Happy 2019 and welcome to a time when it’s difficult to tell fact from fancy, “messaging” from reality and results from wish lists — especially for those still in a celebratory haze following New Year festivities. It might be my only opportunity to find a few believers for some of the more creative among my industry predictions.
Just in case you’re fully sober as you read this, I’m including enough facts and case examples to simulate real life.
Zero energy, passive house and smaller homes
Energy and water efficiency, cleaner ways and conservation will continue to be key themes for our industry in 2019, despite the confusion sown by the 24-hour national news cycle. It seems to function in a parallel universe.
Few in our industry are unaware of the trend toward net-zero, zero-energy and passive house buildings. According to the New Buildings Institute, there are about 500 verified zero-energy buildings in the United States and Canada — most of them built in the past five years.
The Passive House Institute of the United States reports that after just three years since it established its standard, two million sq. ft. have been certified across another 500 projects. A quick review of architectural and engineering literature suggests these first 1,000 projects will soon become many thousands.
I have numerous case studies, such as The Roxbury E+ on Highland Street in Boston — a four-unit, energy-positive townhome described as “a replicable prototype of efficient residential construction for similar cities through the Northeast.”
The building consists of four three-bedroom units, each approximately 1,970 sq. ft. Its super-insulated and fitted with Schuco Brand, low-e, triple-paned uPVC windows. This allows space heating and ventilation to be handled easily by Mitsubishi H2i heat pumps (26 SEER, 10 HSPF) and Zehnder ComfoAir 350 heat recovery ventilators (with recovery at more than 75 percent).
A 40-sq.-ft. solar thermal panel preheats domestic water for an 80-gal. storage tank. Solar photovoltaic panels on the roof supply 8,000 kWh of electricity, which is more than enough for the total energy demand.
“My family could afford to buy and own this house because of its passive design and E+ rating,” says Ted Resnikoff, one of the occupants. “Owning an e-positive house not only reduces our cost by lowering our energy expenses, it generates sufficient revenue to more quickly pay down our mortgage.”
Lest you think the model only applies to small projects, also consider The Battery in Philadelphia, a 25-unit affordable housing, super-insulated prefab passive house with geothermal and solar PV. Again, it results in near-zero utility costs for everyone.
A micro-apartment project in Denver offering 300-sq.-ft. and 400-sq. ft. suites, and laneway housing in numerous cities are examples of urban downsizing. This trend allows Millennials to afford home ownership and empty-nester Boomers to cash in and still stay in town.
Clean and efficient plumbing and HVAC
The real action on clean energy is at the state and municipal level. It is alive and well in more than 190 countries and in enough states to represent the majority of the U.S. population. Public opinion polls indicate that despite partisan rhetoric, a significant majority of Americans of all political stripes are concerned about climate change and willing to act on it.
In August 2018, mayors from 19 of the world’s largest cities said they would put in place regulations requiring all new buildings to be carbon-neutral by 2030 and all existing ones to reach the same goal by 2050. They included mayors from Copenhagen, Denmark; Johannesburg, South Africa; London; Los Angeles; Montreal; New York City; Paris; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; San Jose, Calif.; Santa Monica, Calif.; Stockholm; Sydney; Tokyo; Toronto; Vancouver, Canada; and Washington, D.C.
Along with major cities, states are moving toward zero energy. Targets, rules and codes in California, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Arizona, Texas and Florida are leading the trend as they try to provide companies with a more stable pathway into the future. Some of the rhetoric about saving coal and reversing dramatic electric car momentum is beginning to fade as economic reality manifests itself and the clean energy age is revealed as ordinary technological progress, rather than some conspiracy.
Intelligent electronics and hybrid innovations
You’d have to be living under a rock not to know that an HVAC technician is becoming a computer programmer. Everything is becoming Wi-Fi-enabled and more intelligent, with more options and easier programming interfaces.
At the same time, sophisticated controls help design groups to invent all manner of custom hybrid solutions to satisfy clean energy and water or energy conservation requirements. Earlier this year, we reported on a large wet/dry hybrid cooling tower system at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado, called a thermosyphon cooler. Sophisticated controls allowed the system to follow the principle of “use wet cooling when it’s hot, and dry cooling when it’s not.”
After 19 months in operation, it saved almost 2 million gal., a 56-percent reduction. A slightly different version is being installed at the Sandia Labs in Albuquerque, N.M., where it is expected to save as much as 4.3 million gal. each year at full build-out. Johnson Controls says the solution is ideal for facilities with year-round heat rejection, including manufacturing and process plants, universities, hotels and hospitals.
At the residential and commercial level, controls and better electronics also are being applied to hybrid heat pump/energy recovery ventilators, hybrid air conditioners/ice thermal storage and hybrid heat pump/water heaters.
Indeed, the cold weather air-source heat pump now achieving strong penetration in the Northeast was made possible thanks to better controls and variable speeds. A relatively new product now performing well in Vermont and several other cities is called a conditioning energy recovery ventilator (CERV). It includes its own 1/3-ton heat pump and does not require an outdoor unit. It responds to air sensors that monitor carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds, efficiently ventilating only as required to maintain fresh, healthy indoor air.
Innovative green financing models
Geothermal enthusiasts have finally learned how to write a business case for universities in Massachusetts and New York, medical buildings in Hawaii and Quebec, municipal properties in Colorado and condominium projects in Ontario.
The key in all these cases has been to separate ownership of the cleaner, greener (usually geothermal) system to a third-party legal entity and attach a carefully structured long-term HVAC service plan. For nonprofit end-users, it solves the problems of limited budgets and ambitious emissions goals.
