Tunneling through the Cost Barrier might provide better spaces forpeople

If you’ve been to a seminar on sustainable practices lately, you may have heard the popular concept that tunneling through cost barriers might provide better spaces for people. To my knowledge, the concept was popularized by Paul Hawkins, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins in their book, Natural Capitalism, more than 10 years ago.

Graph from 'Natural Capitalism' by Paul Hawkins, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins

So what does it mean? The simplest example that is often given is that of a residential house: you can buy better windows, more efficient insulation, and even take advantage of passive solar heating. With all of these improvements, you will eventually reach the point of diminishing returns when you are spending extra money to save energy on heating your home. The detour that now seems possible is that you can reach a point where you’ve so radically reduced the heating load that you can eliminate the furnace and its associated ductwork altogether.

The concept at work here is known in the architecture profession as “systems engineering”. When you hit the cost barrier, you must be tenacious about looking elsewhere in the system for potential savings. This becomes increasingly harder to do as the complexity of the system you’re studying increases.

I recently faced this issue at a chemical plant in North Carolina that was designed in the 1950’s. In this case, I was meeting with an engineer who was tasked with saving energy across the entire company’s footprint. He was passionate about the job and was working hard at sub-optimizing the systems he had been given. He added infrared detectors to the lights that would otherwise be on 24/7 and replacing metal halide lamps with compact fluorescent lamps that use a fraction of the energy. It is a step in the right direction, but both of us are still on the path of diminishing returns.

To break the mold, we’ve got to think larger. Here’s how the thought process might work:

1. When you build a roof to keep rain off of your process equipment, you create a hard surface that disrupts the natural water cycle. You can use this surface to collect the water. If you don’t, and they didn’t back in the 1950’s, you’re stuck with increased storm water discharge costs. How much rain water can one collect? The average rainfall in North Carolina is 45” per year, if you have a 100,000 sf roof at your facility; you could expect to collect over 2.8 million gallons of rainwater a year.

2. Water usage is huge in a chemical plant. If you build a green roof or even a simple cistern to store the rain water, you’ve got a grey water system that could be used to cool the chemical reaction. Now you’ve minimized discharge costs and decreased water usage. Reducing storm water runoff from commercial property will be an increasingly important item to consider as municipalities are looking at larger fees to recapture the costs of storm water management. In North Carolina for instance, commercial storm water runoff utility fees can range from $1 – $2.50 per 2,500 sf of impervious surfaces on commercial lots. These fees are projected to continue to increase, adding more justification to harvesting this rainwater on site.

3. Low cost and durability are important considerations but if you use an opaque metal roof you’ll be forced to have artificial light.

4. Lights add heat load to the un-insulated roof that is also baked by the summer sun. This can make the space so unpleasant that the inhabited control room and QC laboratory need air conditioning in the summer. The other portions of the space just get hot, creating added stress on pumps and other electrical control valves. If they would have considered insulation and perhaps natural ventilation back in the 1950’s, I’m sure the energy use profile of this space would be radically different.

5. If the wall and roof were made out of materials that generate energy, they could be used to supply the building’s energy loads. That old opaque metal roof can now be replaced with an integrated photovoltaic standing seam metal roof that will harvest free solar energy to power the lights in the building.

6. On demand ventilation: install controls and CO2 sensors that provide for ventilation when the space requires it, and turns off energy wasting fans when it’s not.
Have we tunneled through the cost barrier yet? Since I don’t run a chemical plant I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing if it were this easy it would have already been done. The good news is that it sounds like with some careful planning, we’re approaching something we now call a NetZero building, a building that generates its own energy.

A truly sustainable green manufacturing site requires more than energy retrofits to work. The entire process and supply chain should be evaluated to create a sustainable “cradle to cradle” flow of product. “Cradle to cradle” is the concept that a company offers a specific service (ie: cooling your home), the consumer would then purchase the service of having a cool home. To ensure that service is provided, the company would install an air conditioning unit and routinely perform maintenance on it. The company is dictating how economical the machine will be based on the resources it utilizes. To that effect, turning the manufacturing facility into an energy generator instead of an energy waster is one important part of the overall green manufacturing strategy.
If you improve the quality of the space where people work, you make them more productive. This is a powerful argument for service-related companies who see half of their overhead expense in people’s salaries. This is not ture in the chemical industry. According to a study sponsored by the State of West Virginia, the cost of labor can represent 15% of a chemical company’s total costs. Though I’m sure people will work faster and more efficiently in a better environment, these savings are not likely to get the CEO’s attention.

So why go to all this effort to improve the environment at a chemical plant? The questions you have to ask here are:

– How much more work will be done right the first time in a better environment?
– How much safer will it be?
– How much more product might you be able to sell because you created it in a green, environmentally friendly facility?