The Nature of High Performing Buildings

There’s no one definition or single certification for high performance buildings. The greater the owner’s wishes, the more ambitious the construction. Working on such projects can be daunting, but they can leave an electrical contractor (EC) more knowledgable about building science, team collaboration and project execution.

The Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005 defines the attributes of a high performing building as energy efficiency, durability, life-cycle performance and occupant productivity. Since then, the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) has developed consensus-based voluntary standards for more energy-efficient and less resource-intensive high performance buildings. NIBS uses whole-building design as its guidance tool. It provides eight specific design objectives: accessibility, aesthetics, cost-effective planning, durable and efficient systems, effective historic retrofits, attention to occupant health and productivity, safety and security, and sustainability.

“For the EC, there are so many interaction points with fellow contractors when advancing building performance,” said Ryan M. Colker, director of the Consultative Council/presidential advisor, NIBS. “The engaged electrical contractor can help advance building performance in many key areas.”

Just ask Hanlon Electric Co., Monroeville, Pa. Its work on the 24,350-square-foot Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh helped that building reach its lofty performance goals, earning multiple Platinum status from the Living Building Challenge, LEED and the new WELL program, which is focused on occupant health. The project also received the first and only 4-Star Sustainable SITES designation, another new certification program that targets sustainable landscapes.

According to NIBS, the CSL operates at 18.5 kBtu per square foot per year, much less than traditionally designed office spaces. Photovoltaic arrays and, to a lesser degree, a demonstrative vertical-axis wind turbine, provide its energy. Together, they are capable of producing up to 133,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year. Surplus power is directed to the other campus facilities and can be fed back to the local utility’s grid. In fact, the CSL and the entire campus have been operating at net-plus for three years, generating more power than it uses.

The collaborative nature of high performance

Hanlon Electric came to the CSL design process early. Integrated design is a required feature of a high performance building. The firm has a 30-year history of doing work for Phipps, including a welcome center, botanical greenhouse buildings and more.

“As a project manager, it was helpful looking at the project and seeing several ways it could be done cost-effectively and better through value engineering and functional design,” said Terrence E. Hanlon, vice president of large projects for Hanlon Electric Co. “The intricacies of this project required weekly job meetings with the other subcontractors, even when the design team wasn’t available. A lot of change orders and design changes were needed, so we had to keep up and be nimble.”

For Hanlon Electric Co., having the ear of design team members such as the owner, the general contractor, architect and others, was essential.

“I was often approached by the owner’s rep whom I’ve shared a long history of project management,” Hanlon said. “This project had a push and pull between those wanting to save money wherever possible and big thinkers who saw the CSL as part of a Phipps ‘lab’ showing what can be accomplished in energy and water conversation.”

One of Hanlon’s ideas became an important contribution to building resiliency.

“The CSL started as a normal-power-only project with no standby or life safety power in the event of power failure,” he said. “One of my concerns was the need to keep the various water pumps going if power went out. I convinced the design team to add both safety and standby power.”

Preplanning to meet stringent compliance

ECs need to understand what they are getting into with a high performance building project. The rigors to meet project goals take patience. A project that pursues multiple green certifications requires keeping an eye on earning points from different programs. Some complement each other, and others are less clear. The Living Building Challenge was especially imposing.

“The challenge starts you at net zero,” Hanlon said. “It was a lesson in staying in front of the job rather than having it run you. You learned to anticipate building needs to meet rigorous requirements. Earning Platinum levels of both the Living Building Challenge and LEED was not a goal for the owner; it was an expectation. The challenge’s materials requirements were a particular hurdle. I’d often go back to submittals and have suppliers play detective with their supply chains to make sure every connector, every nut and bolt met environmental specifications. We had to be careful with chemicals. We couldn’t use PVC and had to turn to rigid galvanized steel conduit treated with an environmentally approved rust inhibitor.”

Hanlon's goal was to ensure all materials were approved before they got to the job site. The challenge’s specificity even extended to lighting components.

“If specified light fixtures contained Neoprene, we had to find alternatives,” he said. “Further, light manufacturers had to provide a letter that their fixtures did not have what are called ‘red list’ or prohibited items as laid out by the challenge. Doing our homework required several months of preplanning. Diligence was key.”

Where your services might lead you

For the Phipps CSL project, providing power to support high performance extended beyond lighting choices. Light-emitting diode fixtures led to occupancy sensors, dimming and other controls to add efficiency. Hanlon Electric found itself engaged in solar power and even power for water conversation efforts.

The EC employed smart wiring, so every lighting fixture was communicable for performance monitoring, easy fixture identification and troubleshooting. Rigorous daylighting was also applied. Exterior walls featured light shelves that directed and extended natural light as far as 80 percent into a space. 

As a result, controlled artificial lighting equated to minimal use during large portions of the day.

“We also ran power for programmable, automated window operation and shades to assist in reducing [heating, ventilating and air conditioning] cost,” Hanlon said.

A green roof also helps the CSL lower these costs.

“Phipps has its own microgrid,” Hanlon said. “We helped the solar contractor tap into the campus solar energy so it fed the CSL. Excess power was returned to other campus buildings who needed it or was paid backward onto Duquesne Light’s utility grid. Converting storm water to sanitary water is a central feature of the CSL. Wastewater is treated on-site through holding tanks and ponds that naturally break down contamination, making it usable gray water for things like toilet flushing and other nonpotable water use. Rain barrels are also used to collect water. These all require pumps and controls. That changed our scope for this project in a major way, as we had to find the most effective but efficient ways to provide power to the water pumps.”

Finding common measurement

In response to Section 914 of the EPAct, the High-Performance Building Council (HPBC) was formed in 2008. Its recent Building Owners Tool Kit (available at is a useful, common-language guide to high performance for contractors, building owners, energy managers and facility engineers.

“You can find examples of high performance properties for any building type, but I see the growth in office spaces,” said Patrick E. Hughes, senior director, government relations and strategic initiatives, National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA). “Tenants are starting increasingly looking for LEED-certified or Energy Star buildings. Conversely, owners can command higher rents, perhaps achieve higher occupancy rates and enjoy better retention. This is certainly true in the bigger metro areas. Owners also recognize the lower operating cost of high performance buildings. I think energy is toward the top of the list as a driver.”

According to Hughes, benchmarking ordinances can be one source of opportunities.

“Certainly, you can look at the market you are in and see what tenants are demanding,” he said. “You can also look at benchmarked building performance. To date, 15 cities, two states and one county have benchmarking ordinances. Discover the high performing buildings, and maybe more importantly, the poor performers.”

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ECs with safety or security systems expertise are well positioned to assist in this addressable feature for high building performance. Getting up to speed on the latest and greatest, including ground-fault circuit interrupters and other advances, will show a depth of interest and knowledge.

Through industry consensus, the council is developing performance metrics, high performance benchmarks, and standards and guidelines to verify such benchmarks. Colker said measurements for high performance are starting to emerge.

“There is now a benchmarking-style tool for building safety and security called The Integrated Rapid Visual Screening,” he said. “NIBS is working with the General Services Administration’s P100 facilities standards for public buildings shifting them to performance-based criteria when measuring building performance against current federal, national, state and local codes and standards. There is progress with water conservation measures as well.”

There are no short cuts with high performance building projects, but, according to Hanlon, “they are well worth it in what you’ll learn and gain as a contractor.”

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at

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