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Architects catching up with energy crunch

Anyone who works in a modern building where the windows are sealed tight and air conditioning is a necessity even on the coolest summer day may sometimes wonder if the nation's architects were napping when the energy crisis hit.

Most architects bristle at that suggestion, insisting that they were alert from the very beginning. But some professionals concede that the architects' design response to the energy crunch has not been nearly as swift or as widespread as it might have been.

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The problem, says American Institute of Architects (AIA) vice- president David Meeker, is that few people were aware until very recently of just how much energy buildings actually consume. Latest statistics have it that buildings of every variety guzzle a full 38 percent of all energy used in the United States.

Secondly, Mr. Meeker says, much of the early response from architects was mechanical and "defensive" -- responding to calls to cut costs by reducing lighting and altering air conditioning and heating systems in existing buildings. In that early stage much of the energy-saving job was viewed as an engineering rather than an architectural chore.

"Energy has long been perceived as a kind of engineering problem, and traditionally the architect turns to engineers to resolve it," notes Jean Boulin , an architect with the buildings division of the US Department of Energy (DOE). "The architect didn't realize that some of the things he was doing for other reasons in his designs also had a major impact on energy use."

But in the last year or two in particular many architects have discovered that they could do a great deal more themselves to save energy by more careful planning. Many now are working extra hard to make up for lost time with more streamlined plans which are individually tailored to the advantages and disadvantages of a particular site.

Energy conservation dominated discussions at AIA's annual convention last month in Cincinnati and will be the organization's chief working theme for the coming year.

Also spurring the architects on is increased competition within the profession, more specific requests from clients, and a set of proposed federal energy performance standards that are highly controversial.

The standards would save about 45 percent of the energy that the average building now uses. AIA and conservationists back the standards. Home builders, utility officials, and engineers tend to oppose them as too complex and costly. Congress is expected to delay their implementation for a year or more, and DOE will revise them.

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The difficulty for architects in coming to grips with the energy problem has been one of settling on the techniques which do the conservation job best. Stressing that the profession is still in the process of developing a knowledge base, Mr. Meeker says that many architects consider energy the greatest professional and social challenge since the cathedral-building period in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Some of the simplest and most logical architectural improvements, involving no special gadgetry or technology, have proved among the most effective energy-savers. Architects are finding, for instance, that making more use of natural light, heat, and breezes and strategic placement of windows to make the most of the sun's varying angles can make very large dents in the energy used by commercial buildings.

"you're really searching for good ideas and how to use them, rather than more hardware or equipment," notes James Binkley, head of DOE's codes and standards division.

Many architects have had to learn by doing. In the mid-1970s when there was no known "science" of energy conservation for buildings, according to Mr. Meeker , architects experimented with the retrofitting of AIA headquarters in Washington. By using a filtering device on the windows, reducing the size and intensity of the electrical system, and changing the cycles of the heating and cooling systems, architects are well along toward the target of saving 40 percent of the energy used by the building in 1977.

Next steps include a rescheduling to an early morning shift for the cleaning staff, so that less air conditioning and artificial light will be needed, and a cutback in the number of hours the building's garage door is left open.

"We learned on our own building," Mr. Meeker says. "And many of the things that were done are so common-sense that they almost defy your understanding of why we didn't know about them before. . . . Energy efficiency is not how many solar panels you put on your roof."

Is it possible for the average person to spot an energy-efficient building just by looking? No, the experts say, except for a few high-technology developments in a limited number of buildings. For one thing, 80 percent of the buildings now standing are expected to stay in use through the turn of the century. Many, like the AIA headquarters, will be retrofitted, but few passersby will notice the change.

Those who look hard at the newer buildings will notice fewer windows, more strategically placed and both glazed and insulated. In hot climates they may notice more overt protection for windows, such as shutters and walls that close in one season and open in another.

The real impact will probably be in a more regional form of architecture -- buildings designed to be in tune with their natural environment.

In many ways federal buildings have been leading the way in energy experimentation. The federal office complexes in Saginaw, Mich., and Manchester , N.H., are cited as key examples. One of the most interesting new experiments is the federal courthouse and office building in Topeka, Kan. Interior heat is reused so the building's occupants can be kept comfortable with a smaller heating and cooling system. Carefully placed, recessed windows on the south side get light but not the heat from the high summer sun, yet capitalize on the heat from the low winter sun.

Terming it "a pleasant building with no fancy hardware," Mr. Binkley says it saves about 30 percent more energy than asked by DOE's proposed federal building performance standards.

While homes are more often designed by developers and builders than architects, they too reflect the impact of the ongoing energy changes. Binkley says that these residential changes tend to be more in construction practices (such as adding insulation in ceilings and walls and insulating windows by using double and triple panes) than in design.

As AIA's Meeker sees it, the next 10 or 15 years are crucial. If the nation's architects do not rise to the energy challenge before them, he says, they, like US automakers who have seen imports grab a rising share of their market, could find that foreign architects are in some cases being imported to do the job.

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