by Ian Johnson, Senior Director, Linnean Solutions — Here at Linnean, we ask a question of every project we undertake:
“How can this project make our world better than when we started?”
This is a powerful question. It asks us to consider lots of things that are outside of the actual project and to understand the effects of a particular project across time.
How does this facility affect its neighborhood or community?
The Kearns Center at Hampshire College is a new student center that has recently been awarded Living Building status. But the interesting aspect of the Kearns center is not how environmentally sensitive it is, but rather, how important it is to the Hampshire College community. This single 16,000 sf building has transformed the independent minded and isolated student body into a cohesive force for innovation. This one building! And because of that, the building has expanded the role of the institution and its students within the Pioneer Valley as important innovators. A building of this importance to the region deserves a high level of attention and environmental performance.
How do the ways in which a building works affect the ways in which an organization works?
Kensington Investment Company is the real estate investment arm of a family that created the Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) company. OAT is all about connecting older Americans with cultures around the world in ways that build cultural awareness and connection. Their headquarters and prime asset should support that culture. Kensington has worked for years to slowly change its main location in ways that foster cultural interchange and connection, while respecting the environmental imperatives of our time. They see these environmental imperatives as supporting their international perspective. The facility itself is an important part of their overall mission.
How can you move away from solving problems toward achieving the greatest potential for your facility?
NRG systems makes controllers and other equipment for wind turbines. As they say, environmental stewardship is core to their business. But they still need to run a world class assembly plant and highly efficient office operations. Their headquarters is a marvel of high-tech wizardry aimed at running the most efficient facility possible, even in Vermont winters. When they figured out that the company cat was setting off occupancy sensors after hours and wasting precious energy that they needed for manufacturing, they could have sent the cat away. Instead, they realized that they had created a control system that was wound too tight. They could achieve ever greater efficiency by loosening the BMS’s control of their environment. This was a breakthrough for the facility manager. But the bigger effect came when the engineering team realized that this was a valuable design principle for their systems, affecting thousands of wind turbine systems worldwide.
These ways of thinking help make a building and a community more alive. Make the ecosystem stronger too. How can you think and act this way in your facilities?
Thinking Regeneratively about Building Operations and Maintenance
Over the last 10 years there has been a shift in the way buildings are constructed and managed. Many cities now have stretch energy codes with more rigorous requirements to ensure higher building performance. Other building public goals deal with occupant health – through minimizing mold potential, selecting healthier and more sustainable building materials and paying more attention to occupant health and wellness. Yet other standards require buildings retain stormwater on-site, install only native plants on the landscape and use no harmful pesticides or cleaning products in the building. The strategies for better buildings are many and the whole is complex.
This shift in building regulation shows us that we are beginning to look at each unique piece of a building and find ways to do things better than we have in the past. Although we are making improvements in individual systems, we are still viewing at all these systems as separate from one another. All building improvements regardless of how they address the building (HVAC, landscaping, insulation, building materials, lighting etc.) somehow all tie into each other as they are all part of the whole system – the building and all occupants within it as well as the surrounding ecosystem. When we start to look at all systems together, building systems, occupants, budget, etc. we can then begin to look at how elements within the system that can positively impact the whole.
When looking at a building as a whole, we need to include occupants, owners, finances, etc. as part of that system. But we also need to include facilities managers as key holders of responsibility and action. Building operations and maintenance are about ensuring the building functions well. But what if it meant operating the building in a way that made the whole system better? From lighting upgrades and façade repairs to checking HVAC systems regularly to ensure they are in working order, managing a building covers a diverse set of specialties. How might you find the overlapping criteria in each of these diverse areas? How might understanding the interactions of the all the pieces allow you to better manage the operations and maintenance of the building in a way that creates a better – even vibrant place?
Thinking about might be like the way we might think of the human body. When you go to the doctor with a complaint, say for chest pain, they look at many other parts of the whole system and ask questions “What do you typically eat? How much exercise do you get? Have you been under stress?” They also perform tests – looking at blood pressure, listening to your heart and lungs and the rest of you. Buildings are no different. We can look at the building as a whole to better understand how to best maintain and improve the whole system. To get started thinking regeneratively about your buildings you’ll want to think about what are the core systems of the building and how do they interact? What makes this building unique from others? And then, think about how your building links into (and affects) the community systems.
Here is a building example to help illustrate the benefit of understanding the system connections:
You are managing an older building with a brand new HVAC. The system had recently been upgraded from the building’s original system. The thermostats and building management system make heating and cooling the building much easier. As time goes by, you notice that you still have the same issue with the old system – many occupants are complaining of being too hot, or too cold and overall energy use is actually rising, not declining. In looking at this issue with a regenerative lens, you might notice that the upgrade only addressed one piece of the building. What did it miss?
We can gather that an older building has an envelope is either lightly insulated, or not insulated at all and most-likely not properly air-sealed either. This means that much of the building leaks and the windows might also need to be replaced. The building might also hold a place of honor within the surrounding area, as a link to its past.
So how could this upgrade have been regenerative? Instead of just allocating budget for a mechanicals upgrade, perhaps the building manager should have reviewed occupant feedback first. With a better understanding of the occupants (part of the whole system) facilities could then have noticed that most of the complaints were coming from the perimeter spaces of the building. (This is similar to how the doctor was asking us questions) we could then perform some tests and realize that the building envelope needs work as well. There might also be recognition of what aspects of the older façade and details engender the most love from the immediate neighborhood. This information might help you to enhance the best parts of the building while upgrading the less loved parts.
Then, when it came time to upgrade the HVAC system it could be coordinated with the air sealing and insulation work. A tighter building envelope with higher R-values would mean that a smaller HVAC system could be installed, and a smaller HVAC system costs less, so the owner saves some money which could then be reallocated for the envelope upgrades. Looking down the road with this regenerative approach, we see better ROI on the upgrades, reduced occupant complaints, reduction in total building energy use, increased monthly savings on utilities, improved durability and a building which now operates at a much higher capacity and potentially more tenant interest in the building as an asset to their own businesses.
This is a basic example of how regenerative thinking can be applied to the world of facilities management to increase building and occupant potential. When applying regenerative thinking to your building here are some questions to consider:
- How do occupants interact with the building?
- Instead of looking at problems, what potential exists for a better building?
- How can I personally grow through managing the building better?
- How can the immediate community grow through my actions?
- Who else needs to be involved?
- How might limitations be used as opportunities?
- What potential in the building exists that would have the biggest impact on performance, perceived value, occupant health, longevity and cost savings?