Sustainable design expert Malcolm Lewis Th’71 works to remake how the world builds.
By Tamara Steinert
For people whose experience of environmentally responsible building consists of rustic yurts and hay-bale homes, Malcolm Lewis has good news: going “green” doesn’t have to mean giving up style or comfort. And, better yet, it doesn’t have to cost a small fortune, either.
Lewis, an expert in sustainable building design, is president of CTG Energetics Inc., an Irvine, California-based firm that helps clients create structures that are both comfortable and good for the environment. Since the early 1990s, the company has completed more than 100 green projects for clients ranging from automakers Ford and Toyota to the cities of Sacramento and Los Angeles. Several projects under Lewis’ leadership have earned professional awards for their design or environmental features. One of the most recent, the Department of the Navy’s Public Works Building 850 at Port Hueneme, California, was named one of the Top Ten Green Projects in 2002 by the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment.
“There tends to be this perception that a green building has to be either ugly or uncomfortable or it won’t last well,” says Lewis, who received his doctoral degree from Thayer School in 1971. Misconceptions like these, common among building professionals and consumers alike, often are the result of bad experiences with early green technology, he says.
Lewis, however, is doing his part to spread the good news about sustainable design. A former director of the U.S. Green Building Council, he frequently writes and speaks on the topic — including at Thayer School last April — and teaches online courses through the National Society of Professional Engineers and other organizations.
In its most basic form, sustainable design is about minimizing the negative impact a building has on its surroundings. Lewis, like many engineers and architects of his generation, encountered the first iteration of environmentally aware design during the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s, when energy efficiency became a high priority. Over time, other resource issues, such as water conservation and waste generation, also came into the picture. Now, 30 years later, these issues are still significant, with buildings consuming a staggering 40 percent of the energy, 25 percent of the wood and 16 percent of the water used each year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But contemporary green building also encompasses new issues, such as choosing building sites with minimal impact on ecosystems, creating an interior environment that is healthy and enjoyable for the occupants, and selecting building materials that are not harmful to the environment.
One of the happy surprises for green-design pioneers such as Lewis was the realization that many of the techniques used to make a building more resource efficient, such as “daylighting” — using natural light as a primary source of illumination — often make buildings more pleasant places to be as well.
“That drove us to begin thinking more about designing buildings that people like to be in,” he says. Today, Lewis and a growing number of like-minded architects and engineers believe that the comfort and satisfaction of a building’s occupants should be an important criterion for evaluating how well a green building “performs.” This perspective is gaining converts among construction managers and business leaders as well, thanks to case studies demonstrating that green building produces significant cost savings.
“There are lots of different metrics we use to find out how the building works for people. At the highest level are measures of satisfaction, things like productivity, turnover, rates of learning and quality control rates. Then there are a building’s functional measures, like energy use and solid waste production. The tendency is to think about the secondary measures and not the first,” Lewis says. “The true economic impact of sustainable design is way higher than just the hard cost of constructing and operating the building.”
In fact, design, construction, operations, and maintenance typically account for only 8 percent of the 30-year lifetime cost associated with a typical office building. The remaining 92 percent is salaries and other employee costs. “Anything a business can do to monitor and improve the health, comfort, and performance of their employees is money ahead,” Lewis says. “Typical office workers cost, on a salary basis, about $200 per square foot per year. At that rate, improving productivity by just 1 percent per year could potentially pay the entire energy cost of a building.”
Numbers like this aren’t just theoretical, as a growing number of industry case studies demonstrate. When VeriFone, Inc. in Costa Mesa, California, added skylights, occupancy sensors and natural-gas-fired cooling systems to its existing building, it experienced a 40 percent decrease in absenteeism and a 50 percent decrease in energy expenditures. The company’s co-founder, William R. Pape, described Verifone’s experience as “a rare instance in which our tools have been largely low-tech,” noting that “it has done more to boost productivity than all the bandwidth in the world.” Similarly, West Bend Mutual Insurance Co. in Wisconsin reported that including individual controls for temperature, air flow, lighting, and noise in its new 150,000-square-foot building accounted for 4 to 6 percent improvements in productivity. When other green features were factored in, overall productivity rose 16 percent, while energy costs fell by 40 percent. And the company was able to construct the building at a cost of $90 per square foot in a market where the average was $125.
A recent CTG project, the Toyota Motor Sales South Campus Headquarters in Torrance, California, hasn’t been in use long enough to measure productivity improvements. However, in the year since it opened, the building has already exceeded the 10 percent return on investment required by company shareholders. It also has demonstrated a 94 percent reduction in potable water demand and is 60 percent more energy efficient than required by California’s strict Title 24.
“It’s a very mainstream building. You wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell that it’s a green building just by looking at it,” says Michele Diener, strategic planning administrator for Process Green, an environmental initiative at Toyota. “That was part of what we wanted to accomplish. And it had to be at no additional cost,” she adds.
A key to keeping costs down, says Lewis, is gathering all of the project’s design and construction professionals into an integrated team from the beginning. Often excessive costs are the result of mistakes caused by poor coordination, he says. For example, a space designed to use reflected natural light for illumination will not perform like it is supposed to if the interior decorator chooses dark-colored finishes and furnishings.
