Why Your Building is like a Sports Car

by ‐ Tags: property management

Swap in a new exhaust system to improve performance and fuel economy in your car, take out an old oil boiler and replace it with high efficiency one to reduce fuel demand in your building.

Plug in a performance chip to boost performance on your tuner car, install a building management system to maximize control over your mechanical equipment.

There's a tight parallel between high performance automobiles and high performance buildings.  The term "high performance building", in fact (or legend, depending on who you talk to), was originally coined to draw comparisons between new, resource efficient buildings and the familiar image of a powerful, beautiful sports car.  

They do great things with the resources they are given

While nobody’s going to say that sports cars have the greatest gas mileage out there, MPG’s are only one way to measure the output of a machine. The speed, acceleration, and power that a performance car is able to wring out of a tank of gas is a marvel. In terms of driving bliss/gallon, these machines offer up a top-notch experience.

If quality of experience is our metric, then a performance building delivers just like the car. Using less energy and water than standard buildings, high-performance buildings deliver greater interior comfort. In some cases, the most luxurious buildings in the world are also some of the most efficient.

Thinking about both cars and buildings in terms of a system with inputs and outputs can help frame discussions of building and fuel efficiency. How comfortable can we make the building with as little energy and water as possible? How can we increase the experiential joy of staying in this building, while maintaining the same inputs. Just like squeezing a few extra ft lbs of torque out of an engine, building owners can often find ways to increase performance and efficiency.

They are a Tuner’s Dream

We’re all familiar with the image of a gear head hard at work in her garage, tightening and tweaking and squeezing every drop of performance out of her ride. We could paint a similar picture of the building manager pouring over data from her building management system, adjusting dampers and setpoints to get just the right balance of comfort and efficiency.

While a building’s physical characteristics and mechanical systems are vital to determining how efficiently, economically or comfortably it runs, so are operational factors like occupancy, equipment run-time, and demand-response. Layering these concerns together creates a remarkably complex system that takes a skilled engineer (and some smart software) to optimize. 

The comparison is perhaps most apt when looking at performance tuning chips that use a car's computer controls to optimize fuel economy, performance, and handling. Similarly, building management systems give a remarkable amount of control to the building manager. From adjusting setpoints, to scheduling equipment, to opening and closing dampers, nearly every aspect of a building can be controlled with enough tech.  

From a more analogue side, that same gearhead/building manager can customize their car/building to their heart's content. Swapping out windows, putting on new tires, upgrading fuel injectors, installing faucet aerators. Both buildings and cars are full of little bits of gear and equipment to be fiddled with tweaked, and optimized.

Their Value Can Increase with Care and Maintenance 

I grew up with a nice red Alpha Romeo sitting in the back…on bricks. What had once been my dad's sweet ride was known to me and my siblings as a rusty pile of spiders and sharp edges. My father had better things to tend to than care of the old machine, and when the time came, he just gave it to someone who wanted a project car.

Obviously, return on investment was not foremost of my father’s priorities here, but to another owner, that car could have stayed well maintained for decades. High resale values for classic cars speak to the power of diligent maintenance in extending the life of a car, and even increase its value over time. 

With buildings, maintenance is every bit as important as it is to a car, and when you’re looking at high-performance buildings, that is only more true. Investing in a building has an advantage over cars, where many buildings have room to improve on the original design. In addition to keeping things performing as well as they did on day one, building owners can improve the performance of their buildings over time, and in doing so improve the value of the asset. The susbtantial evidence on the effects of energy and water efficiency retrofits on operational cash flow in buildings shows us the potential to breath new life into old buildings. 

Ok, so the analogy isn't perfect, but then again, they never are.  

When we think about mechanical systems, it’s important to keep in mind that the principles that apply to one can often be applied to others. You wouldn’t let your car go too long without an oil change, and you shouldn’t let your building go too long without routine maintenance walkthroughs and periodic recommissioning. On the other side, it's not all about prevention, as it's possible to improve on factory specs or initial building characteristics.

Buildings are complex and highly engineered systems, and in many ways they are machines, just like the project car that you might have sitting in your garage. While the comparison between cars and buildings is most visible at the high-performance and luxury tiers, we could just as aptly compare a historic renovation to a hotrod restoration, or a nice condo development to the family minivan. The next time you’re getting bored with energy audits, tenant maintenance requests, and the daily business of operating a building, picture yourself in the garage, turning wrenches and tweaking your ride.

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