Looking Back to Look Ahead

Future proofing is inherent in perhaps every building design. Nobody wants to be responsible for a design that will soon be dated, especially given that the useful life for a building is 30, 40, even 50 years. Every day we hear about and await the next best product—the product that will save us energy, save us labor. Smart buildings, automatic lighting control, indirect and direct lighting, high-efficiency lighting—new options are constantly coming out. But are these the products to go with? Are there more new ideas we should hold out for? What if we apply this new technology and it quickly becomes dated?While sometimes it’s worth taking the risk, it may also be worthwhile looking backwards to prepare for the future. Early in my career, I designed new lighting for an existing 1 million-square-foot federal building in Washington, D.C. This historic building featured approximately 1,000 individual offices, all with their own exterior window for daylighting. Originally designed and built in the 1930s, the building had suffered an “upgrade” in the late 1960s in which all of the original office lighting was replaced. Original incandescent, pendant-mounted fixtures with a glass dome for nice, filtered direct lighting and an open top for indirect light were replaced with cool-white fluorescent monsters.When we took on the project, we decided to look to the past and return to the original concept. The final design featured a 12-foot pendant-mounted T8 fluorescent indirect/direct fixture with excellent photometrics. The project is still a success.Thus, what we thought was new–indirect/direct–turned out to be an old idea. We “future proofed” the building by looking to the past.To use lighting as an example of a general trend, scientists and engineers succeed in producing more and more lighting out of fewer and fewer watts. I work in an office where the lighting density is less than 0.7 watts per square foot–the result of good design and effective application of compact fluorescent, T5 lamp technology and LED task lighting. This beats ASHRAE 90.1 building energy goals by a mile. Intuitively, we are future proofing lighting, making use of more and better lighting products. If lighting uses fewer watts, we can always add more in the future.But how about power? As computers use less and less power, we want to cram more into the same space. How do we future proof against this trend? This is a more vexing question. For offices, assuming that the number of employees stays the same, the trend will be for lower power utilization.Perhaps the discussion is more about how technology is helping us to inherently future proof a building by the simple fact that we are extracting more lighting and computing power from the same wattage used in the past. We were designing offices to a nominal 15 watts of power usage per square foot 20 years ago, and that remains a good thumbnail measure of a building today.Daren Shumate, PE, is a vice president & head of the MEP Engineering studio in the Washington, D.C., office of architecture and engineering firm RTKL.