Making commercial buildings greener, environmentally friendly

Company focuses on making old buildings more energy-efficient


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The building that you work in may contribute more greenhouse gas emissions than the car you drive to work each day.

In fact, the buildings in which we live, work, worship and play generate 40 percent of the carbon emissions in the earth's atmosphere, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Charles A. Bacon III wants to change that.

Mr. Bacon is the chairman and CEO of Strip District mechanical contracting firm Limbach Inc. Earlier this year, the company formed a new division, Limbach Energy Solutions, to focus on "retro-commissioning" services: providing commercial building owners with ways to make their buildings more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.

Retro-commissioning has been an emerging national trend for the past five or six years, said Jeff Burd, publisher of Breaking Ground, a construction trade journal.

Comparing its growth to frothy ocean waves viewed at a distance, he said, "To the extent that this is going to become a 30-foot wave and you're standing on the beach. … I think inside of five years you'll be looking up and saying, 'Oh heck -- I wish the house wasn't in the way.'"

For Limbach, helping clients to ride that wave rather than be crushed by it begins with a preliminary engineering review of a building and suggestions to the owner of what could be done to make it more energy efficient. This audit examines the building's heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, lighting, windows, roofing, etc.

"If they like what they hear, we then proceed to full engineering," he said.

Once upgrades have been completed, Limbach continues to monitor the building's performance through an Internet-based system. "We have software installed so that we can watch every fan, every light, every switch in that building," Mr. Bacon said.

The emphasis on helping its clients to "go green" is just the latest shift for a company that has seen its share of change in recent decades.

Founded in 1901 as a roofing and sheet metal company by Frank Limbach, the company remained a family concern until 1986, when it was bought by the French media conglomerate Vivendi. Twelve years later, Vivendi sold Limbach to Enron, the energy giant that imploded in 2001. In 2002, a group of 47 company executives joined with private investors to buy Limbach back from Enron. The company hired Mr. Bacon in 2004.

Mr. Bacon was inspired to take Limbach in a new direction by a movie and a book. The movie was "An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary that placed former Vice President Al Gore at the forefront of the environmental movement. The book, a gift from Mr. Bacon's son, was "Business Stripped Bare," by serial entrepreneur Richard Branson.

"The last third of the book was all about green," he said, and led him to understand that "if it's right for people, it's right for business."

Limbach's experience so far bears that out; since January, the company has secured $21 million of energy retrofit projects and is pursuing nearly $90 million more in such work, Mr. Bacon said.

While retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency has recently emerged on the national stage, Mr. Burd said that in our region, increasing energy efficiency in office buildings goes back to the 1980s. As Renaissance Two moved into high gear, dramatically increasing Downtown office space with new buildings such as One Oxford Center and the PPG complex, owners of older buildings had to upgrade them in order to remain competitive.

"Windows were replaced, insulation was replaced," he said. "They had to be more energy efficient."

Even as market pressures drove building owners to upgrade, the state, through the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority, made millions of dollars available in low-interest loans, further spurring improvements.

Now the federal government has become a force in retro-commissioning. The Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package enacted in February, created the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program, allocating $3.2 billion to local governments to fund energy efficiency initiatives, including retro-commissioning.

The package also included $4.5 billion specifically for converting government buildings into "high-performance green buildings." And last month, President Obama signed an executive order setting sustainability goals for federal agencies, which occupy nearly half a million buildings across the country.

One of the goals is that by 2030 federal buildings will have net zero energy use; in other words, that they will generate as much energy as they use.

That makes for a tall order for Chicago-based commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, which has the Government Services Agency as a client.

"Not in every situation are you able to go out and get a platinum level [LEED certified] building," said Herman Bulls, CEO of public institutions for Jones Lang LaSalle. "When you have 2,500 square feet in Duluth, Minn., there may not be a lot of options."

Even as Jones Lang LaSalle seeks to meet the federal mandate, an increasing number of private owners of the 1.4 billion square feet of office space that the company manages are inquiring about the costs and benefits of going green.

"A lot of our customers are asking us what are the things they can do and what is the payback period," he said.

On the tenant side, many clients now express a preference for green buildings, asking about LEED ratings (most buildings have none), what types of recycled materials are used throughout the building, and how much water the decorative plantings need.

A Jones Lang LaSalle client is now engaged is what may be the most remarkable example of retro-comissioning to date. The Empire State Building Co. is renovating its landmark structure to achieve an estimated 38 percent reduction in energy use, thus saving $4.4 million a year on energy costs. The $20 million renovation is slated for completion in 2013.

Not all owners can afford such extensive retro-commissioning. But Mr. Bulls said it should become more affordable.

"As you get more and more demand for the components of the building that are contributing to the sustainability effort," he said, "there will be, obviously over time, a better pricing on those components."

And over a longer time, he said, the need for retro-commissioning will diminish as green building becomes the norm. In 30 years or so, he predicted, someone who attempts to use nongreen materials in a building, old or new, will evoke astonishment: "Omigosh, I can't believe you're using that!"

Meanwhile, back at Limbach, Mr. Bacon speaks excitedly about the economic impact of the retro-commissioning projects that his company is pursuing. Limbach has hired about 30 people for the work so far; if all of the projects being pursued come to pass, the company may need to hire about 500 people. And beyond that, "another few thousand jobs are created to supply everything that's needed to do all of those retrofits," he said.

"It's a smart thing for people," he said. "It's a smart thing for business."


Elwin Green can be reached at egreen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969. Editor's note: The Business Forum column and Letters to the Business Editor now appear on the Saturday Business page.


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