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Building Momentum: RMI’s Buildings Practice Evolves

RMI’s history with the building industry in a nutshell: The Institute was instrumental in creating the concept of green real-estate development, wrote its basic textbook, revealed the importance of non-energy benefits of efficient buildings, and helped design hundreds of buildings with exceptional efficiency and economics, helped create the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system. Then, as LEED mainstreamed, systematically moved away from LEED consulting to the next great opportunity for energy savings: retrofitting existing buildings not shallowly with rote checklists but deeply with integrative design. Next, the Institute hopes to spread deep retrofits rapidly by showing how to apply them both to large numbers of similar buildings and to diverse real-estate portfolios.

“Because we are mission-based, we are in a position to continually question institutional mechanisms, including those we have helped create,” such as LEED standards, says RMI Senior Consultant Michael Kinsley, who came to the Institute in 1983 and has participated in or witnessed many of the great charrettes, or intensive design workshops, over the years.

The Green Building Council came out of a network of green architects formed by then-RMI consultant Bill Browning and others, recalls Kinsley. LEED, released in 2000, became a much-needed common standard. “Bill very perceptively anticipated the green building movement—he suspected that architects and clients would be demanding green building services,” recalls Kinsley.

Browning, originally trained in architecture, went to MIT to study real estate development, then returned to RMI and created Green Development Services (GDS) in 1991. GDS worked with developers, architects, facility managers and other real estate professionals to integrate resource-efficient, environmentally responsive and culturally sensitive design into buildings and communities. “He quickly became one of the go-to people in the green building world,” says Kinsley of Browning working at Terrapin Bright Green, a green design consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., and New York).

Among their hundreds of projects, GDS staff guided the design for the “Greening of the White House,” the Pentagon renovation, the athletes’ village at the Sydney Olympics, and big changes in how the U.S. Navy designs buildings. And when ENSAR, a design firm led by green architect Greg Franta (1950–2009), merged its practice into RMI’s in 2005, RMI helped implement LEED ratings on more than 100 buildings. By late in that decade, RMI had helped design one-third of the world’s LEED Platinum buildings, often markedly boosting their energy efficiency while lowering their cost. Ultimately ENSAR and RMI, together or separately, had helped design over a thousand buildings that strongly influenced modern efficiency and green-design trends across the country and around the world.

“In the early years we spent a lot of time extracting ourselves from LEED. We were so embedded in that process,” says Cara Carmichael, now a senior consultant for RMI. The buildings team did a lot of hands-on design work and onsite consulting. “I used to have to go through the construction site to see if they were using the right materials; I remember being in the job trailers and sifting through stacks of drawings with contractors,” says Carmichael.

Today, RMI’s buildings team works less with architecture teams than with decision-makers, doing more strategic consulting than design assistance. To take RMI’s pioneering design methods from initial demonstrations to all of America’s 120 million buildings, “we are scaling away from individual buildings to work on groups of multiple buildings,” explains Carmichael.

While RMI’s buildings practice had 24 projects in 2005, in recent years it has had many fewer “massive, important projects that are setting precedent in the industry,” Carmichael says. The projects are coming from heavyweight clients like Ford, Kroger and H-E-B grocers, and the federal government’s General Services Administration, the nation’s largest property owner. The big selling point: far larger savings at comparable or lower costs. For example, conventional bids proposed to save 7–9 percent of the Empire State Building’s energy, but the retrofit whose design RMI led ultimately saved more than 40 percent with a similar three-year payback. The key: integrative design that optimizes the building as a system, not each component in isolation.

RMI’s work has shifted not only away from LEED implementation but away from new construction toward existing buildings. Building on its success with the Empire State Building, RMI’s RetroFit Initiative, launched in 2009, is taking retrofits to a deeper level, finding ways to achieve bigger energy savings faster and applying them to a greater number and wider variety of building types.

“Going to existing buildings was visionary,” says Carmichael. “With the economic downturn a few years back, suddenly every architecture firm, engineering firm, and building owner was interested in making deep retrofits profitable.”

Dr. Malcolm Lewis, founder of CTG-Engineering, has seen the shift in his practice. “The change in the construction industry during this economy forced us away from new buildings,” says Lewis. “The focus on existing buildings is not only a logical extension of the economic downturn but also a good thing in terms of saving more energy.”

Like Kinsley, Lewis has watched RMI’s buildings practice evolve over many years. Lewis has worked with RMI on more than a dozen projects since 1986, from greening the California Capitol and Los Angeles City Hall to data centers to a lot of grocery store projects. “Grocery stores are just such big energy hogs,” Lewis notes. RMI recently enlisted Lewis to work on a dramatically efficient design for an H-E-B supermarket that’s expected to reap 50 percent energy savings. RMI worked closely with the Texas chain on the store, set to begin construction this year in a brownfield redevelopment area at Austin’s former airport site. RMI studied H-E-B’s efficiency opportunity areas in energy, water and waste, and held a workshop to innovate breakthrough strategies for designing efficient new stores and retrofitting existing ones. (Read more about the H-E-B project in the Winter issue of Solutions Journal.)

In 1999, Lewis was part of a team that revolutionized grocery store energy use, especially in terms of lighting design, with a Stop & Shop grocery that showcased the idea of daylighting. “At that time, the conventional wisdom was, ‘You can’t let daylight in; ultraviolet light would ruin the produce,’” Lewis recalls. “It took a huge effort to convince them otherwise. Now they all have daylighting.”

The team, made up of RMI, ENSAR, Clanton & Associates (lighting design), and Lewis, came in with a new and different perspective, working with owners who were “adamantly opposed” to daylighting, says Lewis. But eventually they embraced the idea, and the team installed a 40-foot-long diffused skylight and 48 smaller 5-by-5-foot high-performance glazed skylights, according to a case study by the nonprofit organization Clean Air Cool Planet. A light funnel tiled in white acoustical tile reflects the light even more, creating an inviting environment to show off products. This and other measures resulted in a 30 percent energy savings over stores of a similar size.

Lewis is in a unique position to compare that project with today’s work. “There’s been a huge shift over 10 years,” he says. “The technology has changed a lot. … Now we are definitely pushing them harder and setting higher goals. The bar is raised. You can keep tunneling through the cost curve because of new technology and get even more savings.”

Lewis goes on: “It’s important for people to know there’s a huge, important role in market transformation for an organization that is willing to stake out outrageous goals and beat on them until they happen. From Amory’s Soft Energy Path onward, he’s been doing that, and it’s had a huge impact.”