Corrections or additions?

This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the January

18, 2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New Budget Concern: Energy

Spend $1 million to build an office building, and you will spend how

much to keep it running? The answer is surprising, especially because

builders expend so little time worrying about these costs. "The

operating cost of a building will typically be two to three times the

initial cost," says Philip Dordai, an architect who has been with

Hillier for 18 years. So a $1 million office building will cost $2 to

$3 million to power for a 15 to 20-year lifespan. "Developers often

don’t care," he finds. "They’re passing that cost on."

Perhaps even more surprisingly, owners, the people to whom those costs

are being bequeathed, don’t worry a whole lot about them either.

"People just assume that utility bills are going up," says Scott

Needham, president of Princeton Air on Everett Drive. Some building

owners don’t even see the bills, which can pass silently from the

accounting department to the bottom line. Building owners who pay

their own bills tend to shrug them off, too. "I’ll just have to deal

with it," is how Needham characterizes a common response. "I’ll just

pass it on to my customers."

But when Needham sits down with building owners, often because their

boilers are on the blink, he talks energy costs. This is often enough

to prompt the building owner to put in a call to accounting with a

request for two years worth of energy bill print-outs. "They look at

the number and it’s staggering," he says.

Complacency about energy bills may be coming to an end, however. "For

the last five years, all the talk in architecture and engineering

magazines has been about energy costs," says Dordai. "It’s been the

big topic. Oil prices are not going down. We’re not going back to low

prices, the way we did after the oil crisis in the 1970s. We’re going

to have to get used to the prices that Europeans have been paying."

Both men say that there are a number of things that building

developers and owners can do to cut way back on energy bills, whether

a building is still on the drawing board or has been housing tenants

for decades.

At the design stage, it’s the basics that can make a huge difference

in the size of energy bills through the decades. "The most energy

efficient shape is a rectangle," says Dordai. Site the rectangle to

take maximum advantage of the sun, by, for example, making east and

west-facing walls shorter and with fewer windows, and the sun will

help out with heating costs. At the same time, install coated windows

that will let light into the building – way in, 25-feet if possible –

but will keep the heat out. This will reduce lighting costs as well as

heating costs without jacking up cooling costs.

But care must be taken. Large windows will be entryways for excessive

heat – and increased air conditioning costs – unless they are treated

to repel it. Likewise, they can become mini-freezers. Air conditioning

costs tend to be more expensive than heating costs in office

buildings, in large part because all of the machines and people on a

typical floor create a lot of heat, says Dordai. But, he adds, heat is

more important to the comfort of the people in the building.

A large window can create an uncomfortably cold zone unless building

design and mechanics create a curtain of warm air between it and the

workers laboring near it. Uncomfortable workers, he points out, tend

not to be very productive workers. They may also resort to plugging in

space heaters, which are some of the very worst offenders in adding to

the building’s "plug load," or the effect of all of the devices that

workers plug into outlets. Other plug load offenders are laptop

computers, and, strangely enough, cell phone chargers, the most

inefficient of which suck up a surprisingly large amount of energy,

says Dordai.

Cell phone chargers and portable heaters will cost a building owner

money, but their impact pales against that of heating and cooling

equipment. Super-efficient models are available, but the most

energy-efficient heating and cooling equipment cost more, and many

developers will not pay for it.

It’s all about payback, and Dordai says that most developers want any

extra cost for energy efficiency to pay for itself within 10 years. If

the payback period is longer, most won’t go for the potential energy

savings. This is the reason, he says, that alternative energy sources

such as photovoltaic panels, which are powered by the sun, are used so

little. They are more expensive than traditional energy plants, and

generally will not recoup the energy costs they save for more than 10


However, he points out, New Jersey is one of the two most generous

states in terms of rebates it offers on solar power equipment for

commercial buildings. The rebates, coupled with rising energy prices,

could spur more solar projects. Hillier has done several and expects

to do more.

People think first of heating and cooling when contemplating utility

bills, but lighting accounts for about 33 percent of the bill, says

Dordai. Installing energy-efficient lighting will make a big

difference. Advances within the last five to ten years have cut the

power that lights draw from 1 1/2 to 2 watts per square foot to 1 watt

per square foot. But relying on outside light is better yet. This

light, he points out, is free, and the farther into each floor natural

light penetrates, the lower energy bills will be. "Then you just need,

maybe, work station lamps," says Dordai.

Smarter developers are increasingly willing to take a long view, and

invest in energy-saving design and mechanical systems, says Dordai,

who did his graduate work at Columbia and earned his bachelor’s degree

at MIT (Class of 1978), where he studied architectural history and

engineering as well as environmental issues. A Prius owner, he is

puzzled over why anyone would not drive a car that gets 50 miles per


Developers and building owners may soon be willing to invest to get

the equivalent of 50 miles per gallon in their office buildings. And

some already are. Hillier’s university clients, for example, often

want buildings they can be proud of for 50 to 100 years, and are often

willing to accept a longer payback period for more energy-efficient

systems. Other clients are driven by the PR benefit of spending more

to save natural resources, as well as money, by going for the most

energy efficient technology available. In coming years, every

developer putting up a new building may well be forced by rising

energy prices to make energy saving design and technology a priority.

Meanwhile, many of the commercial buildings in the Princeton area were

put up in the early-1980s, when, in general, heating, cooling, and

lighting technologies were about 20 percent less efficient than the

ones that are now being used in new buildings. Are these buildings

owners stuck with huge – and rapidly rising – energy costs, or can

they find ways to cut them down to size?

