Designing for Wellness and Energy Savings
Award-winning, rapidly-growing engineering firm CMTA helps design buildings with energy-efficiency and wellness in mind. It is an approach that has proven popular as the Louisville, Kentucky-based company expands. This focus on healthy buildings is particularly relevant given the danger of COVID, a virus that spreads quickly in enclosed, poorly-ventilated spaces.
“We’ve had quite a bit of growth this last year. We added Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; and Indianapolis, Indiana to our offices, and we’re also looking forward to moving out west and I am planning to start an office down in Florida,” says Tracy Steward, a CMTA partner.
CMTA, founded in 1968 and profiled last December in Construction in Focus, currently has 15 offices and nearly 400 employees in total. The company primarily works on buildings in the healthcare, education, government, and institutional sectors.
Although the firm has long been a leader in energy-efficient design, roughly five years ago, following a series of strategy sessions, CMTA decided to expand its mandate to include wellness as a specialty. The new focus offers multiple benefits; while an energy-efficient building can reduce heating and power costs, wellness design enhances employee health, comfort, and performance, according to Steward.
Regardless of whether a client is interested in energy-reduction, wellness, or both, CMTA takes a hands-on approach to its work. “We like to be involved in the conceptual design phase. We call this our ‘First 30’ because the first thirty percent of a project is when you make or break all your goals for sustainability and wellness,” Steward explains. Working with the building design team, the company “puts together potential opportunities for sustainability, zero energy, and wellness,” she adds.
For a building project, the company might design leading-edge heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems; and combined heat and power (CHP) systems.
Designing a “tight building with a good envelope,” that is well-insulated and ventilated is another good way to save energy, says Steward. “We want a building to use as little energy as possible.” The ultimate goal is to create ‘zero-energy’ buildings that produce the same amount of energy – or more – than they consume. Zero-energy buildings feature efficient insulation, heating, ventilation, and lighting and often generate their own electricity via solar or wind power installations.
Company engineers use software programs to build energy and daylight models so customers can visualize energy efficiency and wellness benefits. Measuring devices can be installed in completed buildings to track metrics such as water and energy use and air quality. This data allows CMTA staff and clients to gauge how a building is performing.
In 2012, the company established the Energy Solutions division to augment its services. “Energy Solutions is our company’s most rapidly growing business unit with 85 staff. It is successful because we apply our high performance energy reduction solutions to the Performance Contracting and Guaranteed Energy Savings Market,” says Steward. “Most performance contracting firms focus on individual energy conservation measures. CMTA takes the same holistic approach to performance contracting as we do to our design; we benchmark a building’s existing energy consumption and compare it to our database of real energy performance. This comparison allows us to fully understand the building’s potential. Based on this understanding, we target a new energy usage rate and design strategies to meet the goal.”
Wellness design can involve windows that minimize glare and solar heat gain while maximizing the amount of natural light they let in. Interiors should be comfortable and, when possible, designed to accommodate scenic views to boost office morale. The choice of lighting is another major wellness component.
“Fluorescent lighting does not support occupant circadian rhythm during the daytime due to its lack of blue light content. We can design our lighting systems based on spectral power distribution so that it is conducive to circadian health during all times of the day. For example, in college residence halls, we prefer to use daylight for high energy stimulus to keep occupants alert during the day, while at night a warmer, less intense lighting strategy is used in order to allow the body to prepare for sleep. This also makes it easier to get back to sleep after a midnight excursion to the common restroom,” Steward explains.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council is one of the goals for which the company is aiming on the energy-efficiency front. Certification from the New York City-based International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) is the wellness equivalent. IWBI inspectors grade buildings on factors such as air quality, lighting, thermal comfort, sound, construction materials, and more. Buildings that make the cut receive WELL certification.
CMTA recently achieved WELL Gold for its new two-story, 25,000-square-foot Energy Solutions corporate office in Louisville. The new office includes LED lighting, glare reduction, and daylight management measures and is the first zero-energy structure in Kentucky to earn WELL building certification.
The firm took first-place honors in the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE) International Technology Awards for a renovation at Mercy High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. The project involved installing new electrical and HVAC systems. Water source heat pumps were linked through a two-pipe condenser water loop system to highly-efficient condensing boilers, and a cooling tower was added. Ventilation was dramatically improved while the illumination was enhanced with LED lights.
CMTA also won a first-place regional ASHRAE award for its work on Ogden College Hall, a science center at Western Kentucky University. The 82,000-square-foot building was built at a cost of $40 million and features excellent air quality – to boost the mental acuity of occupants – airflow, lighting, and internal design. Built to LEED Gold standards, Ogden Hall is also the first WELL Gold-certified university laboratory building in America.
Given such impressive achievements, the company prefers new hires who are “innovative, questioning, curious, willing to challenge things and speak up. Someone with potential for leadership. We want somebody who’s passionate about changing design as we see it,” she declares.
The firm seems to have succeeded in its hiring objectives; the number of personnel has increased from 143 in 2015 to 389 at present. These figures include 120 professional engineers and 40 engineers in training. Steward expects this soaring growth rate to continue.
Even as the company expands its ranks, it remains committed to free-wheeling, open discussion. Every six months, CMTA hosts an ‘innovation call’ with its offices over the phone, says Steward. During these conference calls, staff members at each regional office describe innovative work they have done to spread good ideas around. “I’ll say, ‘What is your big story you want to share with the company?’” she says. “We’re taking office leaders and peers out of their day of designing to take a break for an hour to see what someone else is doing.”
To make sure that company veterans and top leaders do not dominate the conversation, CMTA encourages younger staff to participate during innovation calls. “For example, my team is working on a community center. I had one of my younger engineers host the call with the other offices. He said, ‘What do I do to prepare?’ I said, ‘You’re getting ready to spend a lot of money with a lot of good leaders in this company, so you’re going to be organized and prepared and walk through this precisely so we get as much out of this meeting as absolutely possible.’”
The company used to attend conferences and trade shows regularly, but in-person events have largely been canceled or gone online. “Conferences were always a good way to network and get to know people in the industry. Those events are all virtual now. I’m hoping at some point COVID goes away, and we can all get together,” Steward says.
The advent of COVID has also changed the way CMTA interacts with clients. “We’ve always been very collaborative and in-person,” says Steward. Face-to-face meetings allowed staff to read the room and emphasize specific points with which a customer might be concerned.
Personal relationships help cement working relationships, and this is an important consideration when you are trying to “get people to think and do things differently – things that are more sustainable to meet wellness goals,” she adds. “If someone is on a phone call or conference call with a camera, they don’t have the same impact than if they’re in a room, talking directly to you.”
However, CMTA is flexible and responsive and will no doubt come out of the COVID lockdown with enhanced resolve and new approaches to customer relations. The company certainly has big plans for the future.
“In five years, we want to be a little over double our current size,” says Steward. “We want to expand out west and down south. We also want to continue growing our share of the market in our current office locations. We’re going to continue to focus on high-performance, zero-energy, and wellness. Really, that’s what our purpose and vision is.”