Despite the impressive numbers that green buildings are chalking up, sustainable building is still far from the norm. “There’s a major structural barrier in that the people who build buildings and the people who occupy them have different interests, and there is no incentive to integrate,” says Lewis. Construction budgets are typically separate from personnel budgets, making it difficult to leverage the human benefits of green building, Lewis says. Also, in industries like the lease office market, “the developer doesn’t get any benefit if the tenants’ employees are happier,” he notes.
That could change thanks to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Created in 2000, the program establishes standards for sustainable building and certifies high-quality green practices in completed projects. Lewis, who chairs LEED’s Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee, says one of the program’s goals is to help educate anyone involved in a building’s creation or management — from architect to facilities manager — about the benefits of green technology.
A THAYER SCHOOL QUALIFYING EXAM problem on affordable housing for northern New England first triggered Lewis’ interest in building as a focus for his engineering career. His proposed solution had both a technical aspect — the use of new-at-the-time modular housing — and a public policy aspect.
“I included a proposal for the development of a rural housing financing agency that would provide mortgage financing for people who would otherwise not qualify for it,” he says. Although the policy element was a radical departure from straightforward engineering solutions, the proposal was accepted by the Thayer School faculty members reviewing Lewis’ exam. “We were talking about replacing homes that were literally tarpaper shacks. That was really unbelievable in terms of the winters they have there. The faculty recognized that you can have the best technology in the world, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have any mechanisms for making it happen.”
This combination of public policy and engineering was also evident in the research Lewis did with Professor Alvin Converse during his Thayer School years. Converse had been hired by the Vermont attorney general to examine the environmental impact of a nuclear power plant proposed for the Brattleboro, Vermont, area on the Connecticut River. “Both the research I did with Professor Converse and the qualifying problem were a nexus of public policy and engineering issues,” Lewis says. “That’s what I wanted my life to be about, and it’s played into my interest in green building.”
Today, Lewis wants to see engineers take more leading roles in the building field.
“Frankly, I have been discouraged by the fact that the engineering community by and large hasn’t stepped up to the challenge of green building,” he says. In part, he believes this is the result of a gradual minimizing of the engineer’s role in building construction over several decades. However, the newest trend in sustainable design, the development of so-called “regenerative” buildings, could offer opportunities for substantial innovation. “Regenerative buildings are actually capable of improving their environment. They might create more energy than they consume, or leave the air fresher than when it came in, or conceivably leave people healthier after spending a day there than they would have been otherwise,” Lewis says.
His experience with sustainable design has reinforced for Lewis that good aesthetics and functionality can co-exist in the same building. “The challenge,” he says, “is to do a process that honors them both, that synthesizes the left and right sides of the brain.”
—Tamara Steinert is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about environmental issues.
Do It Yourself
The principles of sustainable design can be applied to projects of any size. Here are some suggestions from Malcolm Lewis for planning your green building:
- Ask prospective architects, engineers, contractors and interior decorators about their approach to sustainable design. What criteria do they use to define their buildings as “green”? Have they completed other green projects? Has the organization or person been trained in LEED standards?
- Bring design and construction professionals into a team so individual efforts don’t conflict with each other. These could include engineers, architects, contractors and subcontractors, even the interior designer.
- Don’t assume that new and high-tech is better than old and low-tech. Long before there were mechanical ways to control the indoor environment, buildings were designed to work with nature to provide natural light and ventilation. “The tendency is to go with a high-tech approach on everything, but simple, elegant solutions are what you should look for first,” Lewis says.
- Pay attention to what goes inside the building. Some finishes and furnishings emit fumes that can diminish the indoor air quality.
How Green is MacLean?
Just how environmentally friendly will Thayer School’s new MacLean Engineering Sciences Center be? Enough to qualify for Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings. To do so, MacLean, currently under construction, must score 33-38 out of a possible 69 LEED credit points. Green plans either in the works or under consideration for MacLean* include:
- Reduce storm water runoff by minimizing paved areas, using porous paving, and capturing rainwater for irrigation
- Landscape with native plant species
- Design outdoor building and path lighting to avoid polluting night sky
- Reduce car pollution by providing preferential parking for high-occupancy vehicles, an electric car refueling station, bike storage areas, and showers for cyclists
- Reduce outdoor use of drinking water by 50 percent through plantings with low water needs, capturing rainwater, and watering with drips instead of sprinklers
- Reduce indoor use of drinking water by 20 percent by using high efficiency faucets, toilets, and shower heads
Energy and Atmosphere
- Reduce energy use of building by 40 percent through triple-glazed windows, sprayed foam insulation, and high-efficiency heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems
Materials and Resources
- Recycling stations throughout building
- Salvage or recycle 50 percent of construction site waste
- Use recycled content in 25 percent of building materials
- Use local sources for 20 percent of building materials
- 20 percent of wood used in the building sourced from Dartmouth College Grant forests
- 50 percent of wood used in the building sourced from sustainably managed forests
Indoor Environment Quality
- Use materials that have low levels of “off-gassing,” including carpets, paints, sealants, adhesives, and composite wood products
- Operable windows
- Quiet heating and cooling systems
* MacLean is not a CTG project.
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