally — a sizable chunk, but still less than 1% of the world’s total building space.8,9 As high-performance building practices become more widely adopted, the firm stands to benefit by having already established itself in this arena.
All five of the designers at Elizabeth Eason Architecture are LEED accredited professionals. The firm has achieved Gold and Silver certification for several past projects and is expecting a slew of LEED certifications to come from those currently under construction, including a possible Platinum certification for their Blueberry Ridge Senior Housing project.
Moving Toward Widespread Adoption
Elizabeth Eason and her firm have been leaders in the Knoxville area for high-performance building practices. However, the firm has seen many others shift in its direction. “The things that we were doing in 2003 are now incorporated into best practices,” said Eason. Nonetheless, there are challenges. Training is one, she said. Another is that manufacturers need time to react to new building priorities in their product offerings. “Sometimes a product may be more difficult to get because it hasn’t taken hold in the local market yet,” she said, citing difficulty in finding HVAC units that are small enough for some of projects. “There is sort of a back and forth between the products that become available and the levels of efficiency we are able to reach.”
Over time, Eason expects to add staff to meet a growing demand for her firm’s expertise, driven in part by stricter building codes and an increased interest in energy and water savings. Eason noted that, for the consultants, landscape architects, and engineers her firm works with, “It’s not hard,” to adopt high-performance practices. “It’s the misconception that green design has to cost more that is hard to overcome.” Already, she said, as high-performance building practices move into the mainstream, “We’re finding more and more owners, contractors, and designers who are interested in efficiency.” This bodes well for her firm – and for the rest of us. Since buildings last a long time, making them as efficient as possible from the start can add up to significant energy and cost savings over the years.
2. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification is a standard set by the independent nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The LEED rating system awards buildings points in various categories – energy and water efficiency, choice of materials, and others – and uses the point totals to rank buildings from uncertified through LEED-certified, silver, gold and platinum (for example, 80 or more points out of a maximum 100 earns a platinum ranking).
3. “Estimated U.S. Energy Use in 2009,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), August 2010. The report measures “primary energy” use – the total amount of energy derived from the input fuels (for example, coal, natural gas and petroleum, or the gravitational potential energy of water built up behind a dam). In cases such as nuclear or wind power, in which primary energy has less physical meaning, a conversion factor is used to equate the energy output to an equivalent amount of primary energy, were that electricity to be generated from fossil fuels.
4. “Breaking Down Building Energy Use,” Jetson Green, August 25, 2009, http://www.jetsongreen.com/2009/08/breaking-down-building-energy-use.html (January 3, 2012).
8. “What LEED Is,” U.S. Green Building Council website, 2011, http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=1988 (January 3, 2012).
9. This report gives the world’s building space as 1.5 trillion ft2 as of 2010 - “Global Building Space to Increase by 26% to 178 Billion Square Meters by 2020,” Pike Research, January 24, 2010, http://www.pikeresearch.com/newsroom/global-building-space-to-increase-by-26-to-178-billion-square-meters-by-2020 (January 3, 2012).