Leading the Way to Zero Energy

CMTA Consulting Engineers

Students at Discovery Elementary School crowd around a terminal reading the building’s energy use. It’s near the end of the school year and the numbers are in the positive; with its solar panels and renewable energy, the school is offsetting its energy use and for its fourth year, is once again making a positive impact on the environment.

Over the span of a year, this school consumes less energy than it produces. In other words, it’s a zero energy building.

This culture of wellness and sustainability, housed in high-performance buildings, is the future of American construction. CMTA has shown how it’s done – and how to make financial sense of it.

CMTA was founded in 1968 as a consulting engineering firm and has expanded to integrate energy-efficient engineering and Guaranteed Performance construction to offer Performance Contracting services through its Energy Solutions division. CMTA has expertise in Healthcare, Educational, Community and Federal projects but specializes in zero energy buildings.

It has eleven regional offices located across the southern and eastern U.S. from Texas to Massachusetts, with four new offices poised to open soon.

Recognized as a national leader in energy efficient design, it has done more net-zero square footage than any other company in the USA. It was a primary author of the ‘Zero Energy Design Guidelines’ issued by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and recipient of numerous awards, including once again being recognized on the “Hot Firms” List from the Zweig Group as one of the fastest growing A/E/C firms in the U.S.

Shaping national guidelines
Tony Hans, Vice President, has been with CMTA for over 23 years. When he isn’t overseeing design teams, he’s speaking at conferences, shaping national energy guidelines and driving the industry towards high-performance buildings that focus on net-zero energy and wellness.

Working out of CMTA’s Headquarters in Louisville, KY, Tony works with all regional offices that house its 360 engineers. “At the beginning of the project we make a promise to the owner on what results they are going to see. It is our responsibility to see that these promises are delivered,” he says.

“Be it air quality or health and wellness; be it daylighting or energy performance; we’re not leaving them at the end of construction when they occupy the building. We’re staying with them and putting our arms around the entire process.”

A different experience
Stepping foot in a zero energy building with a focus on wellness feels completely different from stepping into a regular space. The A/E team that put together Discovery Elementary designed ways to lower overall energy consumption, which included increasing natural light and incorporating the outside environment into the design. This mental-wellness and energy-efficient design creates an intersection of joy and inspiration for its inhabitants.

In the case of Discovery, students aren’t just learning in school, they’re learning from it. Energy consumption is incorporated into interdisciplinary class projects. Students can use an online portal CMTA’s Sphere System (http://Discovery.CMTASphere.com) to track the building’s functionality in real time.

Through the same portal students can track how much energy the building is consuming each month. They can track the path of zero energy, creating new understandings of their relationship to the natural environment, ultimately fostering healthy futures for everyone.

Growing green buildings
With owners pushing towards more green building, CMTA has seen incredible growth over the past ten years. Part of its success lies in delivering high-performance structures at affordable prices.

The District 3 Police Headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio is one such story. The public building was in need of a rebuild. “The owner had the goal to be energy efficient,” says Hans. “They were selecting first on cost, so it had to be the lowest cost.” Teams that were bidding for the job were required to send in two proposals – the first was ‘LEED Silver’ and the second a betterment proposal that would go beyond.

LEED Silver is a certification created by the U.S. Green Building Council. It scores buildings based on sustainability, energy efficiency and health. It scores projects out of 100. The Silver rating is a score of 50-59 points, meaning it’s a solid green build, but it’s far from net zero.

CMTA was part of a design/build team, and “everyone was required to submit LEED Silver, and the team said for betterment we’ll do LEED Platinum.” CMTA’s engineers, who are famous for thinking outside of the box dreamed the impossible. With years of experience in net-zero energy, the team had the hunch that going straight to zero energy could be an affordable option. The hunch paid off, the team was selected and the project was delivered – and has performed Zero Energy.

Authoring guidelines
CMTA has helped ASHRAE write energy-efficiency guidelines for the industry for the past decade. Every four years ASHRAE publishes guidelines on how to go above code requirements and achieve energy reduction while staying within budget. The energy reduction guidelines went from 30 percent, to 50 percent. Instead of jumping to 70 percent for its most recent guidelines, it went directly to 100 percent zero energy.

