Friday, December 18, 2009

Downtown Roanoke Development Part I - November, 2009

Many cities around the country have undergone a renaissance of downtown living, entertainment and recreation in the past decade. The rising costs of commuting and peripheral living combined with an increased focus on making downtown areas safe and desireable has begun to reverse the trend of the "edge city" and shift the national momentum back towards downtown living. Census data shows, for the first time in decades, an upward trend in population growth in urban areas compared to the suburbs. The positive externalities associated with this growth are various, but can be generally agreed upon as good. For example, living in more dense, walkable neighborhoods reduces vehicle miles traveled to and from work etc., increases health and wellbeing, and allows a social fabric to develop among people that otherwise might not have met. These issues all have their detractors, but it is this author's opinion that good planning and proper policy can make downtown areas extremely enjoyable places to live, work and play.

As a place near and dear to my heart, I have decided to document some projects in Roanoke, Virginia to illustrate what I mean by a "downtown renaissance". I recently toured the downtown Roanoke area to compile a photo-documentary of recent development that is transforming the personality of the urban core. As there are currently too many exciting projects in downtown Roanoke to write about here, I will set several qualifications for a project to make this particular entry.

* The project must be in downtown Roanoke or an associated neighborhood.
* The project must be funded primarily with private investment.
* The project must represent a radical change from the building/place's previous use.
* The project must contribute in a meaningful way to Roanoke's sense of place.

The following photos provide a taste of what is happening and its potential implications to the downtown urban fabric.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Blacksburg Motor Co. Tour

Today I was able to attend a site tour of the Blacksburg Motor Company, a former car dealership and filling station in downtown Blacksburg, Virginia that has just undergone a complete renovation and earned a Platinum certification under the LEED rating system administered by the United States Green Building Council. Design for the facility was undertaken by Spectrum design in Roanoke and construction by Breakell Incorporated, with project financing coming from the Town of Blacksburg. The project presented a unique opportunity for the three stakeholders to collaborate on a project, and the Town of Blacksburg was particularly supportive of the effort to bring a marquee green project into its building portfolio. As a former heavy brownfield site, the Blacksburg Motor Company renovation posed unique challenges that pressed the creative potential of the project team. Following are some photos snapped during the tour and accompanying explanation of particularly interesting features of the project.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Monitoring Energy Production and Consumption

As holistic building design advances and greater emphasis is placed on energy efficiency, new technologies are being developed to assist in whole-building energy monitoring.These programs enable a facilitie's owner to effectively sub-meter each energy-consuming device in a building and even control these devices from the network. One such software application is Tridum by Niagra Framework. According to the manufacturer, it is a "is a software platform that integrates diverse systems and devices regardless of manufacturer, or communication protocol into a unified platform that can be easily managed and controlled in real time over the Internet using a standard web browser. By integrating today's diverse building systems such as environmental controls, security, lighting, energy, video, fire and life safety, Niagara is creating better buildings---ones that are smarter, use less energy, are more efficient, have lower operating costs, are safer and contribute to a sustainable environment." That's a lot of applications!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where Does the Rain Go?

Water is an essential component of human life and an important resource for the natural environment. It is also a primary concern when designing and constructing new facilities or renovating old structures. The whole point of a building facade is to keep rain and other precipitation from compromising the interior structure and finishes. Water also has to be dealt with on a site-wide basis, as large puddles are not only undesireable but can be harmful to the foundation and hamper access to the site itself. For these reasons, we have a history of designing buildings and sites to take the water "away". Roof gutter systems lead to asphalt parking lots which slope appropriately to gather all water falling on the site and funnel it neatly to a storm drain, which connects to the municipal sewage system, which connects to a local stream or river and ultimately the ocean. This system of stormwater management, when applied on such a large scale, can have dramatic effects on local ecosystems and requires extremely expensive utility systems. The two main issues with storm water control are quality and quantity. The quality of stormwater runoff, after it has gathered dirt, oil and other inorganic compounds from a parking lot or other paved surface, can be toxic to local plant and animal life and can compromise whole ecosystems if released straight into local water sources. The quantity of stormwater runoff is equally important because large and sudden influxes of stormwater from large nonpervious surfaces causes erosion and other damage to local watersheds.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Here Comes the Sun!

In the world of green building, nothing is as sexy as a solar panel. The holy grail of energy gurus and green builders alike, solar panels offer a visual commitment to sustainability as well as a practical way to produce free energy from the world's most abundant resource; sunlight. Solar energy is also the world's fastest growing source of power, with production seeing a six-fold increase from 2000-2005 (Sawin, 28). In fact, the Solar Energy Industries Association estimates solar energy potential at 55% of U.S total energy demand! Falling prices for PV systems due to increased production coupled with rising fossil fuel prices and the threat of government intervention in energy markets could spark exponential growth in this sector of the renewable energy market. It is with these facts in mind that a small business in Roanoke, Virginia embarked on the path of energy liberation.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Green Roof Installation

