May 29, 2009
Jim Sealy, FAIA

By Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

Summary: In his own consulting business in Dallas and with the board of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), Jim Sealy, FAIA, has been has been working to understand what we know we don’t know about building energy performance and sustainability. Jim Sealy Architect/Consultant focuses on building accessibility, forensic architecture, and energy performance. With his post on the NIBS Board Task Group on Building Rating and Certification, Sealy is comparing and contrasting the growing number of sustainability rating systems to close the gap between energy model forecasts and actual building performance in the hopes of realizing a unifying performance standard that can be adopted by jurisdictions and made into law.

To this end, the group is interviewing representatives from across the design, construction, and sustainability industry: the International Code Council, the National Association of Home Builders, the Green Building Initiative, the USGBC, and the AIA. Sealy and his colleagues are working to find rating system commonalities, balance the disparate focuses of each system, and perhaps most importantly, understand exactly what isn’t yet known about building performance. A final report on their findings will be released in September.

You’ve been interested in implementing building codes that have energy performance standards attached to them.

Everybody’s concerned with energy at this point in time, but there’s an emphasis on green and sustainability, and we have a task group working right now that’s trying to analyze what all the various rating organizations are doing with their assessment of green. It’s something that’s not really understood, and there are too many definitions of it, so we’re trying to seek commonality among all the rating organizations.

Politicians get on the bandwagon and say this is what we need to do to conserve energy because of global warming and this, that, and whatever, but it’s not really changing the practice of the design professions. For a building to quantify for LEED certification, you can either use energy efficient equipment, or you can get LEED points for building bicycle racks rather than doing anything with the performance of the building.

The bike rack issue again.


Do you expect, and would you want, the commonality between all these systems to be a preference for the use of real-time energy modeling and energy performance?

It’s easy to do modeling because that’s all on paper. We’re doing modeling right now and are assessing buildings to be at a certain level of energy efficiency, and when the building is constructed we find that they’re not. There’s a difference between what you do on paper when you’re designing a building and what happens when it’s being constructed, then what happens after it’s occupied.

What are some of the first steps we can take to close this gap?

That’s just what we’re trying to determine right now.

Is the idea of putting energy performance standards into building codes as simple as saying, ‘x building type at x square feet may only consume x amount of energy over a given period of time’? How much more nuanced does this have to be?

Well, you’re talking about a building. Buildings don’t consume energy—people do. So you would have to regulate what people do as far as energy conservation, and codes can’t do that. It’s called plug load. How many pieces of electrical equipment can somebody have in the office? I don’t know how you determine that. I don’t know if it will ever be determined.

When you talk about creating a more energy efficient and sustainable building stock, do you envision this generating many different hyper-regional design languages where buildings in different climates have to adopt wildly different material palettes and formal qualities that each work with their respective ecosystem to require less energy? Do you see this atomizing design and making everything very unique and diverse?

That’s what people don’t take into consideration right now—that we are different in our climates and that the requirements for buildings in Maine are going to be a lot different than they are in south Texas. And that’s going to be a very difficult thing to quantify. Some of the organizations right now are trying to establish criteria and they’re not taking that into consideration.

How much do you work with energy performance monitoring in your own practice?

The energy thing is new as far as forensics are concerned, and by forensics, I mean lawsuits.

Lawsuits that stem from building owners disappointed at how much energy newly constructed buildings require to operate?

An unhappy client. If it’s a building code issue or a structural failure, or the exterior envelope fails and the building leaks, that’s easy to determine, but with energy consumption, there’s no standard gauge that you can go to and say: “This doesn’t comply to ...” That’s what we’re trying to determine.

Is that something you expect to be written into contract agreements in the future?

I don’t know how you’d do that. I’m sure its going to come to that, but if there is an issue—what are you going to be using as a gauge to measure this?—because one rating system might say what was designed is OK, but another one of them might say it’s not OK, but neither of them have been adopted or accepted by a jurisdiction. Our biggest fear is that if something gets codified, it’s going to be the wrong thing.

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