Outside: It's the new black.

Kawneer, the 100-plus-year-old architectural and building products division of Alcoa, is experiencing an uptick in sales in what arguably are two of the oldest technologies on the market: windows that open and light shelves.

Windows that open don't need a lot of description. You probably have some at home. U.S. office buildings, however, largely eliminated them decades ago in an effort to (1) reduce liability and (2) better control the interior climate.

Rising power costs, along with a growing desire among office workers to get away from canned air, are bringing them back, according to Eddie Bugg, director of sustainable solutions at Kawneer. These "operable windows" are also connected to sensors that will shut off the air conditioning in a specific room to help ensure power bills can drop.

"You used to build skyscrapers like aquariums. Now we realize that there are a lot of good things outside," he said in an interview. "Twenty years ago, [owners] never wanted operable windows. Now we are seeing more and more installed.

"Up until the last few years, the building envelope has been considered the enemy," he added.

Light shelves are less familiar but in some ways more basic. A light shelf essentially is a flat, reflective surface that bisects a window in a perpendicular fashion (see picture). It both splashes sunlight across an interior ceiling to reduce the need for interior electric lighting as well as deflects heat from the window, which further reduces air conditioning. Combined, solar harvesting and shading can cut power bills in the Southwest 10 to 12 percent in a six story building. Kanweer sells windows with integrated shades and light shelves.

Sunlight is also a higher quality light than what electric bulbs produce, he added. "Even caves were occupied with that idea [more natural sunlight] in mind," he said.

The payback on sun capture devices is actually not as rapid as with things like insulating windows that keep heat inside, he said, but there are often productivity gains or gains in sales at retail outlets. 

Despite the downturn in construction, many believe the market for energy efficient construction or remodeling will grow. Organizations like the U.S. Green Building Council and building owners report that LEED buildings tend to rent for more than standard construction. At chip maker Advanced Micro Devices, its LEED-platinum campus in Austin, Texas has become a recruiting tool, say execs.

"It is not a fad or something. It is not a niche marketplace," said Bugg. "It is the marketplace."

Federal and state stimulus packages help too. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, for instance, will provide $4.5 billion to retrofit federal buildings and another $6.3 billion to grants for improving the energy efficiency of state agencies. Despite the downturn in construction, school retrofits and constructions are expected to grow. (The program started in Ohio because the state passed a retrofit program there years ago. If schools could show that retrofits would be cost-effective, they would receive grants.

Regulations will likely prod demand as well. California is seeking to impose net zero energy standards on new homes by 2020 and commercial buildings by 2030. At a recent webinar (held by Greentech Media) three executives -- Aaron Bilyeu, national sustainability manager at the Weitz Company, Project Frog CEO Mark Miller, and Political consultant Steve McBee – agreed that national building standards were likely coming. 

As a result, expect to hear more discussions like this out of start-ups but also large outfits like Alcoa. In a few years, there could even be a slew of acquisitions. Serious Materials, the green drywall people, are already on the acquisition trail.

Bugg also noted that building to LEED standards has also made construction more cohesive. Traditionally, architects and engineers, and their recommendations, might get dropped off a project once construction and construction planning began.

"The building engineer is now sitting at the same table. That has been a transformation that has come out through LEED," he said. "LEED's greatest gift is the way sustainable buildings are executed." 


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Tags: air conditioning, alcoa, construction, cooling, green building, heating, kanweer, leed, lighting, serious materials, windows