The Challenges of Energy Efficiency on Campus: Three Expert Viewpoints


Whether in an academic setting or in a large-scale commercial/industrial project with a large energy footprint, the challenges of convincing decision-makers with spending responsibility of the value of investing in energy efficiency strategies can be a daunting task. Though all roads lead back to cost, the pathway to developing a continuous energy efficiency mindset has been hastened over time by a variety of factors including a convincing business case; as well as policy mandates that are both intra-institutional and also spurred by progressive legislation that reaches to the federal level; and economic incentives such as Savings By Design.

We spoke with three professionals who spearhead energy efficiency initiatives in the construction programs at three such settings: Nathaniel Wilson, Campus Architect at California State University, Northridge; Todd Lynch, Principal Project Development Planner, Capital Planning and Finance at UCLA; and Carey Mcleod, Principal and Director of A. C. Martin’s A/E Studio who is attached to the massive downtown Los Angeles Wilshire Grand project. Each respondent has been engaged in his respective career for twenty years or more.

The respondents were each asked a range of questions related to the challenge of implementing large-scale energy efficiency programs. Their answers are noted below.

To the question of how to overcome the major challenges of securing buy-in from leadership to achieve energy efficiency goals, Mcleod stated that understanding leaders’ concerns about expenditures from first cost is critical. “It is a matter of convincing them that promoting energy efficiency is the right thing to do. We typically explain the steps involved to do what’s right. Now many people are also aware of the need to reduce carbon.”

At UCLA, which has an institutional energy efficiency mandate consistent with statewide UC policies, Todd Lynch offered a view of how to coordinate working with the various stakeholders. While the university’s overall size presents significant challenges given the scale of energy use, there are also opportunities to make the business case. “There is the opportunity to seed the idea of energy efficiency and develop it campus-wide,” he noted.

“UCLA has the scale of a small city and it is a unique lab. There are all kinds of building types. It is a great scene of innovation that places sustainability in a broader context. The greatest challenge is advocating for the best use of available funds while getting the best value. There needs to be a balance between the cost of construction and the importance of stressing high performance measures,” stated Lynch.

“There is also the issue of collaboration. Pushing the team to realize solutions is important. From a mechanical sense, we try to emphasize passive solutions as a preferred approach whenever possible,” Lynch noted.

Over at CSUN, Nathaniel Wilson feels fortunate to work in an environment that is very supportive of energy efficiency. “CSUN has a long history dating back to the energy crisis. Energy efficiency goals that exceed Title 24 have been stressed since that time. Early on, there was a disconnect, then people became aware, and now there is a refreshing spirit of collaboration,” said Wilson.

The key to convincing leadership and colleagues of the benefits of energy efficiency is to design the building first and then demonstrate the lowered operating costs. CSUN’s Student Recreation Center has basketball courts and rock climbing space that meet daylighting requirements. Wilson cited the installation of large amounts of glazing as an important facet of the building’s increased life cycle potential.

At UCLA, Lynch cited system-wide support for initiatives beginning at the Governor’s office. But the most important support occurs at the project level. “The team learns the best uses of resources, how to stay under budget, and meet progress goals. Having a co-generation plant on campus is also a great asset,” he noted.

The Bruin campus is continually growing with more people concentrated in the same amount of land, he said. “The upside is the reduction in transportation but the energy demands continue to increase with state of the art labs and new building structures that are very energy efficient and improve space utilization,” Lynch said.

Mcleod said the keys to leadership buy-in at Wilshire Grand is his team emphasizing the long-term cost benefit of energy efficiency, and the advantages of participating in programs that offer sizable incentives and rebates. In the private sector, there is the expectation of a three-five year return on investment, whereas the expectation of a fifteen-year payback is prevalent in public projects.

Tenant incentives are also a good selling strategy. “If you can convince people that your building is more efficient that the building next door, then you have an advantage.”