For the condo developers, the third-party geothermal “utility model” finally overcomes the economic and perception obstacles to the affordable installation of one of the best kinds of heating and cooling systems into large projects.
Tim Weber of Diverso Energy in Ontario says that condo developers on both sides of the border are continuously struggling to minimize capital costs. Removing ownership of the geothermal heating and cooling system from their project is a great solution.
It offloads investment budget, eliminates the fear of the technology due to limited familiarity and builds confidence in condo buyers and condo boards. Responsibility for maintaining the system is moved into the hands of an engineering firm, which also owns the system (although an end-term buyout is possible).
Weber’s company is working on a dozen condo projects (and some of the aforementioned universities), including high-rise towers with geo under them for 370-unit and 564-unit projects in the Toronto area. The utility model even satisfies developers targeting first-time condo buyers because monthly maintenance fees are lower and more predictable, making it easier for young people to get mortgage loans.
There also are many other growing trends for financing cleaner, efficient systems in different, easier ways. As these are combined with the dropping cost of electricity storage for buildings and micro-grids, we can expect the move away from gas and other fossil fuels to begin to gain momentum.
Prefabricated and 3D-printed buildings
Research company Technavio says the global prefab construction market could exceed $110 million by 2020. It is growing at about 7 percent each year. It still seems to be confined to particular niches such as hotel rooms and high-rise bathrooms, but it’s expanding quickly and new applications are beginning to emerge.
There are several reasons to believe prefabrication has the potential to become a key driver for the quality control and productivity increases that have been lacking in the construction industry for, literally, thousands of years.
Trade unions and technicians initially resisted it but now seem to love prefabrication. Working indoors offers improved health, safety and comfort, better tools and simplified work processes. There is usually an attractive lunchroom, comfortable bathroom, nicer meeting rooms and computers right on the floor, next to the structure being built.
For construction companies and clients, the compelling narrative includes a 30-percent decrease in cost, huge scheduling advantages, impressive quality control, a solution to the skilled trade shortage and reduced human resources cost. Prefabrication is here to stay, and will likely grow over time until it is a dominant feature in the construction landscape of tomorrow.
Buildings constructed using 3D printing are a similar idea, although usually built on the jobsite. A year ago, my research turned up a few companies in North America. Now there are at least a dozen. It seems there are a few projects, and a lot of pilot testing, but I would guess the potential is significant. 3D-printed shells can be erected in a single day at a fraction of the cost of conventional construction. Expect this to take off.
GPS on jobsites, 3D design, efficient production schedules
It was only a matter of time before highly advanced computerized processes would penetrate architecture and engineering offices, and start trickling onto the jobsites themselves. It’s happening with the most sophisticated firms and you can expect it to spread.
GPS on the jobsite allows for precision and control, and reduces conflicts and delays. Building information modeling will keep expanding its capabilities and acceptance, not just for building design, but for project schedule design as well. The latter will add to industry productivity.
Continuing growth of design-build processes
The sudden declining appetite for casual inefficiency in our industry is also illustrated by the solid growth of design-build construction firms. Design-build construction spending has grown by 52 percent in the past five years and is expected to grow 18 percent from 2018 to 2021. Progressive owners don’t like the old model that separates design and construction into two separate camps. It invites delays, conflicts, finger-pointing, liability, more mistakes and greater waste.
The party is over. Better performance is now expected. We have the tools, sophistication and knowledge base to bring planning and execution under one roof. Project owners want one team motivated to remain on the same page and work together to solve problems quickly and quietly.
By the way, prefab, 3D design and design-build provide the kind of control that makes it easy and more affordable for builders to create clean and green projects.
Internet of Things and preventive maintenance
The business of monitoring trends and predicting trajectories is always difficult because you have to sort the hype from reality. It means finding completed case examples, making sure they were considered successful and are leading to similar future initiatives. It also means moving beyond the anecdotal and, where possible, considering the trend data.
The Internet of Things is one of the most hyped buzz phrases. Still, it’s real. In our industry, it seems to align best with the idea of putting installed HVAC equipment online, collecting and monitoring its performance data. You then take the data, collected over an adequate period and across a large enough number of installations, and conduct analytics to see if correlations exist that can lead to beneficial learning.
Much touted and only just materializing is the idea that vibrations or energy-efficiency patterns might provide advance clues of impending catastrophic HVAC equipment failure. Johnson Controls and some pump companies can now provide a few examples where this is becoming a reality. Along with other developments, this could obviously become a big deal for the HVAC service business.
All the signs suggest that it will indeed get there eventually, but it will take time to create a critical mass of installations of all different categories of devices. We also will need to establish what data offers real value and how it will be commercialized.
As you can see, quite a few trends suggest that for this year and beyond, our industry will continue to move in a direction that should make for a happy 2019 — at least from the viewpoint of an environmentalist like me. Still, although the directions are positive, the momentum is very small relative to the whole industry. We need to do better and there are several benefits to going green faster.
The most obvious one is the most successful, progressive companies in our industry are already leading us in that direction. If you want your company to either do business with them or compete effectively with them, pay attention to these trends and get on board more quickly.
Another benefit is you can increase profit. That’s how today’s industry leaders became successful. They predicted the clean energy age, developed their expertise and attracted better, more profitable clients.
Finally, you can work on life goals in addition to business goals. An ethical approach to the planet brings with it healthier, happier work environments, enhanced self-esteem and a brighter future for your family and our species.
Happy New Year and let’s all go green in 2019!