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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Summer 2005 : Commentary


Integrated Solutions to Sustainability Challenges

Beware of "silver-bullet" technologies that promise to provide the whole solution to sustainability challenges.

by Marty Watts

Complex and challenging construction projects such as those under way in Manhattan-the Bank of America Tower, the Hearst Corporation headquarters, The New York Times headquarters and Seven World Trade Center-raise ambitious environmental expectations designers must seek to fulfill. Can the projects meet these goals? The answer may well depend on the assumptions underlying the approach to the projects' design and construction.

Developers and designers are starting to understand that a holistic, integrated approach to design and construction is necessary to meet the goals of a new green building, or to transform a conventional building into one greener in operation. Such an approach will optimize the benefits of all of the building's systems and materials to provide a healthy and efficient workplace. This means, among other things, avoiding the temptation to rely on a single technology or a specific product as the "magic-bullet" solution to challenging problems.

A case in point is the issue of indoor air quality. Buildings face a number of threats to indoor air quality: overheating, poor ventilation, out-gassing of building components and furnishings, condensation and mold formation. Certainly building decision-makers are correct to be concerned about the quality of indoor air and the possibility that a building for which they are responsible might be experiencing sick building syndrome. Sick building syndrome not only threatens building occupants, but it can result in litigation that threatens the bottom line of employers and building owners alike. When addressing these challenges, how does an integrated approach to maximizing indoor air quality differ from a single-source solution?

Particularly in the case of building renovations, solutions to indoor air quality problems are often thought to be achieved only by spending generous amounts of money on bigger and better heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC) that are to be operated at high intensities for increasingly long periods. According to the conventional wisdom, more HVAC more often is the only solution to improving indoor air quality. Research and experience suggest that the problems common to sick building syndrome-poor ventilation, off-gassing, condensation and mold formation-are all caused or made worse by building heat.

Given the fact that building overheating has traditionally been dealt with by air conditioning, it is easy to see why concerned building managers of existing facilities and designers of new ones can be seduced into believing that more HVAC more often is the magic bullet solution to indoor air quality problems. Increasing building ventilation might require upgrading existing HVAC capabilities. Both upgraded and existing HVAC systems may have to be operated at higher intensities more often than has traditionally been the case. Of course, this will result in increased energy and operational maintenance costs.

But more HVAC more often may actually be counterproductive. In addition to increased cost, more HVAC more often will negatively impact some building occupants who rightly or wrongly believe "conditioned" air is less desirable to work in than non-conditioned air. Their concerns are not unfounded. According to the Common Colds Centre, Cardiff School of Biosciences at Cardiff University in the Britain, air conditioning itself may contribute to infection with common cold viruses, drying out the nose's mucus lining and thus weakening the body's natural protection against infection and encouraging virus proliferation. An internal study conducted by the ECOS Corporation, an environmental consulting firm based in Sydney, Australia, found that, "Intensive air conditioning all year long was identified as having a strong negative impact on the quality of the office environment." Additionally, anecdotal evidence suggests that air conditioning can aggravate the effects of arthritis and neuritis and make people sick due to the extreme variances between outdoor and indoor temperatures.

If HVAC were the only solution to indoor air quality problems, building designers and managers would have to accept the increased costs of upgrading and operating HVAC systems, and building occupants would have to put up with the negative impacts of conditioned air 24-7. Fortunately, indoor air quality can be improved, not by replacing HVAC use with another wonder technology, but by applying an integrated solution. Heat-blocking applied window film or solar control glass can significantly decrease the load on HVAC systems, creating an integrated system to control temperature and improve indoor air quality.

Unlike solid walls, windows and fixed glass transmit both heat and light into a building's interior. According to the California Energy Commission, 30 percent of a building's cooling requirements is from heat entering through existing windows. As a supplement to HVAC, stopping heat at the window using heat-blocking window film can both reduce air conditioning operating frequency and cost, and satisfy many building occupants who find "conditioned" air less desirable.

Of course, the reduced load on HVAC systems results in energy-cost savings. The most recent window film installation at Stanford University took place at Encina Hall, originally constructed as a dorm in 1891 and completely renovated as an administration building in 1998. In June 2003, 6,212 square feet of spectrally selective window film was applied, blocking solar heat while simultaneously transmitting high levels of natural light. As a result of the film's installation, Encina Hall now enjoys an annual savings in air-conditioning cost of nearly $5,000.

It should come as no surprise to observers of the natural world that no single product or program component can be relied upon to achieve sustainability goals. In that regard, window film can no more do the job alone than can heavily burdened HVAC systems, which historically have been expected to carry 100 percent of the responsibility for maintaining a healthy indoor environment.

The best architects, designers and contractors are increasingly pioneering holistic, integrated solutions. They know, and their example will inform others, that the best results will be achieved and maintained only when a multitude of systems function in an integrated and orchestrated approach.

Marty Watts is president and CEO of V-Kool, Inc., a Houston-based North American distributor of spectrally selective and security-applied window films. His writings on window film, energy conservation and window security have appeared in numerous publications, including Glass Magazine, Energy Optimization News, Buildings, Facility Management Journal and Architectural West. He may be reached at (800) 217-7046 and

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