There is an all-electric house in Tennessee that costs 82 cents a day to heat, cool and power. Built in November 2002 by Habitat for Humanity, it is one of four homes under the “Near-Zero-Energy House” name.

These houses, which cost less than $100,000, feature airtight envelope construction, advanced structural insulated panel systems, insulated precast concrete walls, a heat pump water heater, geothermal systems, grid-connected solar photovoltaics, adaptive mechanical ventilation, cool roof and wall coatings with infrared reflective pigments, and solar-integrated raised metal seam roofs. In comparison, a conventional house in Lenoir City, Tenn., would use between $4 and $5 of electricity per day.

Builds are getting smarter, and the next generation of green building materials is expected to do more than ever, according to a special report from the Associated Press. But, there is such a wide variety of products and systems to choose from, final specs that emerge make it seem like a roll of the dice. Electrical contractors are often left to sort out the resulting spaghetti factory in order to make the building function.

Here is a review of some opinions and developments collected from a variety of sources that might help to alert readers to the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Smart energy designs

“Relatively cheap energy costs mean most commercial building owners remain unconcerned with efficiency,” said Srinivas Katipamula, a research engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. But higher projected utility bills and fuel, oil and natural gas supply scares are making a serious impression on building owners and developers.

The idea of smart buildings that use new technology to save energy got a boost from the 2000 energy crisis, when California experienced blackouts and electricity prices spiked abruptly. That year, the U.S. Green Building Council launched a program to accredit building professionals in smart environmental design. Interest in the program, known as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), has skyrocketed. Since 2000, about 19,000 designers have been accredited, and the number is increasing rapidly.

“About 4 percent of new commercial construction is now completed under LEED guidelines,” said Taryn Holowka, a spokeswoman for the Green Building Council.

State governments now are mandating LEED specifications for public buildings nationwide. New materials and technology are being used in a wave of buildings designed to save as much energy as possible. They range from old ideas, like “green roofs,” where a layer of plants on a rooftop helps the building retain heat in winter and stay cool in summer, and new ideas, such as special coatings for windows that let light in but keep heat out.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s headquarters in Annapolis, Md., is one of the nation’s smartest green buildings. The facility features flushless toilets, little lights at the ends of the building that signal when it is OK to open the windows and cisterns that collect rainwater. The building has won national recognition for its pioneering smart conservation efforts and has drawn visitors from around the world looking for ideas they can take home to construct.

At the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, sunlight-measuring sensors control the lights. The lights dim immediately when it is sunny and brighten when a passing cloud blocks the sun. The air conditioner shuts off when a window is open at a new middle school in Washington, D.C. A wall of windows at a University of Pennsylvania engineering building has built-in blinds adjusted by a computer program that tracks the sun’s path. Sensors that measure the carbon dioxide exhaled by people in a room determine whether the air conditioning needs to be turned up.

“More potential energy-smart products have been invented in the last 15 years than in the entire prior history of architecture,” said Stephen Kieran, a partner at Kieran Timberlake, an architectural firm in Philadelphia. “We’re only beginning to tap the potential of those materials.”

The elevators at Seven World Trade Center, which is under construction in New York, use a dispatch system that groups people traveling to nearby floors into the same elevator, thereby saving stops and trips. People who work in the building swipe ID cards that will tell the elevators their floor, and readouts will tell them which elevator to use. The building also has windows with a coating that blocks heat while letting in light.

Carlton Brown, chief operating officer of building developer, Full Spectrum, reports finishing a smart, green 128-unit condo project in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood that took more than five years to get off the ground.

“We were talking about a green building and a smart building and people were not really interested at the start,” he said.

The finished facility includes wireless broadband in every unit and washing machines that can be reserved through the Internet. Interest in smart, energy-efficient buildings is growing, especially among those who manage large facilities, such as airports and buildings that traditionally use lots of energy, such as laboratories.

More sophisticated building materials are in development. Kieran’s firm is working on “smart wrap” that uses tiny solar collectors to trap the sun’s energy and transmitters the width of a human hair to move it.

“The materials in smart wrap are either commercially available or they’ve been developed in corporate or university research labs,” said Kieran. “They’re poised to change the face of the construction industry in the next decade or so.”

Building automation controls

The ultimate goal for smart buildings includes a central control system that permits all this diversity to be integrated and managed from a command and control center like a military operation. Start by considering that the term “building automation” is a catch-all for a sprawling category of control and communications technologies that link building systems that are typically controlled separately, like electrical distribution, fire, security, heating and air conditioning, and elevator and escalator systems.

To be effective, any automation system must enable all these mechanical and electrical systems to work from a single building control point. That is a tall order because those systems—and the digital controllers that run them—are made by scores of manufacturers, use proprietary hardware and communications protocols, and may even be administered through special workstations that are almost impossible to integrate into a single control setup.

Comparisons of the two leading systems competing for this role were described by Deborah Snoonian for the IEEE Spectrum cover story (Aug 5, 2005). BACnet and LonWorks take different approaches to integrating these diverse systems. BACnet, developed in the mid-1990s by the Society for Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), is a communications-only standard developed for a building’s mechanical and electrical systems. Companies that manufacture such systems are now beginning to make devices that “speak” BACnet rather than proprietary control languages.

BACnet is compatible with a variety of networking communications standards, including Ethernet, ARCnet and LonTalk. Almost anything that runs behind the walls of a building—twisted-pair copper, coaxial cable, fiber optics—can accommodate BACnet systems, an advantage over proprietary control systems that typically work with only one kind of cabling.

LonWorks, on the other hand, combines a communications standard, LonTalk, with a proprietary piece of hardware, the Neuron Chip from Echelon Corp. In the LonWorks network, the Neuron Chip is the basic interface between each device being controlled and the central control system software. The chip sends and receives data over a wired connection (or any other medium, including RF, infrared, fiber optics and coaxial), as well as to and from a Web server, the i.LON 100, which straddles the building’s LonTalk network and the Internet. For example, a lighting fixture might have a twisted-pair wire connected to a lighting controller, which would contain a Neuron Chip, and a twisted-pair transceiver, which may control several fixtures.

New contracting strategies

Many smart buildings are obtained through design-build contracting methods instead of the traditional design-bid-build-sue approach. As such, the proposal team is organized from experience working together on previous projects. If you are not preselected, it is highly likely you won’t see such projects until they are coming out of the ground. Another challenge for electrical contractors could emerge from adoption of the new CSI MasterFormat 2004 for all building documentation.

By splitting out low-voltage systems into three new categories separated from traditional electrical power work, it will be easier for general contractors to allocate subcontracts to specialty contractors, leaving overall project coordination in limbo. Specification of integrated smart buildings systems could be assigned to a new category of automation controls.

So, it seems that having a business strategy for this new world will include a marketing plan for getting your company on the building team early in the proposal phase of a project, even before design. If you are not personally acquainted with the design-build prime contractors in your area who specialize in smart buildings, perhaps this is the time to begin. Associations representing contractors also might consider positioning their members for this emerging world of smart green buildings.

The world’s production of oil is expected by some leading geologists to peak between 2005 and 2010. People have used up about half of all the oil it took earth 100 million years to create. Demands for fossil fuels by rapidly developing economies will make it more expensive for U.S. consumers to get their share. Smart buildings could help meet this challenge. Now is the time to find out where your customers are headed and run around and get in front of them. EC

TAGLIAFERRE is proprietor of C-E-C Group. He may be reached at 703.321.9268 or lewtag@aol.com.