Needham, whose commercial business focuses on buildings from 10,000 to

100,000 square feet, says that there are many ways to make commercial

buildings more efficient. Some involve new technology, but others

require only common sense.

Needham, a graduate of Roger Williams University (Class of 1980) has

been with Princeton Heating and Air Conditioning, a 42-person company,

since 1989. His father, Joseph Needham, founded the company in 1971

and serves as its CEO.

"There are tons of things than can cut heating cost," he says. For the

oldest buildings, those with boilers in the basement, "the most

obvious is to outfit boilers with a control device that senses the

outdoor temperature and the temperature of the water." Two small chip

boards do this work. Together they let the boiler know that "it’s not

10 degrees out, it’s 50 degrees." The boiler can then adjust, not only

using less energy on warmer winter days, but also keeping the tenants

in its building from having to throw open the windows during a January


Most buildings in the Route 1 area don’t have those central basement

boilers, but rather are heated and cooled by rooftop units, typically

one for each floor. These units have dampers that pull in outside air

to provide workers with fresh air. When Needham’s field technicals

call, they typically find these dampers set incorrectly. "If they’re

wider than they should be, they’re bringing in lots of 10 degree air,"

he says. When that is the case, the heating unit has to work much

harder than necessary.

At the other extreme, the dampers are sometimes completely closed.

That, says Needham, cheats workers of fresh air, and hurts their

employers too. As everyone re-breathes everyone else’s air, the carbon

dioxide level rises, and "everyone is falling asleep at 2 p.m." This

cannot be good for productivity.

These problems can be solved by installing an economizer, a device

that adjusts the opening on the damper based on outside air

temperature and the heating needs of the building at any given time.

"This is a biggie," says Needham. Economizers not only save heat by

keeping excessive amounts of frigid outside air out, but they can also

cut air conditioning bills.

"Let’s say it’s March," Needham posits. "You have a lot of people on

the second floor in a conference room and it gets uncomfortably warm.

The economizer will bring in more outside air." That means that the

air conditioner compressor will not kick in. "That is a big savings,"

he says. What’s more, utilities give rebates to building owners who

install the economizers.

Another device that can keep conference attendees cool while, at the

same time, keeping colleagues working in other locations on the floor

warm, is a zone thermostat.

"We recommend that a lot," says Needham. "Some offices even give each

office its own thermostat, but that’s expensive." It is more common to

group sections of each floor by "thermal needs and solar orientation."

On the same winter day, workers in perimeter offices need heat, while

those in core offices, surrounded by other people and by

heat-generating office equipment, need cooling. A zone thermometer

system ensures that everyone is comfortable – and that energy is not

wasted in heating workers who are already hot or in cooling workers

who are typing with their gloves on.

Further temperature modulation comes from installing VFDs, variable

frequency drives, on the heating and cooling units for each floor.

Without VFDs, units are set to be either on or off. "They go to 100

percent and stay at 100 percent until the call for heating or cooling

is satisfied," says Needham. "It’s like a two-position gas pedal on a


Few people would want to be limited to "stop" or "go" when driving,

with no option of going at 10 miles per hour, or 35, or 60, yet that

is the way heating and cooling units work. Install a VFD, however,

and, he says, "you can bring it on whisper soft on a warm day and 100

percent in heat waves." Prices are coming down for this technology,

and, says Needham, it offers substantial energy savings.

These technologies, combined with more efficient lighting, may be the

best shot a building owner has of reining in his energy costs.

Replacing older heating and cooling systems with newer, more

energy-efficient models, is not a realistic option, says Needham. The

cost is just too high. Building owners don’t generally upgrade until

their equipment is near the end of its useful life, which is about 15

to 20 years.

However, that life can be stretched out. Longevity – and major energy

cost savings – can be achieved by the least expensive fix of all,

maintenance. "A unit will labor up to 30 percent more with a dirty

filter," says Needham. Yet he sees, again and again, that building

owners lurch from emergency to emergency rather than arranging for

regular maintenance, which he says should be performed at least four

times a year. "A lot of people employ break-down maintenance," he

says. They call when their buildings are stone cold or tropical

forest-hot. "And they won’t call again until it breaks down again."

When his technicians respond to emergency calls, they tend to find

filthy filters. "Dirt is the biggest factor in the end of useful

life," says Needham. It clogs air conditioning coils and makes the

units work much harder, drawing more amps. It means a shorter life for

the compressor." And, of course, higher energy use, and greater costs.

The end of the nonchalance toward energy costs that Needham is used to

seeing in building owners, and the reluctance to invest in the most

energy-efficient design that Dordai often finds, may be poised for a

quick about-face.

"There is a real sense in the building community that there is growing

pressure for sustainable design," says Dordai. "There is much greater

market interest and acceptance. There is no question that we have to

find other ways to use energy more efficiently."

This may mean solar panels, or wind power, or rooftop gardens to

provide insulation while soaking up water from rainstorms. It is a

future that will probably see more economizers, zone thermostats, and

VFDs — and much cleaner filters.

Almost certainly, the time is coming when building owners will start

to scrutinize their utility bills. Rather than a throw-way given, a

ho-hum cost of doing business, these monthly statements may become a

preoccupation. If Dordai’s prediction comes true, and the current

spike in energy prices proves to be just a taste of things to come,

energy-efficiency strategies may replace real estate prices as a

staple of dinner party conversation.

Hillier, 500 Alexander Park, CN 23, Princeton 08543-0023;

609-452-8888; fax, 609-452-8332.

Princeton Air Conditioning, 39 Everett Drive, Princeton Junction

08550; 609-799-3434; fax, 609-799-7036.

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