The climate of acceptance has generally changed. “People have become much more aware of the increasing cost of energy and the diminishing availability to water. At Wilshire Grand, we also emphasize the need to look far ahead and take the long view,” he noted.

At CSUN, students’ attitudes have influenced acceptance. “They are so aware of the issues associated with climate change. Non-sustainability classes in industry-related fields are typically under-enrolled. Cutting edge speakers are brought to campus to discuss the issues and students get hands-on training in real time work through campus academic departments, noted Wilson.”

At UCLA, the pressure to stay competitive is intense. “The push to go beyond minimum efficiency standards is getting stronger all of the time. As Title 24 becomes more stringent, the team is pushed even further. The bar is raised each year at a graduated rate: 35% higher than Title 24 in 2016, 50% by 2021,” according to Lynch. Benchmarks, measurement and verification, and energy optimization are all part of the language that surrounds projects.

And how do projects operate with common goals in mind? At CSUN, Wilson noted the collaboration of the engineering team on a solar hot water system using photovoltaics. Glumac was called in as an outside consultant and worked with the campus team. That activity yielded creative ideas about smart energy monitoring. “Savings By Design encourages peer review and the opportunity to go through a blue sky charrette process to come up with new ideas. Early stage involvement of a variety of stakeholders is a critical step,” according to Wilson.

Mcleod feels that incentives offer the opportunity to look at the total project, including energy modeling, building siting and even the percentage of wind available. “All of that is now part of the process. Savings By Design offers goals,” he noted. “The scoring creates the financial incentives. The harder you push, the more that is achieved.”

Lynch feels that the UCLA team’s goals are in close alignment on Title 24 and ASHRAE modeling for LEED specifications. “Enhanced commissioning, and the benefits of built out metering through Savings By Design offers better feedback to end users. The financial incentives help support tools such as measurement and verification equipment which provide a better picture of building performance beyond first cost predictions,” he noted.

Mcleod sees code compliance and certification mandates as important facets. “LEED certification is an ‘attaboy’. It tells the world that you have met certain standards. But it doesn’t bring the money. Savings By Design is something real. To get the incentives, you have to exceed the standards. Energy efficiency is an iterative process. It is a series of approximations; reaching out to hit a target, move forward and hit the next. But sometimes in a cost model you have to retract.”

Lynch feels that the concept of “reasonable” as included in the code mandates is subjective. “It is important to apply energy efficiency to passive measures before you get to systems. Go for the low-hanging fruit such as a good building envelope that doesn’t need steady monitoring; well insulated walls are a plus. Arrange a system to take full advantage of available resources. On the westside for example, there is sunshine all of the time.

“Within a system, focus on efficiency. New lighting makes a huge difference within the electrical profile. Use water for heating and cooling. Chill beam systems can carry water a long way, and water has a high capacity to carry temperature more effectively,” he stated.

Wilson noted the codes as the California building industry’s ‘bible”. “There is a reason why they exist. They are the opportunity to get us to where we need to go. Commissioning asks for minimum competence. CalGreen requirements are aligned with LEED. If we had an infinite source of renewables, energy efficiency wouldn’t be an issue.”

On the question of aligning design performance with building performance, Lynch cited the ability to track building use and make improvements in base measurement and monitoring. “People on campus are continually occupying buildings, so we are able to respond expeditiously as potential problems arise.

“During the design phase, a lot of review occurs. Facilities and maintenance staff are in the conversation very early in the process, which allows them the opportunity to offer feedback. They then have a greater stake in both design and performance.” LEED is a very helpful tool for Lynch’s team. “LEED mandates maintenance, use, and operating parameters,” he noted.

Many of Lynch’s projects are renovations. Facets such as plumbing and the location of utility controls are already known. Lynch’s team also works closely with the campus department that is occupying the building regarding furniture and other key logistics.

Mcleod sees the tie between design performance and building performance as an opportunity to make an assessment of initial goals and to validate the accuracy of design projections.

Wilson feels that commissioning offers the truism that whether it is building design or building performance, “we can’t be good enough at it.”