Building Siting & the Building Envelope – The Developers’ Curse

Five years ago the Silicon Valley chapter of IFMA created a special suppliant to the Business Journal called “An Inside Look at the Facilities Management Profession”. I recently found a copy of it in my office and an article titled, “Adding Value through Sustainable Practices” got my attention.

In the article I noted “that our building is not performing well – we are 71,000 SF on three floors, and the building was constructed in 2003”, only five years old at the time. I went on, “this was a spec building. It looks great on the outside but when it comes to energy costs there is a lot lacking – for example, the north and south parts of the building are designed the same.” So were the east and west: a square glass cube, with no regards for solar siting. I concluded by proclaiming that, “I am going to encourage people to think more about the design of future buildings – solar design is going to be quite important.” And five years later we continue to construct buildings in Silicon Valley the same old way without regards to the Building Siting or the make-up of the Building EnvelopeThe Developers’ Curse to the Facilities Manager.

Attention to Building Siting and the Building Envelope have been of interest to me for a long time, but like many people, I became complacent in the 1980s and 1990s with the return of cheap and abundant oil. I studied Passive Solar Design in college and only became interested again five years ago after managing the horrible spec building that I described above. Since then, I have joined Passive House (, completed a LEED-credited “Green Building” class earned my BPI certification as an Energy Auditor ( and my SFP (Sustainable Facility Professional) last year. Thinking about the building siting and its envelope comes naturally to me now and I’m surprised that it doesn’t for more facility managers.

Why is the Building Envelope Important?

Beyond its core function to keep the outside environment (rain, critters, etc.) from entering the facility in a way that would be detrimental to the facility, the Building Envelope is also the main means to minimize extreme hot and cold outside temperatures from effecting the interior temperatures of the facility.

The top three components to designing a facility with a good Building Envelope are:

  • Siting – how is the facility oriented on the site? Ideally, buildings should be oriented east-west with the long facades facing north and south. Western-facing windows should be minimal and northern ones designed to capture indirect natural light. One should also factor in the site’s slope, climate, prevalent seasonal wind directions and natural vegetation as well as adjacent land use and structures.
  • Solar Radiation Mitigation – generally, direct solar exposure to facilities in our climate should be minimized to avoid heat-gain even in the winter. South facing windows are good, but in our climate we need to worry more about too much direct solar radiation rather than collecting it for additional building heat-gain as one would in a colder climate. Reflective roofs or green roofs with vegetation a are great ways to minimize exposure of solar radiation from the roof.
  • Materials
    • Companies like Serious Energy have developed products that help make up for the minimally required building materials (such as single-pane windows) that developers will approve without regards to thermal barriers
    • Awnings are a great, simple way to block unwanted solar radiation for south-facing windows and doors. So are porches, but we don’t seem to be designing very many commercial buildings these days with them despite a legacy of porches in early California architecture, ideally suited for our climate
    • Window Films – a minimally costly way to decrease the U-Value of windows
    • Insulation – more is generally better, but check the material content of the insulation material to avoid hazardous and high imbedded energy materials
    • While not a material, all the triple-paned windows and insulation won’t do you much good if you have a leaky building. A single air gap in the Building Envelope can make the rest of the Building Envelope materials underperform and create an expensive and uncomfortable workplace.

With all these ways to make the workplace more comfortable and save energy costs why do decisions about the Building Envelope continue to be made so carelessly? It usually comes down to up-front costs and the FM willing to accept whatever an inferior product that the developer knows they can likely get away with. When you look beyond the First Costs or Rent, you will likely save a significant amount of money if Building Siting and the Building Envelope are seriously considered during the building’s design.

First Costs vs. OPEX

Many decisions about the Building Envelope are made on First Cost basis only without regard to what it will cost to operate the facility or life-cycle costing. This is especially true with facilities built by developers on-spec, where the Building Envelope decision makers, the developers, will never occupy the facility; they never pay for many of the operating expenses (OPEX), such as heating and cooling costs. When the facility is un-leased, the developer / owner simply shuts off the utilities; when it is leased and occupied, the tenant / occupant pays the utilities, either directly to the utility companies or via the landlord as a pass-thru expense. Either way, the developer wins and the occupants (including the facility manager) are cursed.

Rent vs. OPEX

Too often real estate brokers and their clients only focus on the rental rate when evaluating facilities rather than considering all the costs of occupancy. Utility costs, especially electricity, which generally makes up over 50% of a facility’s utility cost and can approach the monthly rental amount in a poorly designed and constructed facility. A well-sited facility with a well-performing building envelope can result in additional benefits beyond greatly reducing utility and operating costs, including:

  • Environmental Benefits
    • According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 45% of U.S. electricity is generated from coal with another 23% from burning natural gas, both contributing increases of CO2 and other global warming gases. With over one-third of a typical facility’s electricity used for HVAC, considering the facility’s site and building envelope in the design can greatly reduce carbon emissions generated directly or indirectly by commercial facilities.
    • Social Benefits to your organization
      • Every experienced facility manager knows that the top work request is: Too Hot / Too Cold. Considering the Building Site during design and improving the Building Envelope can greatly increase the comfort for building occupants, which can only help improve your organization’s performance.

So now that you know the importance of Building Siting and the Building Envelope, here are some things that you can do next.

  1. Spread the word.
    1. Talk to your brokers and designers if you are searching for new space or developing a new building. Ask them what is being done to improve the energy efficiency via Building Siting and the Building Envelope if you are working or seeking new space. For existing buildings that you are considering leasing, ask your broker to provide you with data that shows how energy efficient the building is or what the landlord can do to improve its performance. Some items, from landscaping changes to awnings to new windows are a minimal investment by a landlord compared to the future rent of a prospective tenant
    2. Talk to your manager and business unit leaders about the advantages – savings, occupant comfort & environmental – of investing in Building Site and Envelope improvements if a landlord won’t pay for them.
    3. Talk to your employees and building occupants. If you are considering improving a space that you currently occupy, then find out how satisfied they are with the cost and comfort of the space. Your EH&S and Human Resource departments should be able to assist.
    4. Benchmark your facility. Even if you obtained a good Energy Star rating a few years ago, update it. If you haven’t done this yet, get started as this may be a requirement for all commercial buildings soon and why wouldn’t you want to know?
    5. If you have recent energy usage benchmarking data, but haven’t done much lately to improve your building’s performance, then pursue a professional energy audit. There are many good companies in our area that can do this for you (several are chapter members).
    6. Contact me if you want to learn more or share your experience with making Building Site changes or Building Envelope improvements. I’d love to hear from you.