Solutions Journal: Spring 2011—Integral Group’s Vision (Interview with Peter Rumsey)

RMI fellow Peter Rumsey discusses deep green engineering, the Amory Effect and how the building industry is undeniably changing for the better.

RMI Senior Fellow Peter Rumsey leads the West Coast office of Integral Group, which is responsible for the mechanical engineering on the retrofit of Caltech’s LEED-Platinum Linde + Robinson Laboratory. He has collaborated with RMI on the design of the Caltech lab and on dozens of other projects since the mid-’90s, and works regularly with RMI’s RetroFit initiative, which aims to make deep energy savings in retrofitted buildings the new norm.

To increase knowledge-sharing and collaboration between Integral Group and RMI, last summer the two organizations pioneered an “externship” program. Integral Group engineer Hilary Price came to RMI’s Boulder office for several weeks, while RMI analyst Caroline Fluhrer spent two months in Integral’s Oakland office. “They really use integrative design to come up with more creative solutions,” says Fluhrer of the team at Integral. “Integrative design is institutionalized there, and they continually focus on generating more creative and efficient solutions.”

RMI’s Molly Miller spoke to Rumsey about his collaborations with RMI and the challenges and joys of advancing the cause of energy efficiency and “deep green” engineering, as Integral likes to call it. Integral recently applied these deep green principles to its own office.

RMI: How did the retrofit of your new headquarters go?

Rumsey: It’s an older historic building in downtown Oakland. Ninety-three percent of the people in the space have outside views. It has great air quality and great transit options. We have also installed a system to monitor plug loads. We got 101 out of 110 LEED points for a LEED Platinum building, and we did it on a tight budget, so we’re very happy with it.

RMI: What’s your history with RMI?

Rumsey: I started working on contract with RMI in the mid-’90s. We got involved with a wide variety of projects together over the years, and eventually our relationship developed into one of sharing information, not just doing the work. About five years ago, RMI’s buildings practice asked me to be an RMI senior fellow (a loosely structured collaborative agreement between then-Rumsey Engineers, which has become Integral Group, and RMI).

RMI: Can you talk about how it worked collaborating with RMI on the Caltech lab?

Rumsey: The donors [Foster Stanback and Ronald and Maxine Linde] supported and pushed for the building to be a green building. The donors said, “This building can be something special, a low-impact sustainable building, and why don’t we bring in RMI?”

We were already on board and working with the building when RMI came on. We were pushing on things and getting some resistance from some of the facilities people. Amory came in and said, “You can do more. You can push the boundaries further. Why don’t you do more?” Suddenly the things we had been suggesting seemed really reasonable. Amory allowed us to push this building beyond just meeting LEED.

Amory gave a lot of support in the charette on “Let’s look at the plug loads, in labs especially.” Designers are generally told not to think about plug loads. So we proposed a plug load energy study, and we got 50 percent savings on plug loads. Now we’ve done some similar studies for other offices. The attitude generally is, build the building and the tenants are going to come later. We were talking to the tenants and equipment-makers during the design.

I don’t think many labs, even new construction, will be as low-energy as this. People said, “You can’t put a lab in this building. There’s not enough space.” But the results are as good as or better than most of the buildings that are done with new construction.

RMI: What can we in the deep green engineering world be doing differently to gain more traction?

Rumsey: We have got to get to the people who are really making the decisions: investors, developers, building managers. So often we are talking to architects. We all go to the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) conference, but we should be going to the real estate developers’ conferences.
What the owners need to know is that you can do this, and it’s not too expensive. They’re risk-averse. In every project, when push comes to shove, we stick to the requirements that can’t budge. The ones that are gray go by the wayside. I believe where there’s a will, there’s a way—the will isn’t there.

Why did the Caltech building happen? Because Caltech and the donors said energy efficiency is not negotiable. The faculty also wanted this building to be green, and so we had the opportunity to talk to and work with the occupants, who happen to teach environmental studies, so they are aware of the impact of energy efficiency.

We have to communicate that the benefits go beyond energy savings. Most of these building owners pass energy savings on to the tenant anyway. So they just don’t care about the energy savings that much. They do care a lot about lease rates and occupancy rates.

