Green Design Trends: Facility Managers As Keepers Of The Flame

By Beckham Price, LEED® AP
Published in the April 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Photo: Jupiterimages
Photo: Jupiterimages

As local codes require buildings to be more resource efficient and less expensive to operate, the role of the facility manager (fm) has become increasingly vital. More than ever, it falls upon fms to ensure that building systems, whether passive or high tech, operate within guidelines.

Thus, it is often the fm who must embody the “institutional memory” of the building as it pertains to management and maintenance of systems and sustainability initiatives. Manuals and guides can be established by mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) engineers—and online systems can be accessed when necessary—but likely, only the fm will be able to understand the steps needed and personally impart them to building users.

Passive Design

Some buildings incorporate passive design systems which, by their very nature, do not consume energy. Most often, these initiatives include elements like orientation, operable windows, natural ventilation, daylighting, thermal massing, shading, cool roofs, and window glazing.

And while one might think passive systems only require passive upkeep, this is a misperception. In reality, passive systems can be extremely sensitive to mismanagement, since they are actually quite sophisticated.

For instance, placing a large area rug over a polished concrete floor can thwart a passive system. If the concrete floor was near a sunny window and intended to absorb heat so it could be gradually released later (an application of thermal mass), the rug will defeat the purpose of the system. Even signage, if hung in intended airflow pathways, can suffocate a passively ventilated building.

The Need For Flexibility

Fms in passive buildings require a greater understanding of building design features, intended use, and system integration. These fms must prevent problems before they happen, educate occupants, and manage change to preserve system effectiveness.

Passive buildings may require extra efforts from fms who have to coax occupants to adapt to a wider range of comfort. These building occupants will need to understand that sweaters are not merely fashion accessories, but they can also be part of the indoor dress code.

During retrofits, many buildings could be returned to the passive systems that governed them when they were first built. In the past, many buildings incorporated spatial programming and building form elements such as roof overhangs, operable windows, awnings, recessed windows, and floor configurations to achieve natural lighting and ventilation to maintain comfort. Occupants were expected to be active participants in controlling their comfort well beyond simple thermostat management.

This is not to say that restoring passive systems in older buildings means the elimination of sophisticated HVAC systems. Depending on the structure, if passive systems are restored, supplemental control may still be necessary. However, these would be smaller and less expensive.

Thus, a fm may find that upgrading a building actually requires a crash course in operating passive systems that may not have been in use for decades. In buildings where occupants are accustomed to more conventional HVAC systems, fms may find their role is as much “user” education as building management.

The Investment Scene

Traditionally, it has been harder to impel sustainable initiatives to builders who don’t have a vested interest in the life of the structure. Even the perception of marginally higher up front costs was enough to dismiss systems that would create more efficient operations.

In today’s economic climate, however, more organizations are finding that their investment horizons depend on smart initial decisions. In this environment, ownership and stewardship can merge, with meaningful results for fms, especially with regard to sustainable initiatives.

Governments, universities, religious organizations, museums, and other entities with long-term plans for their buildings have a particularly keen interest in operational efficiency. These institutions measure building assets in terms of generations, not raw profits realized through property flipping (which is much more difficult to execute successfully under the current economic conditions).

As long-term stakeholders, fms scrutinize operating costs more closely and recognize that larger capital outlays will make sense if real energy savings and lower bills can be had. In this scenario, energy problems are not passed off to the next owner; the fm will be left to live with any shortcuts taken at the expense of energy saving efforts.

Ideal MEP-Fm Relations

Ideally, designers and MEP engineers consult with fms before and during designing or retrofitting building systems. Just as important, they remain on call, even for years, after the installation is complete.

Buildings tend to evolve as use patterns change, minor additions or alterations are made, or the building’s surroundings progress (new construction, demolition, or vegetative growth). While passive systems tend to keep working (assuming rules are carefully followed), other systems may benefit from upgrades or new technologies.

Some activities—like refinishing floors for cosmetic reasons—might add to sustainable initiatives (for instance, a polished cement floor could be installed to harness thermal mass). Degrading façades might allow for installation of windows with better lighting or insulating properties.

Working together, fms, designers, and MEP engineers can continue to improve the performance of the built environment, yielding benefits to owners, occupants, and the environment. Whether using passive or active systems, buildings will always need the human element to manage their best use.

Price, sustainable services manager for Los Angeles, CA-based IBE Consulting Engineers, has been an early adopter of sustainable building practices in his career in construction management and green building and design.