It’s not exactly rocket science

Long before I was a builder, I was fascinated by space. In fact, my first career goal was to become an astronaut. To help me get there, as a middle schooler I was fortunate to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. – and I still have my flight suit! I commanded a simulator mission in which we had to land in an Iowa cornfield, but like that flight, my space career soon drifted off target. Instead, I’ve put my technical knowledge to use in solving the challenges involved with creating buildings, especially how to enable them to have less impact on the environment. But I never fully let go of the dream of putting on that flight suit again.


Space has long been a fascination of mine: here’s my Space Camp flight suit from middle school.

With my background and interests, I was surprised and delighted to recently receive an email inviting me to present about sustainability and resiliency at a joint NASA/European Space Agency conference. The worlds of space travel and construction don’t often mix, except for highly specialized work. But I submitted an abstract, which was accepted, and not too long ago I was before a crowd of engineers and administrators at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. I had 25 minutes to share some thoughts to help NASA improve the resiliency of its ground infrastructure against the looming impacts of climate change.

I focused on the idea of advancing systems from being redundant to restorative. Redundancy involves layering on duplicate layers of capacity or protection in case the primary system fails to work, or is overloaded. Think of a back-up generator. Having extra layers is often quite costly, and the additional capacity may be rarely – if ever – used.

Space station as model?

But rather than redundant, what if we focused on creating systems that were resilient: able to flex and withstand stresses without breaking. With buildings, that means facilities that depend on natural systems and strategies, instead of more layers of energy and technology. For instance, in nature things are self-sufficient. A technological equivalent of that is a cogeneration plant, a highly efficient machine that uses natural gas – albeit from off-site – to produce electricity, and it takes what otherwise would be waste heat and uses that to produce hot water or steam for heating buildings. During Hurricane Sandy in New York City, on-site co-generation enabled New York University to heat and power its campus, as natural gas lines remained intact. For true on-site, emission-free power, photovoltaics are a compelling solution, but their use is limited by site area, weather and, of course, darkness.


The International Space Station offers lessons in resiliency from which buildings on Earth might benefit. (Photo credit: NASA)

Maybe the International Space Station will show us how to combine both of these systems in buildings: The space station uses photovoltaics to create electricity and to drive an electrolysis process that splits water into hydrogen (fuel) and oxygen (air), a space version of cogeneration and a biomimicry of the process on Earth that we call photosynthesis.

Neighborhood-sized solutions

But I believe the best way to be resilient is not through individual buildings, but rather groups of buildings. Collections of buildings known as eco-districts help reduce resource consumption because water, waste, energy and transportation systems can be optimized, each at the appropriate scale. Studies have shown that for every five or so office buildings running off of a district energy plant, there’s typically enough efficiency gain to also power a sixth one without added capacity. This neighborhood-scale consolidation also reduces the dependency on the single, regional systems most communities use.

Benefiting the surroundings

Beyond redundant and resilient you have restorative, which is having a building or system that actually benefits its surroundings. That was the aim of Skanska and our partners in creating Powerhouse Kjorbo, an office building near Oslo, Norway, that will produce more energy over its life cycle than it uses. Photovolatic panels on the roof, geothermal heating and cooling, and a well-sealed and highly insulated building structure – combined with very efficient integrated systems for heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting – all transform what could be an energy-guzzling office building into a supplier of pure and renewable energy. It’s also a beautiful place to work, even if you are above the Arctic Circle.

Transforming from redundant to restorative is a big step – no matter if you’re dealing with buildings or space program infrastructure. Being at this conference reminded me of all the advances that the space program has brought to our everyday lives. It gives me hope that the very organization that has a mission of going to other planets is working together with all of us Earthlings to preserve this one.

Steve Clem

Steve Clem

Skanska USA Vice president of preconstruction

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Amid a week of disappointing environmental news, some bright spots

Everything each of us does depends on the continued health of our planet. Unfortunately, the headlines from this past week indicate that our planet’s climate is changing in ways that aren’t for the best: scientists are predicting rising seas from “unavoidable” polar melt that will impact coastal cities, and a report by a government-funded research group warned of U.S. national security risks from higher sea levels, increased droughts and other climate-induced changes.

Even worse, Congress recently has been unable to act to protect our environment. Just this week, the bipartisan Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act died in the Senate, despite what news reports say was widespread bipartisan support – at least until the end. This common-sense measure – introduced by Senators Rob Portman and Jeanne Shaheen – involved common-sense provisions to curtail energy usage, such as strengthened building energy codes and incentives for the purchase of energy-efficient equipment. And such states as Ohio and Louisiana are fighting the LEED rating system that also works to improve building energy efficiency. All this at a time when simple population growth would seem to indicate that conservation is our best way to ensure a sustainable future for generations. 