RMI: How can building owners and developers overcome the finance barrier? [An often-cited reason for not pursuing green building is that the value of investing in energy savings is hidden.]

Rumsey: I don’t think there really is a finance barrier. Really, what I think is the owners have to decide they want to do it and then the money will fall into place. I don’t think getting money is a problem. Maybe during the recession it has been a bit tough. But the owner has to say to the bank, “This is part of the upgrade of the building, and it will make it better.”

At the end of the day, the owner and the banker are not worried about payback from energy savings. The payback is in the higher occupancy rates, not in the energy savings. Looking for an energy efficiency payback is artificial—I think people who are pushing for that are missing the point. We need more data that shows that green buildings have a higher occupancy rate.

In San Francisco, practically every building is getting the LEED EBOM rating [USGBC’s rating for Existing Buildings, Operation & Maintenance]. All they have to do is get an Energy Star rating that is 75, so they are not doing much. LEED EBOM is too easy to meet—it’s “light green.” LEED EBOM needs to evolve; they need to raise the bar. In San Fran, if you don’t have a LEED plaque in your lobby, your building is widely considered second-class.

We’re getting to the point where an energy-inefficient building will not get filled. In California the law states that buildings for lease must declare the energy use of the building. This is going to happen everywhere. We’ve got to provide the information to the developers and turn it into this competitive thing.

RMI: Have you ever tried a performance contract? [That is, offering a bonus to the design team members when they meet or exceed deep energy savings.]

Rumsey: No. People look at me like, “How are we going to work that out?” Because you design for a year, and you build for two years. So you do the work in year one and get paid in year four? You could do it on the performance of an energy model, but everybody agrees that energy modeling can be inaccurate.

It would be great if we could figure a way to get paid for the value we add. Our prices are the same as traditional engineers, but we spend more time than the traditional firm. Sometimes people realize we are providing a higher value, and so they are willing to pay a little more.

People have experimented with connecting the design/build team to energy performance, with a penalty if they don’t hit the performance goal and an incentive if they go higher. Turns out the design team avoids the penalty rather than going for the bonus.

RMI: What are the other ways we could all do more and do better to overcome the barriers to achieving more energy-efficient designs?

Rumsey: Well, it is very easy to be critical, but there are so many positive things going on now. There was a time in the ’80s and ’90s when we were like, “Well, get real,” but then LEED happened. Just look at the size of the USGBC: It is one of the biggest nonprofits in the world. It didn’t exist 15 years ago. But the general population is waking up globally to the fact that the environment matters and it directly affects us and buildings are part of it. It’s only growing.

When I go out and talk to young kids, there’s even more acceptance and awareness around the environment. I know that’s not always true in older folks…people like me [laughs]. Just look at politics around these issues. Some people are really on board, and some are not. But that skepticism is going to evaporate. Eventually there will be retrofit codes. This whole thing has a lot of momentum.

RMI: Do you have an environmental commitment that has driven you to push your team to pursue deep energy savings rather than traditional engineering?

Rumsey: I got interested in energy in the ’70s during the oil shocks, when there were lines to get gas. I was really interested in energy policy, and Amory wrote this dead-on piece making the connection between the security of our nation and energy. I got motivated because of politics and the environment, but I have a passion for engineering.

Engineers hate waste and inefficiency; it’s sort of in our DNA. Even in the ’90s at ASHRAE, our conversations were about efficiency. In my early career, once I had saved half the energy of the building—on a bank I worked on in the Philippines—then, after that I look at every other building and I think, “It’s irrational not to save energy.” Now engineers are waking up. Chilled beams came along only six years ago, and once people saw them, they thought, “Well, of course we’re going to do that.” Developers are into not being cost-inefficient. There’s going to be a point 30 or 40 years from now when what people like Amory and  I are saying about energy efficiency won’t be important anymore.

It’s cost effective. It’s practical. It’s financially wise. We end up with buildings that are more comfortable to be in, and tenants like them. It just makes perfect sense that we push this harder. Innovation happens in small buildings, and then when it gets proven, people start to do it on a larger scale. Eventually there will be so much evidence that you won’t be able to deny it any more.