An Interview with Peter Rumsey

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BetterBricks recently caught up with owner and managing principal of Rumsey Engineers, Peter Rumsey. Peter has worked in engineering and energy consulting since the mid 1980s, and is widely recognized as global player in energy efficiency and a leader in sustainable building design.

BetterBricks: What and/or who has inspired your career path and commitment to sustainable design?
Rumsey: In the late seventies, I was a student at UC Berkley and watched the nation go through this difficult energy crisis due to oil shocks from Arab oil embargos. I remember long lines at gas stations and the escalating national concern regarding energy. This problem really directed my attention to sustainable design and renewable energy. Concurrently, there was controversy surrounding the boom in construction of new power plants. Additionally, tax credits were starting to take off in California within the solar and wind energy industries.
All of these events set the stage for me to start thinking about sustainable design. It was clear that energy efficiency and renewable energy were key parts of the solution, both being cost effective and beneficial to the environment. And they're still part of the solution.
I was also greatly influenced by my mentor, Lee Eng Lock (1) from Singapore, who inspired me to focus on sustainable design. I met him when I was in Southeast Asia working on energy issues. On a more conceptual level, I have also been inspired by people like Amory Lovins.

BetterBricks: For a long time now you've explored the use of integrated design in regard to mechanical and electrical systems. How do you arrive at integrated solutions and how do you convince your clients of these strategies and coordinate with other team members, particularly architects?

Lewis & Clark State Office Building

Rumsey: Arriving at an integrated design solution can happen many different ways. In low-energy design, it takes a whole team to be fully onboard and the person that'sgoing to rally the team around a common understanding is the person who hired the design team in the first place. Integration happens from all of the team members working together. If we are not all on the same page about making sustainability a priority, then we're not all going to work together to achieve that goal.
Once everybody is on the same page, it becomes a question of what we can do within the budget while looking at affordable solutions for sustainability. As designers, we are very good at solving problems and coming up with solutions within these parameters. We spend a lot of time thinking about not just how to make buildings low-energy, but also how to make them affordable. As a result, we constantly look for strategies to achieve a low-energy building at comparable costs to a standard building. For instance, adding more insulation will not only save energy, but allow for a smaller heating and cooling system. Less money is spent on purchasing this equipment, which compensates for the added cost of insulation. We look for these synergies and interactions in order to keep sustainability affordable.

BetterBricks: I'm sure you are familiar with the AIA's 2030 Challenge. How would you characterize the best approach or strategies to get to net-zero carbon buildings?
The energy efficiency strategies will be, in almost every case, more affordable than a renewable strategy like a photovoltaic system. The tax incentives and rebates offered for photovoltaic systems are not that bad in terms of affordability and pay back, but the energy efficiency strategies are always cheaper. When we work on zero-energy buildings, we typically aim for 50 percent or lower energy use compared to the traditional building code required, which is already beating the current 2030 Challenge target. We build beyond the energy savings, which makes the photovoltaic systems smaller and more affordable.
It is fairly straightforward and easy when you are looking at a single or two-story building, but it gets trickier when we are dealing with multi-story buildings. We have to start thinking about putting photovoltaics on the façade, using open space over parking areas and supplementing photovoltaics a little bit more. We've even worked on seven-story, 700,000 square-foot office building outside of Paris that went beyond net-zero and to net-positive energy. There are examples of larger buildings going for this, but then this kind of effort begins to influence the shape, orientation and other design elements of the building.

BetterBricks: What have you learned from your experience applying Factor 10 2 concepts to buildings? Any advice for architects or engineers?
There are several steps. The first is to determine the building occupants' needs and requirements and how to reduce the load. We use simple Victorian engineering, as I like to call it, to come up with strategies that will lower energy use. It's a straightforward progression of steps of first lowering the load followed by making sure we are right-sizing and not over-sizing equipment.

Stop Waste Building

We then move on to maximizing the use of natural sources of heating and cooling, such as natural ventilation, passive solar, nighttime purge of buildings in the summer, etc. Next, we select energy efficient equipment that is much smaller and simpler. Last and not least, we apply controls carefully and judiciously, but not excessively.
Conceptually it is very straightforward. If you meticulously follow all of those steps and pay attention to the details, you will get stunning results.
Amory Lovins has talked about the concept of "tumbling through the cost barrier" for many years. Can we get even more savings at a lower cost than what we thought was possible? I like to apply this idea to existing building systems such as Variable Air Volume (VAV) systems that are typical in commercial office buildings. We can take the VAV system and improve it bit-by-bit and get it better or we could just change out the whole design and come up with a better heating and cooling system, which we've done in several buildings. If we start with a new system, we've found that we can indeed get this Factor-10 energy savings at a reasonable cost and often times comparable to the standard system.

Tahoe Center

In this approach, we are reinventing how we design buildings and are making tremendous changes in the way we view our buildings. In order to arrive at this reinvention, we have to pay very close attention to the details. What we are finding is that architects and engineers have to carefully collaborate from the start. For instance, the type of glazing an architect selects has a huge impact on my success in the project as an engineer. As a result, we're very interactive with architects, whereas in the past it's been much more of a relaxed thing. We could let the architects do what they please and we engineers could do what we want and sort of meet somewhere in the middle. It's not like that anymore, especially if we're trying to achieve this next generation of building.

BetterBricks: What do you see as future trends or new approaches with regards to energy in new construction projects? What about future business opportunities in the sustainable building market?

Rumsey: The trend in residential and commercial buildings is toward zero energy, which will be center stage over the next 10 years. Current legislation in California requires that the majority of new residential and commercial buildings are to be built in a zero energy fashion by 2030. As the price of energy continues to stay high and concerns of climate change continue to grow, we're going to be talking a lot about this issue. There is going to be a huge amount of time, effort and money spent on going back and retrofitting and renovating existing buildings. That is where the majority of energy needs to be saved because that is where the vast majority of energy is being consumed.

Department of Global Ecology

The biggest area for business opportunities are with companies that can renovate and improve existing residential and commercial buildings. These strategies are straightforward, make sense and don't necessarily require the invention of new equipment. Over the next 10 years, we'll see government and utility incentives making retrofits very attractive. What's more, renovating and retrofitting buildings is vastly cheaper than drilling new oil wells and building new power plants. It's one of the cheapest sources available in reducing carbon. We'll see a great deal of focus on retrofitting and renovating because it is so affordable and plays a vital role in restoring the environment. 

(1) Known globally for his singular contribution to cleanroom and energy efficient building design, Lee Eng Lock is director and founder of Supersymmetry Services, a Singapore-based engineering with projects in Asia and North America.

(2) Factor 10 refers to the possibility of creating products and services that have a massively lower resource intensity than the conventional alternative.

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