October 23, 2015

As seen in the Austin Business Journal

By Paul Brown, President, Bautex Systems

As property owners and tenants recover from summer’s higher electricity bills, October has the title of Energy Awareness Month. Its efforts are partly directed at our behavior at home and in the office, but unless we change the ways we build, modifying our behavior will only make small improvements in energy consumption and efficiency compared to what could be saved over the 50+ year life of a building.

Nearly 75 percent (74.9%) of all electricity produced in the U.S. is used to operate buildings, and heating and cooling accounts for more than 25 percent of energy used in commercial buildings**. The global building stock of commercial buildings is projected to increase 195 percent by 2045. We can’t meet our future demand for electricity or energy conservation goals simply by changing behavior. Real improvement for energy efficiency starts with the building envelope. We have the proof in our 3,900 square foot office building in San Marcos.

At our office, our average energy bill this year was $120, when a comparable building its size may cost $385 a month (or more) to heat and cool year round. Our path to greater energy awareness and efficiency includes some changes to behavior and environment  – such as task lighting, LED overhead lights and programmable thermostats – but none of these things are responsible for our impressively low utility bills. Most of the credit goes to our airtight building envelope with continuous insulation, constructed with insulated concrete block made here in Texas.

It’s time to wean ourselves from the light frame construction method that rose to popularity because of our country’s vast natural resources that made stick-frame and steel-frame widely available. There are better materials and methods available to design and construct energy efficient buildings and homes. Investors, owners, architects, engineers, builders and building materials manufacturers must get on the same page to build better performing buildings in the 21st century, whether they are building tiny houses, second homes in the Hill Country, or three-story light office buildings in our suburbs.

Energy conservation shouldn’t be our only goal in improving building performance. We should also seek to improve life safety, indoor air quality and durability at the same time. Incremental improvements to efficiency in traditional frame systems and designs do not create better buildings. Often those improvements only increase the complexity and cost to construct traditional light-frame buildings without significantly improving what also matters: indoor air quality, and safety and durability against fire, wind storms, mold, and rot.
Of course we support behavior change to improve energy awareness, and in turn, conservation. It’s good to unplug our devices when not in use, swap out our bulbs for LEDs, and even use our favorite coffee mugs instead of styrofoam.  However, when we want to advance real energy conservation, we must start with the building envelope. Real changes in how we design and build will provide the biggest impact for generations to come.

Paul Brown, MBA, LEED GA, is president of Bautex Systems and a Board Member – At Large, US Green Building Council Central Texas Balcones chapter.

**“Energy use for heating and air-conditioning accounts for more than 25% of the primary energy consumed in commercial buildings in the U.S. (EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 1998, Reference” http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/publications/pdfs/commercial_initiative/hvac_volume2_final_report.pdf