Home AEC McKinstry Proves Construction Industry Can Use Tech to Go Green

McKinstry Proves Construction Industry Can Use Tech to Go Green

Seattle, McKinstry, Bellingham, Lake Washington School District, Covington Water District, Catalyst Building, International Energy Conservation Code

By Meghan Hall

The construction and greater commercial real estate industry has a reputation of lagging behind other sectors when it comes to adopting and implementing new technologies. Seattle-based design, build, operate and maintain (DBOM) firm McKinstry is implementing new technologies throughout the planning process to create more sustainable buildings while saving their clients money. The Registry spoke with McKinstry’s Vice President of Energy and Technical Services Dale Silha for the Pacific Northwest to see how the company is staying ahead as environmental initiatives in the building industry are becoming increasingly common.

Can you tell me a little bit about your position at McKinstry and the company’s history as a construction and consulting company?

As Vice President of Energy and Technical Services for the Pacific Northwest, I direct McKinstry services focused on improving building energy and operational efficiency, improving building performance and implementing renewable resources for our clients in Washington State and Oregon. McKinstry was founded in 1960 as a plumbing and mechanical contractor. We’ve evolved over the years, growing into a national leader in designing, constructing, operating and maintaining high-performing buildings. From new construction and ongoing operations to adaptive reuse, energy retrofits and renewables, we now offer a single point of accountability for the life of your building.

What are McKinstry’s core beliefs? How do they determine how the company runs its day-to-day operations and interacts with its clients?

McKinstry is definitely a values-based company. We also have deep-seeded beliefs that shape the way we do business. Based on our experience, McKinstry believes that half of all energy consumed in the built environment and half of all construction costs are wasted due to inefficiency. That’s alarming considering the magnitude of our built environment. There are currently more than five million commercial buildings in the U.S., accounting for more than 82 billion square feet of space. That space consumes 49 percent of all U.S. energy and generates 47 percent of our carbon emissions.

You can’t look at those numbers and not push yourself to drive change. We take responsibility for our projects and work to develop, engineer and operate a more efficient and sustainable built environment based on that responsibility.

Does McKinstry operate within a specific market? If so, where?

McKinstry has offices and clients spread across the United States. Our clients tend to have sophisticated facilities and care about long-term planning, saving energy and driving out waste. That spans across many markets and building types, but we find that a bulk of our work lies with school districts, universities, municipalities, hospitals and private companies.

How does McKinstry’s approach to construction change with each sector?

There are nuances with every market sector, but our general approach doesn’t change. McKinstry focuses on the client above all else and starts each project with the end in mind. That means sitting down with our clients in the early planning stages and developing clear project criteria and outcomes, hashing out challenges and taking advantage of opportunities. From that point on, the entire McKinstry team’s goal is to minimize those challenges while maximizing the opportunities.

Performance contracting is one example that allows that model to really shine, especially for municipal and education markets that have a large building stock in need of retrofits but tight capital and operating budgets. Diving deep at the onset allows us to assess their facilities to create a long-term strategy that balances construction, retrofits and financing. In most cases, we can generate enough energy cost savings year-over-year to leverage available capital to more than cover any critical capital and operating improvements. That model has really helped clients like Lake Washington School District transition to a total cost of ownership mindset, and clients like the City of Bellingham introduce initiatives like their LED roadway lighting upgrades.

Performance contracting also played a role in the Covington Water District turbine project. McKinstry identified exactly how much money could be saved with the project and guaranteed those savings to help secure funding and offset project costs.

How is McKinstry looking to stay ahead of its competitors in an industry where environmentally sustainable buildings (i.e. LEED certified) are increasingly becoming the standard?

Competition keeps us sharp. It pushes us to look at project challenges in a new way, asking what could be done to drive real impact and change for our clients, our communities and our planet. It also pushes us to find opportunities to innovate. That’s what we’re currently doing with the Catalyst Building now under construction in Spokane.

Catalyst will be Spokane’s first net-zero energy building. It is designed to really showcase what we’re capable of delivering here at McKinstry. The five-story, 159,000 square foot building will feature locally sourced cross-laminated timber, a central energy plant, solar photovoltaics and dozens of technology features to maximize energy efficiency and sustainability.

The Catalyst Building will eventually be joined by an entire energy eco-district, which should push it from being net-zero to net-positive. That energy district philosophy is going to change things, creating a grid optimal model that balances how the built environment interacts with utility grids across energy demand and generation. It’s a fantastic project that should be complete in early 2020.

How does McKinstry design environmentally friendly buildings for clients with tight budgets? What strategies does the firm implement to keep costs in check while maximizing energy efficiency?

