by Al Fullerton
The way buildings are used—and the needs within interior spaces—are continuously changing. Revitalization efforts turn abandoned warehouses into residential and commercial hot spots. Workplace trends transform an old conference room into a collaborative space or wellness lounge. Whether the changes are driven by corporate growth, new technology, or shifting needs, building spaces must adjust. This is true for both existing and new construction.
So how do design/construction professionals know what equipment and systems will meet the needs of their next building projects? The answer is influenced by many factors—from upfront costs and ease of installation to integration with existing systems and flexibility for the future.
Key questions driving next steps
In planning one’s next building project, it is important to consider a few key questions:
- What is the budget?
- How will the building be used and what are the operating hours?
- What is the building size?
- What are the energy and operational goals?
- Will the building be managed with onsite facility staff?
- How will results be measured?
The answers help professionals zero in on the right solutions and technologies to meet specific needs. A 4645-m2 (50,000-sf) building that is constantly occupied has very different needs than a 929-m2 (10,000-sf) building running on a nine-to-five schedule.
In choosing between the many HVAC system options, one should consider three factors to ensure the chosen system best meets project-specific needs.
Upfront costs versus long-term savings
Energy efficiency is a priority driving building design in many commercial spaces. Building owners and managers want solutions that improve efficiency, reduce costs, and promote more sustainable building operation. Finding solutions that meet those needs results in more satisfied clients.
It is important to keep in mind the most energy-efficient solution for a building may not be the option with the lowest upfront cost, just as the system with the lowest upfront cost may not be the most cost-effective long-term solution. There are tradeoffs to consider when weighing these issues. For example, are upfront cost savings so important the building owner or manager would sacrifice long-term energy savings?
The right HVAC system is often determined by the size and usage of the building. Owners and operators of smaller commercial buildings may not have onsite facility staff, so they typically want a system that is easy to install, operate, and maintain. Given these preferences, a unitary HVAC system is often a good choice for small commercial buildings.
With larger commercial buildings, there are more options to consider. Variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems can provide affordable installation and energy efficiency over the life of the system. A chilled water system is another option in larger commercial buildings. These systems deliver high energy efficiency, but water-cooled chillers require ongoing water treatment and cooling tower maintenance.
Thermal energy storage can provide significant long-term cost savings by shifting a building’s energy use to off-peak hours when utility rates are lower. However, these systems are typically suited to larger buildings because of the upfront cost and space requirements for installation.
While the project budget and priorities of the building owner are important, one should also consider the return on investment (ROI), looking beyond upfront costs and to see long-term savings potential.