Last week Breakell's Patterson Avenue office building began an exciting new phase in it's conversion to a green building. Half of the existing roof was converted to a vegetated roofing system to demonstrate its viability to potential clients. Green roofing technology, while still in its infancy in the United States, has several proven benefits including increased life-span, lower operating costs and improved sound insulation qualities. According to Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a green roof installation on a typical 1 story office building can achieve 25% reduction in summer cooling loads. The soil and vegetation also retain and filter rainwater, slowing its dispersion to overburdened sewage systems and creating opportunities to capture and reuse this water. All of these features of green roofs help contribute to LEED certification.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Future of Construction, an Obeservational Approach

The construction site will, in many ways, look very much the same in the future as it does today. Dirt will still be moved for foundations and infrastructure, and materials will be stockpiled around a site as they are prepared for application. Staple materials such as wood and stone will still be in use, and skilled labor will be required to put these materials together in a way that lends itself to functionality. I would also venture to say that, although they might look a little different and run on different fuels, the workhorses of the jobsite (excavators, dump-trucks, cranes, hammers) will still be essential. However, the methods and technology employed during this construction process will be drastically different. The rapid modernization of construction technologies and project delivery methods, combined with an influx of young professionals from construction education programs is having a revolutionary effect on the complexity that projects can achieve and setting records for the timeframe in which these projects can be delivered. The twin forces of globalization and sustainability have combined to push the construction industry to new heights. It is this integration of technology and processes combined with resource scarcity that will revolutionize the construction industry as we know it today.

Technological innovation and integration pose the greatest opportunities for construction. The single technology that shows the most promise is Building Information Modeling, or BIM software. BIM programs, such as Revit Architecture, allow all aspects of a project to be constructed digitally before going to the construction phase. This allows “clash detection” that lets designers see where different systems are in opposition so that time is not wasted on deciding what course of action to take on the fly. The time and money that will be saved by these techniques is huge. On the future construction site, these types of software will be integrated with the project manager’s smartphone for real-time data monitoring and clash detection. It will be able to interface with materials inventory, employee records and project schedule to allow a streamlined approach to project management that reduces time and materials wasted and improves performance for the entire project. According to Garrison Associates, “the average construction craft worker today is only about 40 percent productive” (Garrison, 1). With integrated smart technology on the jobsite, managers can more effectively monitor and improve this dismal statistic.

The development and deployment of integrated BIM software will eventually pave the way for integrated processes on the construction site. This will allow new methods and materials to be used that might have previously been thought of as too complex. The modular construction technique is a great example of a process that is being refined and used to push the limits of what was previously thought impossible. Using integrated design software, a company in England was recently able to build a modular skyscraper and come in over 10 months ahead of schedule compared to a site-constructed facility (Guthrie, 1). The design process will also be refined as the construction industry moves into the future. Collaboration between all members of the design, construction and maintenance teams will lead to smarter, more efficient projects (Garrison, 1). Project delivery methods such as design-build, design-build-operate and design-build-finance-operate will replace the traditional methods as firms become more complex and systems are put in place to process these complicated systems.

The third major factor shaping the future of the construction industry is resource scarcity and its effects on project process, delivery and operation. Global demand for construction resources is already having dramatic effects on the price of steel, and this trend will begin to manifest itself in other markets (Ying, 1). Energy prices will continue to rise until renewable sources can be brought online in adequate supply, and both scenarios will fundamentally affect the construction process. Government’s willingness to enact climate legislation will only add further scrutiny to construction resources. With these factors under consideration, a major push has been underway to reduce the resource intensity of construction and to reduce the operating costs of buildings through energy efficient design. By utilizing more efficient project delivery processes and taking advantage of integrated technology on the job site, life-cycle cost analysis will enable buildings to perform better and with fewer resources than ever before (McDonough, 1). In the long run this will have a tremendous positive impact on the environment, the economy and society in general.

My goal for this project is to integrate myself with a general contractor that is looking to the future and incorporating the best technology, practices and people into its operations. The company I have chosen is Breakell Incorporated out of Roanoke, Virginia. They have been a medium sized contracting firm in the area for over 50 years and have seen some of the major changes that have taken place over that time period. Breakell has also begun to prepare itself for the future changes in the industry and is aggressively seeking an advantage on this front. The company’s new sustainability initiatives include sustainable design principles, integrated project delivery approaches, and advanced technology to help deliver a more comprehensive product than others in the region. I have been in touch with the president and several project managers with Breakell Incorporated and they have agreed to let me monitor and report on developments as they unfold over the course of the semester. Several exciting projects that I will witness over this time period will be the installation of a green roof and solar array, as well as the adoption of the Revit BIM software and EnergyPlus energy modeling for commercial buildings. These systems will demonstrate Breakell’s commitment to sustainable building practices and position itself as a leader in the region.

By first-hand observation of a medium sized general contracting firm undergoing dramatic changes to prepare itself for the future, I will be in a better position to judge the speed and comprehensiveness of change within the industry as a whole. To document my experience with Breakell, I have set up a blog account at Through this medium, I will post my observations, reflections and experiences over the course of the semester. It is my intention to post to this blog at least bi-weekly as I monitor Breakell’s office transformation. By keeping these in one place, it will be easier for classmates, as well as any other interested bloggers, to follow my activity. In so doing, I hope to share valuable insight into the transformation of one of the region’s oldest general contractors.