The two go hand-in-hand. Maximizing energy efficiency is part of making the most out of tight budgets. In new construction, energy and operational efficiency play into the total cost of ownership over the life of the building. In retrofits, energy and operational savings often pay for the project itself. Rebates, incentives and pay-for-performance metrics further enhance budgets for both new construction and major retrofits.

In any case, it’s critical to bring all partners into the planning process early. You need to start with energy targets in mind and then engage all partners in meeting those outcomes. If everyone is on the same page early, you don’t risk losing sight of key energy performance metrics during handoffs between construction phases. It’s all about setting clear goals and communicating consistently to meet those outcomes.

Planning early with all stakeholders also opens the door for improved efficiency through strategies like offsite fabrication and modular construction through parts kitting. Whenever possible, we work to build as much as we can in our fabrication shops. It provides a controlled environment that allows us to operate much more efficiently. The controlled environment also makes it easier to guarantee safety and quality standards.

What technologies does McKinstry utilize to drive sustainability throughout the business?

McKinstry continually evaluates new technology to streamline not only building efficiency, but also construction efficiency. Virtual reality is a great example.

Virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR) are hot topics across the construction and real estate space. McKinstry is evaluating programs to enhance building design, client collaboration, jobsite safety and even workforce training. We’ve found the best results in applications that push VR/AR as close to the jobsite as possible. You need to bring the technology to the jobsite to be truly transformative.

For example, McKinstry recently used VR/AR technology to commission a wireless network in a new building using two different employees in two different states. The senior engineer lead was based in Seattle, while the building was in Denver. Schedules and budgets didn’t allow for extensive travel back and forth. VR/AR offered a workaround. A junior engineer donned a pair of AR glasses on the physical jobsite. Sitting in his office in Seattle, the senior engineer was able to see exactly what the junior engineer saw, walking him through the building and calling out what equipment to look for, what tests to run, and what changes to make. The project was completed flawlessly, on time and on budget thanks to the flexibility provided by emerging technologies.

How does McKinstry’s approach to construction and its technologies save clients money in the long run? How much does McKinstry save its clients on average?

McKinstry works hard to streamline the construction and building maintenance process. We look for every opportunity to bridge gaps across the entire building lifecycle. Our process makes full use of innovative approaches to pave the way for increased efficiency, reduced energy consumption and the lowest total cost of ownership possible.

At a minimum, McKinstry’s high-performing buildings are 30 percent more energy efficient than specified by the International Energy Conservation Code, have a reduced carbon footprint, and qualify for either a LEED or ENERGY STAR certification. In addition to providing improved operational efficiencies, we identify, measure and verify mission-specific performance benchmarks.

How is McKinstry’s work on the Covington Water District project reflective of current sustainability standards and construction trends?

Covington Water District is interesting. McKinstry installed a new hydropower turbine in the utility district’s water main that will generate roughly 70 percent of the annual energy consumed by its administrative facilities, reducing the district’s energy and operating costs.

The turbine was installed in a new water transmission line that connects Covington Water District to Tacoma Water. The 170-foot drop between the Tacoma Water source and Covington’s system causes substantial pressure buildup. Traditionally, a pressure reducing valve (PRV) is used to reduce this pressure, which causes energy to be lost as heat and noise. The new turbine installation reduces the water pressure while also generating energy.

Covington Water District is a great example of starting with the end in mind and making the most of a project’s unique opportunities. Everything was in place for us to find a creative solution to a problem while also providing considerable sustainability benefits.

What is one of the best projects McKinstry has completed? Why?

McKinstry is involved in a lot of great projects. I’m partial to the Eco District project in Seattle, which created an underground heat exchange system that captures waste from data centers within the Westin Building Exchange and transfers it underground to warm Amazon’s massive four-block campus. Waste heat recovery isn’t new, but this was the first project to transfer the resource between multiple property owners and government agencies.

How does McKinstry see the future construction industry evolving over the next ten years? What practices will be implemented in order to achieve higher levels of sustainability in the real estate industry?

Construction and energy services are changing rapidly. To stay on top of the market, McKinstry is tracking several industry trends spanning a 15-year timetable. These trends chart adoption rates across topics like net-positive energy design, autonomous building operations, modular pre-fabrication and robotics.

Autonomous operations, as an example, includes technologies like IoT sensors, artificial intelligence and machine learning. IoT is becoming a game changer. Building systems generate thousands of datasets, but most control systems only use a select few that are needed to meet basic facility management and occupant comfort functions. The remaining uncollected datasets are a lost opportunity.

Over the next few years, machine learning will allow us to easily deploy data sniffers to identify and map datasets across the building. McKinstry is currently piloting several IoT projects. We’re excited about what we can now do with sensor technology, and even more excited about what’s to come over the next few years.