Is Energy Conservation Retrofit, Renovation, or Conservation?

April 6, 2013

Answer: all three. Being “green”, conserving energy, and reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are among today’s goals, but they must be appropriate for the particular application. Overly aggressive energy conservation without increasing productivity, quality, and acceptability will fail because people always find ways to circumvent unwanted or impractical restrictions.

The “R” words could be simply mean a coat of paint, or total gutting and reinstallation, without regard for the initial architectural design. “Conservation” is extending the life, value, and usefulness of an historic structure as long as wanted, while being sympathetic to original design and fabric. Unfortunately, the term, “preservation” sometimes conjures images of little old ladies in tennis shoes, trying to put buildings in aspic, no longer serving a need.

Concern over unemployment and falling profit, during the present state of international real estate and construction industries, is great. However, there is a ready solution-the huge untapped market for maintaining and energy-upgrading the millions of existing commercial/institutional structures erected in this country prior to 1940 and still usable.

Despite the advertising, there is no such thing as “no maintenance.” Structures, like humans, have to be fed, clothed, and taken to the doctor when necessary. They also have to breathe. Of course, to keep safety uppermost, usable codes and standards have to be geared to both contemporary and older existing buildings, which employed different methods and materials. If a system is still standing after 100 years, it must be doing something right.

The three systems covered by the national ASHRAE/IESNA/ANSI Standard 90.1 (Energy Conservation, basis for LEED, IECC, Green Globes, and local/state standards) are the Building Envelope; HVAC, including domestic hot water; and Power and Lighting. Of these, lighting-essential to see or do anything-is the easiest with which to save energy; enhance design; and increase productivity, safety, security, personal comfort, sales, and attendance equals either for making or saving money.

This means that practical education at every level, for youth, the public, professionals, owner/developer, and government in how to do building conservation is indicated. In addition to the cultural aspect, energy conservation, jobs, tax revenues, and better quality of life, are involved. Widespread knowledge might end sloth (too lazy to do it right), ignorance (they don’t know that they don’t know), and greed (by showing how to make more money doing it right).

If done with quality, entering building conservation could help improve the economy. Indeed, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, elegant structures were built across the country that are serving today, and continue to be greatly admired by the public. Where are those bright developers now, when there are willing workers and affordable materials?

Participants should be aware of the traditional construction knowledge gained through empirical trial and error over the centuries. Mistakenly abandoned as old fashioned, they were the original “green”, and are relevant today for both new and historic work.

Many financial incentives from local/state/federal sources, business and utilities are offered for energy conservation and rejuvenating income-producing historic properties. Strangely, only 1% of clients make use of them.

Instead, some owner/developers contend that “no one is around any more who can do such tasks”-not so! The crocodile-tear cries of “economic hardship”, “structurally unsound” and “blight” are sorely overused, and not in the public interest. The negative saying that “all old is bad, and all new is good” has been proven wrong many times. Examples are when a new façade falls off the first year, or a just-opened concrete hotel leaks like a sieve (due to poor design, low quality materials, shoddy workmanship and lack of scheduled maintenance, all used in order to “make a saving”).

To save money, disregarding, or changing without authorization, well-written specs and plans is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Paying more than once for cheap replacement materials, labor cost to re-install, and disruption to the activity, ends up more expensive in the long run. How much is customer satisfaction worth for repeat business, rentals, sales, etc? A corollary is short-cut-seeking maintenance staff undoing proper design, wrecking the professional’s intention, merely to exert the least effort.

There are common sense solutions for those who are aware of them. For one thing, there is no substitute for the three Cs of construction-communication, coordination, and cooperation among every member of the team, from owner/developer to first-year apprentice. Before the first nail is hit, sufficient preliminary meetings should be held concerning suitable installation and interaction of adjacent services. This is money wisely spent.

Although historic decorative features are usually well done, if the mechanical/electrical systems are not inserted to be unobtrusive, reversible, and able to perform as promised, the results will be much aggravation, cost-overruns, and possible irreversible damage to the structure.

Design News magazine’s term for off-the-wall bad concepts is “Design by Monkeys“. Examples of lack of common sense, and ignoring the three Cs, include: power wires mistakenly run through water pipes, smoke detectors hidden behind columns so they cannot detect problems, conduits nailed over ornamental plaster ceilings like drunken snakes, giant holes raggedly cut into marble for a small wall switch, graceful arches blocked by air-conditioning ducts, dropped ceilings concealing decorative painting, and a high-ceilinged indoor swimming pool that required the pool drained and scaffold erected just to re-lamp. One of the dumbest was cutting a hole in the wall to polk in a handy 8-foot fluorescent fixture instead of the 4-foot one required in the space.

Too many times the air conditioning and fire protection interfere with the lighting plan, while mold and condensation endanger valuable contents. What about bankruptcy-causing hidden asbestos? Another costly gaff is the designer moving doors, windows, and lighting array after the bids are submitted. Change order time!

Indeed, any equipment that is difficult or disruptive to access for maintenance is badly done. All these details should be thought of in advance. Even then there will be unexpected problems. Someone in charge must be available to make quick decisions, in order not to delay the schedule.

One other subject is called for to retain architectural heritage: King Canute learned that he could not command the ocean to recede; nor would the winds stop blowing; explosion/fires not starting, temperatures cease fluctuating widely; the earth suddenly not opening up; hurricanes and tornados disappearing, massive power failures, or any other disaster harmful to humans, animals and plants. Nature will prevail.

Since these disasters will not end, it is time to take more permanent steps to save money, effort and lives. It is counterproductive, and costly to keep applying temporary Band-Aids instead of more logical solutions for expected hazards. Bring on imagination and innovation.

Those who enjoy facing the fascinating and achievable challenges of building conservation will have a special niche in the industry.
About the Author

Gersil Kay

Gersil N. Kay is the president of Conservation Lighting International, and Building Conservation International in Philadelphia and is a member of the Distributed Energy Editorial Advisory Board.

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