Their energy makes Charlotte’s buildings smarter

Long before Charlotte began touting itself as an energy hub, Tom Shircliff and Rob Murchison were helping make some of the city’s buildings into symbols of the area’s commitment to energy.

Since founding the smart-building consulting firm Intelligent Buildings in 2004, Shircliff and Murchison have worked with dozens of companies, developers and governments to help reduce energy consumption and costs – a service they say is seeing increasing demand because of the economic downturn and public-sector budget cuts.

“If you can make a decision about how to better spend business dollars, that’s worth a lot to building owners,” Shircliff said.

And in Charlotte, where more than 30,000 people work in the energy sector, providing energy and saving energy often go hand in hand.

In 2004, Murchison and Shircliff were on parallel paths. Both were working in real estate and technology, hoping to combine that experience with their growing interest in energy-saving technology as a way to reduce overall costs.

“We saw technology starting to affect real estate more,” Shircliff said. “Eight years ago, there weren’t a lot of people thinking like that.”

Shircliff and Murchison initially did everything from financial analysis for clients to installing energy-saving solutions.

But as Charlotte evolved into an energy hub, the pair shifted their focus to consulting for smart buildings and communities.

“Technology changed faster than the real estate industry did. That creates a gap,” Shircliff said. “Consulting fills that gap.”

Intelligent Buildings collects and analyzes data about buildings’ energy usage and operational costs. Then the company develops a plan to help reduce energy usage, thereby reducing costs and environmental impact. The company also often serves as a program manager for its clients after implementing the initial solution.

For example, Intelligent Buildings might help a company install a single overlay program to manage all its lighting and HVAC systems. As owner-side consultants, they do not actually provide or sell systems.

Their customers can see anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent in cost savings, Shircliff said.

Smart buildings

Murchison said interest in Intelligent Buildings was strong from the start, but in recent years, they have seen business multiply.

“I think we benefit from three big trends – technology, the economy has demanded that you can’t go spend dollars without guaranteed returns, and energy and sustainability are on everyone’s minds,” Murchison said.

Today, Intelligent Buildings has dozens of projects with clients ranging from the Canadian government to Cisco Systems.

Intelligent Buildings also is working with the U.S. General Services Administration to help implement a smart and sustainable buildings program in 50 buildings nationwide.

GSA Assistant Commissioner Larry Melton said the agency started the program about two years ago to meet a presidential order requiring a 30 percent energy reduction in federal buildings by 2015.

“GSA knew that the entire real estate market was changing with the integration of technology,” he said.

Melton said the GSA targeted 50 of its highest energy-consuming buildings to kick off the program, though the ultimate goal is to reduce energy consumption in all 1,500 of its buildings.

The average age of GSA buildings is 47 – a factor Melton said can play a large role in how much energy a building consumes.

Intelligent Buildings has consulted on the project for more than two years. Shircliff said they helped build GSA’s smart building strategy from scratch.

Part of this strategy includes connecting building management systems to a central cloud-based platform, which will save an estimated $15 million.

Melton said the program is still in its early stages, but they could see data as early as the end of this year, which they will use to identify ways to reduce energy usage in the buildings.

Intelligent Buildings also consulted on the Duke Energy Center project, completed in 2010.

It worked with Wells Fargo Corporate Properties Group and Childress Klein Properties to help make the building one of the most energy efficient in the country. One of these energy-saving strategies included installing controls to adjust lighting depending on which side of the building the sun faces.

Curt Radkin, a sustainability strategist for Wells Fargo Corporate Properties Group, said the Duke center is about 22 percent more energy efficient and 85 percent more water efficient than other office buildings its size.

A growing industry

Shircliff said Intelligent Buildings often draws inspiration from the new energy theme that has become a cornerstone of Charlotte over the past few years.

Gina Howard, director of communications and public relations for the Charlotte Regional Partnership, said growing Charlotte’s energy sector became a priority around 2008.

Today, more than 260 companies and 34,100 employees make up the region’s energy sector, according to July statistics from the partnership.

Many of these companies work together to promote both growth in the energy sector and energy efficiency.

One of these partnerships is the nonprofit Envision Charlotte, launched last year. Today Envision Charlotte brings together dozens of Charlotte businesses and organizations in a public-private partnership, but it was initially a Duke Energy project. Intelligent Buildings has been a key player in the project. Initially, Murchison and Shircliff consulted for Duke Energy but today they mostly volunteer their expertise. Shircliff is also the chairman of the Envision Charlotte board.

The initiative is best known for Duke Energy’s Smart Energy Now initiative, which is responsible for the screens seen in uptown buildings that track Charlotte’s real-time energy usage.

The purpose of the screens is to reduce uptown energy consumption by 20 percent in the next five years and make Charlotte a model for using sustainability for economic growth in communities nationwide – a goal that Shircliff believes Charlotte is already well on its way to achieving.

Michael Smith, president and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, began working with Intelligent Buildings a few years ago on a long-term sustainability plan that eventually became Envision Charlotte.

“It’s an initiative that looks for Charlotte to be a demonstration of the way urban places can be leaders in environmental sustainability,” he said.

Smith said the work Intelligent Buildings is doing is part of a national movement toward sustainable building practices.

“If you’re going to be in the energy space these days, there’s a growing sensitivity to environmental awareness,” he said.

Article from Charlotte Observer