Sustainable Buildings and Lasting Relationships

EI Associates
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

In architecture, engineering, and design, it’s not unusual to hear words like ‘green’ and ‘sustainability.’ For C. Bruce Christman, Jr., these terms encompass more than materials and construction methods, and include careful consideration of operating costs and making structures as efficient as possible.

With an extensive background in green building, LEED consulting, sustainable architecture, and interior design, Christman is Vice President of Architecture and Sustainable Design at EI Associates. A full-service architectural and engineering design firm in business since 1934, EI’s expertise encompasses education, design-build, process industrial, science and technology, and sustainable projects.

Long-term vision
Christman says that ‘sustainability’ gets a varied reaction when he makes presentations. To him, sustainability is about spending money wisely and creating quality, well-designed structures.

“It’s about being conservative with resources and investing in structures, especially your building,” he says. “You’re typically spending millions of dollars, and you want it to last a long time and not be replacing major components within 12 to 24 months. So it’s spending the time upfront to identify those strategies that make the most sense and give you the most bang for your buck.”

The emphasis, says Christman, is on return on investment and focusing more on the long-term versus short-term. “That’s really what sustainability is about.”

Although clients need to look at initial costs when commissioning a project—including architect and engineering fees and the price of materials, installation, and labor—it is crucial to design the structure to be as efficient as possible. “You need to afford the building, but the last thing you want to do is spend millions of dollars and realize you can’t afford to run it because of how inefficient it is,” says Christman. It’s important to think in the long term, including the expenses that come with operation.

Christman has long been involved with LEED and speaks of sustainable building from a place of deep understanding. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) was unveiled in 1998 by the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and has rating systems encompassing the design, building, operation, and maintenance of structures.

Over the decades, the program has seen more than 105,000 buildings LEED-certified, and has been successful in creating a greater awareness of environmental responsibility in construction worldwide.

Along with LEED, EI Associates is taking steps toward meeting Net Zero and ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) standards. Founded as a professional association 130 years ago, ASHRAE has over 50,000 members in 130 countries worldwide, including architects, building owners, equipment manufacturers, and mechanical contractors.

With a mandate to “advanc[e] human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment,” ASHRAE develops and publishes technical standards on high-performance buildings, air conditioning, solar heating systems design, geothermal heating and cooling, decarbonization, commercial building energy audits, and other elements of green building.

Even with additional costs, says Christman, investing in sustainable structures and practices makes environmental and financial sense. “A tighter building envelope will save you money ultimately when you look at it as a return on investment—or if you’re lucky enough to downsize your mechanical equipment because you have a tighter envelope,” he says.

The art of collaboration
Much of EI Associates’ success results from the relationships the company has forged with clients, 80 percent of them repeat customers. Rather than working within a defined dollar range like many other firms, EI’s work is relationship-based. Understanding the importance of smaller projects, EI wants customers to take advantage of its architectural, engineering, and construction services.

Decades of experience mean the firm can handle modest works of a few thousand dollars or major projects of $50 million or more. By covering the entire spectrum, the company maintains trust and relationships with clients.

To help clients understand the overall operating costs of structures, EI Associates taps into its many years of industry experience and the latest technology. This includes building information modeling (BIM) software like Autodesk® Revit®, which enables the team at EI to create highly accurate 3D models of structures and collaborate on designs that make economic and environmental sense.

Another tremendous advantage technology brings is enabling EI Associates to access the building energy model mechanical engineers use as a design tool. By plugging in different variables regarding the building envelope, inflation values, and materials, EI gets a sense of what annual operating costs will be.

“It puts the power back in the owner’s hands to make the best decisions based on their facility,” says Christman. This is especially important for clients since many, such as schools, must answer to a board of governors, taxpayers, or both, regarding projects. “The more education we can provide our clients, the better decisions they’ll be able to make to meet their needs and make sure they are seeing the whole picture, not just the outset cost.”

Another driver of EI’s success is the solid relationships it has built with contractors over the years, which ease stress during the building process. If a contractor suggests cost savings that are lower than expected, EI will work with them until everyone is satisfied without burdening the client.

“Building owners want to know things are done ethically, that they are in good hands, and that the company is fighting for them. That’s what we pride ourselves on doing,” says Christman.

To keep clients informed of progress, EI holds regular meetings and check-ins, depending on the project phase. Early on, the team typically meets with customers on a biweekly basis at a minimum; as the project progresses, it may be every three or four weeks, and clients are kept informed along the way. EI’s team ensures that every stage is transparent and that owners are happy with their space. “If the owner is unhappy at the end of the day, I feel we haven’t done our job,” says Christman. “We have to balance the cost an owner needs, and that’s where we, as architects, are trained to solve those problems and make things match up.”

“Single Source Responsibility”
As a full-service firm, EI Associates prides itself on creating sustainable and cost-effective project solutions for all customers, and one way the company achieves success is through Single Source Responsibility. Embracing architecture, engineering, and construction services, Single Source Responsibility makes every stage of project completion, from design to handover, successful. By carefully listening to clients, understanding their needs, and valuing their input, EI develops “innovative, functional architectural and engineering designs that efficiently serve each facility’s purpose.”

Construction is a business with plenty of moving parts, including cost estimating, feasibility studies, environmental assessments, grant applications, and more. Through time-tested planning, EI Associates brings all these factors under one roof. Working as a highly coordinated, unified team from the start means designs are delivered quickly, costs are well-managed, and high-quality work is completed on time and within budget.

“Having that single source or representative from EI who can quarterback and bring it all together provides our clients with a level of comfort that things are under control and they don’t have to chase things down,” says Christman. “Nobody likes chasing.”

In the search for new customers, EI believes in old-school, face-to-face relationship building. Affiliation with organizations such as the International Code Council (ICC), the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA), New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program, the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE), and others helps the company meet potential clients.

“Because we have such a long history of doing schools, we are very well known in the industry,” shares Christman. “It doesn’t take long for us to drum up a conversation, so to speak. It’s a matter of getting in front of the school board, making a presentation, or meeting them at one of the events.”

To help build relationships in education, the company recently hired a former Pennsylvania school district superintendent, and he has opened many doors for EI Associates through his relationships and insider knowledge. “We’re looking for competitive advantages, and it gives us a different perspective on how to approach clients and what’s important to them. You want to meet their needs and really understand their business.”

Closing in on a century
As EI Associates celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, the company welcomes business from new and repeat customers alike. With 70 to 75 percent of its work in education, including both K-12 and higher education, EI nevertheless looks forward to all types of projects, especially long-term relationship-based work.

“Especially with the bigger projects, there are a lot of stops and starts, and you need a nice mix of project sizes to smooth things out in our profession,” says Christman. “But we’re still focused on relationships because we’ve found over the years that the key to our success is developing good relationships with our clients.”

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