Expert Interview With Scott Ceasar, Sustainable Design Expert

Designing low-impact buildings that last
Nov 14, 2017 8:00 AM ET

Tetra Tech Expert Interviews

Scott R. Ceasar is a Principal at Cosentini Associates, A Tetra Tech Company, and the Director of Sustainable Design. He promotes sustainable design practices in the building industry and within the firm, focusing on creating systems that are energy-efficient, environmentally responsible, and ensure occupant comfort.

Mr. Ceasar has been involved in sustainable design work since 1996 when he encouraged Cosentini to join the U.S. Green Building Council, the organization that created and disseminated the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. His major projects for commercial and government clients include Four Times Square, the first green commercial high-rise office building in New York City; Battery Park City’s The Visionaire, the first residential high-rise in the country to receive LEED Platinum certification; Skanska USA’s New York offices, a LEED Platinum commercial interiors project; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, LEED Silver; and the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, LEED Silver.

He developed and supervises Cosentini’s advanced technology and analysis group, which is responsible for researching and implementing new technology and performing high-level computational analyses. Mr. Ceasar is a LEED AP BD+C and oversees the LEED certification process, a service provided by Cosentini.

What is your definition of sustainability?

I define sustainability as designing a building that’s meant to last and will have minimal impact now and in the future. That means we’re looking at the building as a whole and designing first and foremost for functionality. After functionality, we take into account energy, emissions, conservation of materials and water resources, and how the building affects the outside world.

How should sustainability planning affect the design process?

The big idea is to integrate design and thinking about how the building systems work together. We start by looking at passive systems and analyze how the building is sited within its local environment. Is there anything we can do while locating the building to minimize energy usage, maximize passive solar heating, use the wind, etc.? We then look at how the façade design affects energy usage and user comfort. We give the architect input on shading and solar patterns, enhancing solar heating, and reducing glare, which can create occupant discomfort.

For passive systems, we coordinate with the structural engineer to find ways to use the thermal mass of the building by storing heat in the building and cooling the building down overnight. We like to be able to turn the chillers down in the morning when there is typically a high startup load. After we have looked at how we can reduce energy usage through passive systems, we then start analyzing the active systems: air conditioning, heating, and lighting. We select systems that will go the farthest toward reducing energy usage and increasing occupant comfort.

What do you look for that tells you about a client’s leadership in, or willingness to explore, sustainability?

If the client is going to own and operate their building, sustainability is really an easy sell because a sustainable building saves the owner money over the building’s life cycle. We do an economic study, project what the payback period is, and what the life cycle costs are and will be. If the most energy-efficient system costs too much and doesn’t have a payback, it really isn’t sustainable. Things like occupancy comfort are harder to quantify. There are organizations in the building industry that perform those studies and produce reports on optimal strategies. Basically, when the workspace is designed for occupant comfort, people are much more productive. That hits the bottom line more than energy efficiency because companies spend 75 to 80 percent of their operating budgets on their employees. Now, if you’re building a building that you’re going to flip in two years, it’s not as important to look at the overall life cycle. If you’re responsible for a company’s corporate headquarters or a significant university capital plan or signature building, and you’re going to own your building long term, then you know that sustainability benefits you. It’s a lot easier to do as an organization.

How have the industry and LEED evolved?

When I started in sustainability many years ago, I went to U.S. Green Building Council meetings that were attended by 100 to 150 people. Now the annual GreenBuild Expo attracts 30- to 40,000 people. Eight or nine years ago, I remember clients saying, “What’s this LEED thing? My bank is telling me that I’ll get a preferential rate on my financing, or I’ll get my financing if I get the building certified LEED Gold.”

The LEED certification process has changed as the industry has changed. I was on Green Building Council’s original LEED committee. It started as a multi-tiered system to attract people to this new concept and to accommodate their issues and concerns. One thing that was criticized was that it didn’t take climate change and emissions enough into account. LEED Version 3 now rates things like public transportation; locally available materials and environments; the energy credit; and global warming, ozone depletion, and emissions. LEED Version 4, which is going into effect soon, takes into account the total life cycle of each material including the embodied energy required to produce and transport the material. It also incorporates credits for health and safety concerns for each material. This is changing the industry as manufacturers will to have to get their products rated in order to be used in a LEED-certified building.

How did you become involved in sustainability?

Early in my career, about two-thirds of my time involved energy analysis and working on energy-efficiency projects. We were involved in 4 Times Square, the first sustainable office building built on spec. Since I was involved with energy, I naturally rolled into this project. While working on 4 Times Square, I heard about the U.S. Green Building Council and was encouraged to go to its initial meetings. That’s when I decided to join the founding LEED Committee. This is what I was doing anyway: thinking about how a building gets built; how to optimize its energy efficiency; and how to do a project right. It was a natural transition.

Sustainability isn’t magic or anything complicated. It’s good design; doing the right thing in your building for occupants, the environment, and your city.