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U.Va. improves energy efficiency in construction, renovation of buildings

Members of the Office for Sustainability explain the importance of energy efficiency in buildings to achieving administration sustainability goals

<p>Construction on Alderman Library, which is scheduled for completion in spring 2023, aims in part to make the building more sustainable.</p>

Construction on Alderman Library, which is scheduled for completion in spring 2023, aims in part to make the building more sustainable.

The University has committed to reducing building energy use intensity to 20 percent below 2010 levels — approximately 175 kBTU — by 2023 as part of its 2030 Sustainability Plan. The Office for Sustainability team is excited by the concept of improving building design and infrastructure planning as opportunities for sustainability. 

Ethan Heil, sustainability and energy engineer at the Office for Sustainability, said energy efficiency plays a core role in the University’s sustainability objectives.

“Energy efficiency is going to be the single biggest lever we can pull to [achieve those goals],” Heil said.

While the implementation of energy efficiency in different residential, commercial and industrial settings can be complex, Heil believes energy efficiency itself is rather a simple concept.

“Energy efficiency is basically providing the services we expect from a building but doing it with less energy consumption,” Heil said.

A common misconception about the environmental design sphere is that improving energy efficiency and reducing energy consumption are the same thing. Jesse Warren, sustainability program manager for buildings and operations in the Office for Sustainability, explained that energy efficiency and energy conservation are both important, but the two differ.  

“Energy efficiency happens behind the scenes,” Warren said. “You’re not supposed to give anything up to achieve it.” 

Energy efficiency is the use of technology, such as occupancy sensors, to turn lights on or off. Meanwhile, energy conservation would be individual users choosing to turn lights off when done. Technology and tools allow us to use less energy, Warren added. 

Both Heil and Warren said human health, safety and comfort are the top priorities in assessing building energy consumption, followed by considerations of energy efficiency and potential cost savings. 

There are many instances in which all three pillars can be achieved in creating high performing spaces. One such example occurred during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had requirements for high efficiency air filtration systems for all new buildings and major renovations prior to COVID,” Heil said. “That allowed us to basically continue to run our buildings in as safe a state as you can from a systems point of view.”

While some older buildings did require increased ventilation at the height of the pandemic, Heil said this was done in ways that were energy efficient — such as “digitization in new strategies around controls and artificial intelligence and sensors to actually get a better sense of [optimizing] what is happening in our buildings.” Given the extensive use of remote work, this was offset by the deactivation of other buildings.

Warren said there are three broad approaches to improving energy efficiency for buildings. First, set Green Building Standards that apply to all buildings across the entire University, such as the use of LED lights. Next, set design guidelines for new construction, such as requiring that all new construction meets or exceeds the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver standards. Finally, retrofit existing buildings to improve energy efficiency, such as replacing existing controls with digital options.

For Heil, retrofitting existing buildings is extremely important for improving total energy efficiency, as 90 percent of all buildings in the U.S. that will exist in 2070 already exist today. Heil references the ongoing $111.7 million renovation of Alderman Library — started in spring 2020 to finish by spring 2023 — as a poster child for adapting current buildings to comply with sustainability standards.

The Alderman project has set out to remedy and repair long standing structural problems and increase the energy efficiency of the building. The library states these energy efficiency improvements are accomplished through reducing heat loss, decoupling ventilation from cooling/heating and upgrading environmental controls, estimated to decrease energy use intensity by 40 percent.

“We’re taking this historic building which has a lot of cultural value to the University and preserving its cultural legacy,” Heil said. “And we’re basically giving it a facelift and we’re going to make it a more well performing building.”

Heil and Warren described the process of improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings as collating input from all building stakeholders, such as building administrators, occupiers and maintenance personnel, and integrating building user perspectives on comfort.

After construction or renovation, energy efficiency improvements center around tracking energy and water consumption, setting energy targets based on best performing buildings and challenging design teams to reduce energy consumption.

However, stakeholders and facility users experience both the upsides and potential hiccups of energy efficiency.

Second-year College student Makayla Eby — who lives in Copeley apartments — agrees with the goal to reduce overall energy waste but has faced some unique adjustments with energy efficiency in residence life.

“My apartment has no actual lights, only lamps and windows to provide light [and] our AC/heating systems cut off after a few hours if nobody is in the apartment,” Eby said. “The hot water in the bathrooms cuts off after [a while] to encourage students to take shorter showers.”

Warren said these concerns are valid, but easily remedied and again emphasizes the difference in experiencing energy efficiency and conservation. 

“There’s a tuning problem that can happen,” Warren said. “[But] it's your job to control the length of the shower. It's my job to give you the best water I can give you.”

For Warren, energy efficiency, if done right, should not be visibly experienced and should simply operate in the background.

Given the wide range of building types, uses, construction and ages, the University presents unique challenges in pursuing energy efficiency. 

“It's one of the few places that has both a Level I trauma center, is a research institution and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site [with] a portfolio of over 500 buildings,” Heil said. “All buildings are unique . . . the main challenge is just the time that it takes to understand each building as an individual fingerprint.”

Warren explains an example of the need to understand the unique aspects of each building.

“Labs and clinical space are the most energy intensive spaces we have because they are the most complex and the most difficult to keep people safe,” Warren said. “Laboratories are places where people can be exposed to chemicals and other various hazards, and we're doing everything in our power to keep them safe [through increased ventilation].”

Ultimately, energy efficiency is an integral part of the University’s vision of sustainability — in Warren’s words, it balances “people, planet [and] prosperity.” 

Over the past decade, the University has invested $25 million toward energy efficiency and received $63 million in energy savings, for a net savings of nearly $38 million that can return to departments and schools to reinvest back into their missions.

Although the Office for Sustainability notes its accomplishments, this message has not yet trickled down to all students.

“I honestly haven’t heard much about energy and environmental design [at the University],” Eby said. “[But] I would definitely like to hear more about what the school is doing.”

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