Once a building can be brought to 70 to 80 percent energy reduction, adding renewables to account for the other 20 to 30 percent becomes affordable. Using this knowledge, “we challenged the architect and the builder,” recounts Hans. “We said to the team, if we truly nail energy efficiency then going from LEED Silver to LEED Platinum will be more expensive than choosing Zero Energy.”

The District 3 Police Headquarters chose the team that included CMTA not only because it was the lowest bidder, but because it had proposed the highest level of sustainability and achieving Zero Energy.

Creating creative meetings
These ideas don’t just come out of nowhere. Many spring from the regular creative meetings CMTA holds between its 11 regional offices, to help get out-of-the-box ideas for its projects.

Hans explains, “We have a process where we get together and consult thought-leaders across many of our offices, so we really front load the project with experts. Some of these experts have great expertise and additional modeling tools that we use… we pull those people together in video conferencing and have what we call a ‘First 30’ meeting.” The meetings are named for the opportunity the first 30 percent of a project holds.

Depending on the project, a few of its 360 engineers are selected from its regional offices to add their individual experience and insight to a project they aren’t directly connected to.

“As a thought leader from an office you are asked to hit on these First 30 meetings about projects that you’re not involved in or not a part of your office. Every time we bring people together from across multiple offices, we come up with great ideas that we wouldn’t have come up with if we hadn’t reached out to so many different groups.”

To keep the creative juices flowing, the video conference calls are a mixture of seriousness and humor; what comes out are the breakthrough proposals that CMTA has become famous for. “We’re a group of engineers and we like to have fun so it tends to be a raucous meeting with tons of thoughts and ideas being thrown around – it’s a good environment and a good culture.”

These types of meetings have been the secret sauce that has kept CMTA far ahead of the curve.

An iconic school
The path towards net zero energy began twelve years ago, when CMTA designed Richardsville Elementary School in Kentucky.

“As a company we’ve worked on millions and millions of square feet of zero energy projects, and each one builds on the lessons learned from our previous projects. And they all build upon the first zero-energy educational building in the United States, Richardsville Elementary,” recounts Hans.

That 72,000 square foot building cost almost $15 million. According to ASHRAE, it now saves over $100,000 per year in energy costs versus typical schools that use 65 kBtu. (www.hpbmagazine.org/attachments/article/11817/12F-Richardsville-Elementary-School-Richardsville-KY.pdf).

Outcomes and follow-up
With Richardsville, CMTA didn’t just walk away; its engineers are keenly focused on the real outcomes of the building over the long term. “On a Saturday a group of engineers traveled across the state to look at the project and dig into the performance of how that project was truly performing; to take things apart; to analyze how things were really functioning. It is that hands-on mentality that really is a part of the CMTA culture,” Hans says.

“We invest CMTA time and energy into learning from each project, helping improve it for the owner and then having it affect the design of our next project.” According to Hans, the focus on performance has made CMTA’s growth steady and significant within the industry. “Having the data to make better decisions on each project has been part of the CMTA culture, and our President, Ken Seibert, has led and instilled that in all of the leaders. It permeates into all of the company; It is in our DNA,” he says.

“I think that performance-based design in energy and Health and Wellness is where the industry’s heading,” Hans predicts. While new technologies, LEED, and other certifications and recognition have helped to push the industry towards sustainable, high-performance buildings, now the mentality itself is changing.

Owners want real, tangible results, such as the ones CMTA has been providing for decades. “We are the most energy-efficient engineering firm in the nation only because we are true to our promises on getting a building to perform within budget.”

If you’re looking to have a strong high-performance builder on your side, partner with CMTA and build the future we’ve all been dreaming of. It will do the nation good.

Seeing Red

In 2018, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) released several of the worst examples of so-called “Red Tape” that businesses and developers need to complete before getting projects off the ground. The list reads almost as a cautionary tale for anyone hoping to get a development, whether a condominium or a warehouse, completed quickly and on time.

January 24, 2020, 9:47 AM EST