Commercial buildings make up a powerful portion of American infrastructure, but how can they be designed for better energy efficiency? There are several innovative approaches that building designers and engineers can take to improve energy efficiency without sacrificing aesthetics or experience.
Energy Efficiency for Commercial Buildings
Commercial buildings account for 40% of national energy consumption in the United States. That is an astonishing amount of energy, especially considering that the U.S. as a whole consumes about 101 quadrillion British thermal units (BTU) of energy annually. So, commercial buildings play a major role in cutting back energy consumption and making every watt and volt count.
Within commercial buildings, data has shown that energy consumption increases with floor space. This explains why heating, cooling, and lighting account for over half of commercial buildings’ energy usage. With more space to light and heat, power requirements increase. This data offers an informed starting point for energy-efficient design considerations, such as floorplans and room division.
Making commercial buildings more energy-efficient comes with a few benefits for businesses and communities. For example, the U.S. government offers a tax deduction to commercial buildings that meet the right energy efficiency standards. Building managers and owners can save even more money by reducing their electricity, heating, and air conditioning costs — a handy side effect of better energy efficiency.
Strategies for Increasing Energy Efficiency
Designing an energy-efficient commercial building can look different depending on size, scale, location, and niche. There are some common approaches to energy-efficient design that can be applied to virtually any building, though. These mainly come down to materials and perspective, with strategic choices that enable long-term benefits.
Utilizing a whole-building design approach is a valuable starting point. This approach includes everyone who is involved in the design and building process, from the stakeholders to the architects and even the people who will be using the building when it is finished. A whole-building design process takes into account a diverse variety of ideas, needs, and perspectives while looking at how every element of the building interacts with the others.
1. A Well-Designed Building Envelope
While the building envelope might not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering energy efficiency, it plays a critical role. As mentioned above, one of the greatest draws of power in commercial buildings is heating and cooling, with the two combined making up about 27% of energy usage. The building envelope will determine how well that heating and cooling energy is used. If the building envelope has spotty insulation or isn’t optimized for the building’s specific location and dimensions, the HVAC system won’t be able to perform at peak efficiency.
A poorly designed envelope is similar to driving a car with a leaky gas tank. You may be filling the tank to capacity, but you won’t be getting your money’s worth as long as some of your fuel is leaking out unused.
This is one area where the whole building design approach is highly useful. Stepping back to get a big-picture perspective of the building and how it will be utilized and occupied will help in designing an envelope that is optimized for energy efficiency. It is important to use high-quality insulation materials as well, especially sustainable insulation options such as cellulose, cotton, or even sheep’s wool.
2. High-Efficiency HVAC
Along with a quality building envelope, a high-efficiency HVAC system is crucial for increasing heating and cooling efficiency. The HVAC system becomes more of a concern the more floor space needs to be air-conditioned and heated. Typically, larger buildings have higher heating and cooling costs, but implementing energy efficiency-focused design methods can help.
There are certain design aspects that affect HVAC efficiency, such as demand-controlled ventilation or central vs. room-based heating. Additionally, many HVAC systems will have an energy efficiency rating that can help users gauge what the best option for their building is.
When it comes to heating and cooling, the whole-building approach should include things that might not initially come to mind. One great example is spaces like server rooms, where the building’s computer servers are stored. Servers generate excessive quantities of heat while operating, so cooling computer enclosures effectively is important. It can greatly impact the whole building’s temperature management as well as the performance of the computer components inside the server room.
Additionally, some may be surprised to hear that ceiling fans can actually help increase energy efficiency. By helping to distribute air more evenly, ceiling fans decrease strain on the HVAC system.
3. Maximizing Use of Sunlight
One of the keys to success for many highly energy-efficient buildings is the optimal use of natural light. Sunlight doesn’t add a dime to lighting costs, so designing commercial buildings in a way that fully takes advantage of natural light can be a fantastic way to cut back on energy consumption. There are several approaches to this, but the main ones are building orientation and windows.
As much as possible, the building should be oriented so that the spaces that need the most light for the longest amount of time are facing south, where sunlight is available for the longest part of the day. Large, well-angled windows will help, along with ceilings and walls that help to spread the natural light around even more. The color white, for example, naturally reflects light better than any other color, which makes it great for ceilings. With the right design, it’s possible to brightly illuminate even large cubicle neighborhoods with only natural light.
Additionally, windows can be treated with special coatings that can automatically respond to exterior conditions in order to optimize energy efficiency. For example, thermochromic and electrochromic windows can respond to sunlight differently, such as adjusting tint to account for brighter or warmer sunlight. Similarly, specially glazed windows are better at maintaining the interior temperature by minimizing leakage of heat and cold from outside.
More buildings are also integrating solar panels into their designs. For example, the world’s largest 3D-printed neighborhood, being constructed in Texas, features solar panels on all the houses’ roofs. While solar panels don’t necessarily save energy, they do decrease the amount of non-renewable energy a building uses. They also decrease energy costs by essentially producing some electricity “in-house.”
4. Strategic Lighting Methods
Not all spaces can be effectively lit by natural light, and people frequently need to use commercial buildings after the sun sets and before it comes up in the morning. Even this required electric light usage can be optimized for better energy efficiency. In addition to powering commercial buildings partly through renewable solar energy, certain lighting devices are more energy-efficient than others.
LED light bulbs are ideal for optimizing electricity use since they last a long time and have low power consumption. Consider where electric lighting is actually necessary, as well. A large workspace with an open floorplan may not need high-power lights in the ceiling every few feet. A combination of natural lighting and task lighting is sufficient for a majority of commercial spaces. Task lighting includes localized lights, like LED desk lamps. These smaller lights use less power and can be customized to fit individual needs.
Efficient, Sustainable Power
Using power efficiently saves businesses and buildings money and helps the planet along the way. Designing a building for energy efficiency can be easy, too. The tips above are just the beginning. With an open-minded approach and an energy-efficient goal in mind, the commercial buildings of tomorrow can set the gold standard for sustainable power usage.