Deep Green Society

Fortunately, there’s good reason to be optimistic about helping the Earth and lowering energy use, thanks to the efforts of the private sector and other states. Despite attempts to ban or weaken it, LEED is becoming more and more an integral part of the world’s buildings. Five buildings have achieved full certification under the stringent Living Building Challenge green building rating system, which requires net zero energy and water use. (Among these is the Skanska-built Bertschi School Science Classroom Addition in Seattle.) Next week, progressive-minded green thinkers will gather in my hometown of Portland, Ore., for the Living Future unConference to help green building continue to move forward.

Some states are realizing that acting on climate and energy can’t wait. Last year, the leaders of British Columbia, California, Oregon and Washington joined together to form the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, a major effort to combat climate change and promote clean energy. And this month, Skanska became the first company to sign on to the Oregon Climate Leadership Declaration, an effort to reduce fossil fuel use while investing in homegrown resources and technologies that create jobs for Oregonians.

Too often the discussion about environmental practices becomes divisive – a debate over climate change and cap-and-trade. This is counterproductive. If you like lower energy bills, you have all the reason you need to support using less energy. If you believe a strong economy comes from growth, you have all the belief you need to support water conservation for, without enough water, there can be no growth.

So why take a side when you can simply take action? There’s much work to be done developing the technology, the policies and the support for a green, economically-sound future that would benefit us all. We’d appreciate your help.

Steve Clem

Steve Clem

Skanska USA Vice president of preconstruction

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What does a Living Building cost or save versus a LEED Platinum building?

In 2011, Skanska completed the West Coast’s first and the world’s fourth certified Living Building in Seattle: The Bertschi School Science Classroom addition. But Living Buildings — which must meet a series of ambitious performance requirements, including net zero energy, waste and water, over a minimum of 12 months of continuous occupancy – are still so rare that many questions remain about how they compare financially to its next closest neighbor, LEED Platinum.

So when the District of Columbia’s Department of Environment was looking to understand the costs and benefits associated with net zero energy, net zero water and Living Buildings, our team was eager to help with this effort of quantifying the rewards of ultra-green buildings.

The District of Columbia’s Department of Environment had two goals: first, to investigate the costs associated with upgrading existing buildings from LEED Platinum to zero energy, zero water and Living Building. And second, to collect data to advise policy makers on deep-green buildings and incentives. Their findings are published in: Net Zero and Living Building Challenge Financial Study: A Cost Comparison Report for Buildings in the District of Columbia. For the study, Skanska joined the New Buildings Institute (NBI) and the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) to conceptually transform three LEED v3 Platinum-designed buildings in the District to net zero energy, net zero water and Living Buildings. Three reference buildings were chosen to represent three of the most common developments in the District of Columbia: new office construction, new multifamily construction and office renovation.

88M Hero Print - E

A rendering of our 88 M Street NE project in Washington, D.C., one of the three reference buildings in the study.

NBI and ILFI determined the most appropriate energy efficiency and renewable energy strategies for the buildings, while Skanska determined the anticipated differential costs for the various energy strategies employed.

The team applied a set of energy efficiency measures to each building’s envelope, lighting, HVAC, operations, occupancy and direct loads, along with rainwater harvesting techniques in order to achieve reduced energy and water usage before adding photovoltaics and water-reuse strategies.

The costs for getting to net zero are difficult to distinguish from overall project costs. However, our team conducted an analysis to identify costs connected to energy and water conservation, as well as the photovoltaic and water reuse systems necessary for such a project.

So what’s the answer?

The initial cost for energy efficiency is approximately 1-12 percent higher, varying by the building type. This rises to 5-19 percent in net-zero energy buildings when considering the added cost of photovoltaic power supply. But the benefits make the added cost worthwhile: the energy efficiency measures alone offer a return on investment of 6-12 percent. After factoring current tax and renewable energy credits into these figures, the return on investment in net zero building is approximately 30 percent.

That is not to say the net-zero goal is appropriate or feasible in every case. When considered in isolation, even ultra-efficient 300,000-square-foot buildings with today’s onsite renewable energy technology cannot generate as much energy or collect as much water as they consume over the course of a year.  In fact, these buildings would require up to seven equivalent rooftop areas to achieve net zero.  And achieving net zero is not only a matter of design; it also requires careful attention in such areas as operations and maintenance.

But ultimately, this project yielded valuable results that will inform future design decisions on our journey to Deep Green. The largest benefit: it raises the dialogue over the value of net zero to a new level.

Facility owners now have something tangible to consider when looking at high-performance buildings. We’ve come a long way with Living Buildings, but there is now a true framework to have meaningful conversations shifting from first cost alone to life-cycle value, emboldening market leaders to explore building solutions that push the envelope toward a more sustainable future.


Steve Clem

Steve Clem

Skanska USA Vice president of preconstruction

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