Business , Columns

Sustainable and resilient

Environmentally friendly hospitals help pay for themselves through lower energy costs. The right light fixtures and appliances and even the building’s orientation are major factors.

Sustainable and resilient
Diffused sunlight brightens a north-facing veterinary clinic lobby. No direct sunshine means the room stays cooler.
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When it comes to a project’s environmental impact, much is made about building-rating programs such as LEED and Green Globes. People equate a high rating with a good environmentally sound design and assume that no other steps can be taken. While LEED and Green Globes are legitimate rating programs, many people don’t know that nonprofit organizations — the U.S. Green Building Council and the Green Building Initiative, respectively — administer them. That in itself is not a bad thing, and there can be value in demonstrating to clients that your hospital earned a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) plaque, but understand that the cost of registration and processing alone can run from $10,000 to $20,000.

The typical hospital owner is more interested in putting that kind of investment toward something with more tangible, sustainable results. Given the veterinary business model, only the rare project can support such an expense.

What can you do to go “green” and lessen your hospital’s environmental impact? Over the years, my firm has settled on a strategy of sensible sustainability by focusing on features that offer operational savings through energy reduction and more efficient use of labor. We look at the return on investment of installed building materials and systems and identify ways to cut energy consumption, use fewer materials and reduce landfill waste.

If one looks at the total U.S. energy use, fully 48 percent is attributable to buildings. What you might not realize is that spread over the average building’s lifespan, only 10 percent of that energy is embodied in the construction. The rest is in the operational energy — lights, heating and cooling, and the equipment that people use.

If you want to make a meaningful impact, focus on operational reduction. Is it better to use an air conditioning system manufactured locally to save on the energy needed to ship it? Not if importing a much more efficient unit will generate additional operational reductions. While you can calculate a monetary return on investment, the real benefit is the tons of carbon that won’t be cast into the air.

So, what are the strategies? Let’s explore what hospital owners can do and still remain within their budget.

1. Proper Siting

For new construction, we have the ability to orient the building so that it avoids unnecessary energy loads. This means a solar orientation relative to the window placements and one that minimizes summer heat gain and takes advantage of winter sunshine.

2. Higher Efficiency Exterior Materials

Green roofs were and still are all the rage, but we find they do not perform better than light-reflective “cool” roofs. The more infrared light a roof reflects, the lower your use of cooling energy. Similarly, wall and door selections can directly impact building energy needs and occupant comfort levels.

3. Daylight Harvesting

A window is a good example of using free, natural light to illuminate a building’s interior. Getting good daylight into rooms is fairly easy with an exterior wall, but we work to bring daylight to interior space, too. The more you can use the sun without undue solar heat gain, the less you’ll need artificial light. About 44 percent of standard building energy use is related to lighting.

4. Smart Solar

In keeping with daylight harvesting, capturing energy is much better than purchasing it. Solar panels generate electricity that can power light fixtures. These tend to be expensive systems, and solar power can have a long payback period in areas without robust incentive programs. Solar panels are, at best, less than 30 percent efficient. Instead, light tubes — a kind of skylight — are 100 percent efficient and far less expensive. I prefer light tubes over skylights because they deliver virtually no solar heat gain.

Yes, solar electricity can power other things, too, but realize that air conditioning typically makes up 24 percent of overall energy use, far less than lighting. Having said that, solar panels can make a lot of sense in places that offer generous incentive programs. The breakeven period can be as short as four years in some parts of the United States.

A metal screen installed over a hallway diffuses sunlight, sending soft, natural illumination into interior space.

5. Light Fixtures

When it comes to artificial lighting, the widespread use of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) has reduced power needs more than any other current building technology. The growing variety of fixture types and falling prices mean there is no reason to use any other kind of fixture today. Even on minor renovation projects, we convert as many light fixtures as possible to LED.

6. Automatic Regulators

Light controls such as occupancy sensors are useful in non-clinical and housing areas. In fact, most energy codes require them.

7. Delivery Costs

Assuming equal performance, locally sourced construction materials are better. Transportation is the second biggest user of energy, so minimize where you can.

8. More Layers

I recommend insulating buildings beyond energy code minimums. Up to a point, more insulation is a small expense relative to the impact. A high-performing exterior shell is an upgrade that keeps on giving.

9. Plug Holes

Air sealing is an often-overlooked advantage. In a new, standard code-compliant building, you lose more energy to air leakage than through roof and wall insulation. Making sure the shell is airtight improves a building’s performance and, when properly done, the indoor air quality, too.

10. Equipment Selection

Things like efficient domestic water heaters, Energy Star appliances and low-power IT systems will have as much an impact as a high-efficiency air conditioner.

11. Water Savings

Some veterinary practices, especially those that offer boarding and grooming services, can use a lot of water. Low-pressure wash and vacuum systems will reduce water consumption considerably.

12. Recyclability

For parts of a building that would reasonably be replaced as part of normal wear and tear, we select options that can be recycled. Finishes, casework, furniture and fixtures that would be upgraded after perhaps 10 or 15 years should be made of recyclable materials and not be sent to landfills.

Carbon Neutral and Robust

Finally, I want to introduce resiliency, a concept closely related to sustainability and one that is gaining momentum in the architectural profession. Resiliency means making structures not only more carbon neutral but also more robust. A building that can withstand natural disasters is more earth friendly than one that must be rebuilt. Making structures resistant to wind, water and fire damage and keeping them operational is the goal.

For example, my firm has a client in the Florida Keys. When Hurricane Irma devastated the central Keys in September 2017, the veterinary practice remained intact even when the client’s house was destroyed.

Installation of a self-contained backup generator helps such a practice to not only survive but to be a refuge for people and pets alike. Architects are focusing much more on making buildings less disposable.

What makes a building resilient is very location dependent. A building that is hurricane and tornado resistant is quite different from one designed to survive a wildfire. In general, we look for materials and building systems that hold up over time, are low impact and are good neighbors.

As architects, we have an obligation not only to our clients but to the community and world at large. We work to guide clients along that path.

Constructive Criticism columnist Paul Gladysz is the principal architect at BDA Architecture. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, firm specializes in the planning, design and construction of animal care facilities.

A row of exam rooms built with translucent walls receives natural light through exterior windows.

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