BY: JEN LEVISEN, EDITOR AT THE FORUM
January 28, 2021
The world needs healthy buildings, healthy products, healthy people. Sustainability has been a hot topic of conversation in the commercial construction and design industry for more than a decade now. And even more so now that the link between environmental sustainability and occupant health has been recognized. I wanted to know how the need and push for healthier spaces has impacted the commercial industry, so I reached out to Kelly Artz, PE, LEED AP BD+C WELL AP, Partner, Electrical Engineer and Director of Sustainability at Emanuelson-Podas, an engineering and consulting firm in Minneapolis, to see how their firm has been impacted and what they're doing about it.
JEN: Kelly, thanks so much for talking with me today. The topic of sustainability and more so healthy spaces has been at the forefront of so many conversations lately across the industry, especially in light of COVID-19 and its implications on our built environment. I appreciate the opportunity to get your insight into the conversation and the work being done.
KELLY: Happy to join you.
JEN: First, I’d love to start with a little background on EP. Can you share the Emanuelson-Podas story?
KELLY: Our story really revolves around the design of amazing spaces. That’s our goal on a day to day basis: to create amazing spaces. Obviously we can’t do it alone — we work closely with our architectural and construction partners — but we think engineers are a crucial piece of the puzzle.
As mechanical and electrical engineers, our jobs are to get air, power, light and water to the places that matter in a building. All the cool stuff behind the walls, above the ceiling and under the floors? The systems that turn a shell into a living, breathing space? Those are our designs.
An amazing space doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful in the traditional sense. For us, an amazing space perfectly suits its purpose, does so efficiently and with the needs of its occupants at the center of its intent.
JEN: We know the push for sustainability has been increasing, even more so in the last decade, and the conversation around occupant health has only increased in light of COVID-19. Are you seeing that on your end?
KELLY: Absolutely. And the link between environmental sustainability and occupant wellness has been getting stronger and stronger, as well.
There was a time where there was an unfortunate disconnect between designing a building that was good for the health of our natural world — with systems that were energy conscious and better for our environment — and a building that was good for the health of its occupants. Building owners and operators are now realizing that the two are intertwined.
The biggest concern we’re hearing about centers around indoor air quality (IAQ). Obviously it’s connected to COVID-19 and other viruses, but it’s bigger than that. IAQ and other elements that impact occupant health and wellness — air, water, light, comfort and fitness, for example — are all becoming much more of a priority for companies in particular, primarily because they can all be connected directly to worker productivity. And those are all areas that we as engineers can impact most directly.
JEN: From a sustainability standpoint, how do you approach work/projects?
KELLY: As our Director of Sustainability, one of my jobs is to help foster a “sustainable thinking” ethic across the entirety of our firm. That means that one of the first things we do for any job is consider what the sustainability opportunities might be.
We spend a lot of time as a staff talking about what it means to be a consultant. It’s our belief that being a consultant doesn’t mean being an order-taker. Yes, there are times where, for example, we need to follow a strong architectural lead and respond to good direction. But being a good consultant means more than that. It means being a trusted advisor for our clients. It means bringing good ideas to the table. It means anticipating problems — for us and for other project partners — and then proactively working to avoid them.
This approach is hugely important from a sustainability standpoint. Some projects have sustainability options that haven’t been considered. Some owners would prefer to be more sustainable in their designs but assume they’re too expensive. Or too hard. Or just plain not worth the effort. It’s our job to let them know what’s possible, and gently nudge them in that direction if it makes sense.
We’re not perfect at this just yet, but we’re being intentional about it and moving in the right direction.
JEN: What has that meant for how you do business?
KELLY: It’s meant that we’ve had to train — and continue training — our engineers and designers that there are times where the most efficient MEP system might not be the best system. This is counterintuitive to many engineers where efficiency is the end goal.
Don’t get me wrong, we always want to chase efficiency as it has real impacts both on energy consumption — and thus, our environment — and on budgets. But what the WELL Building Standard and others have taught us is that there are times where it might — might! — make sense to consider alternative MEP systems to help achieve occupant health and wellness goals.
JEN: When an owner of a building says I want my building to be sustainable, what does that mean?
KELLY: It means we enter into a conversation. In the past, “sustainable” has meant environmental sustainability. Now it can mean a lot more.
Engineers aren’t renowned for their communication skills, but we’re really working on helping to lead conversations around sustainability, occupant wellness and even topics like resiliency. The fact is that we truly are experts in some of the areas that have the greatest impact on these spaces.
KELLY: Take EUI, for instance, that’s Energy Use Intensity. Without getting too technical, EUI is the energy consumption of a building for one year in kBTU, divided by the square footage of the building. Simply put, the greater the EUI number, the greater the energy consumption of the building. Now, there are a lot of other factors to consider … the location, the building’s size and configuration, the building’s intent. But regardless, this is an area we live in each and every day, and we’re ideally suited to lead the discussion around it.
JEN: Kelly, thank you so much for your time today!