PHILADELPHIA -- When the Allies needed a weapon terrible enough to end World War II, scientists devised the atomic bomb. When the Soviet Union hurled Sputnik into space, American scientists rallied to build the world's top space program.
When Jim Freihaut goes to work each day, he doesn't have to win a war or outfox a Communist foe.
All he has to do is crack a market, a market that has stubbornly resisted the notion of energy-efficient buildings for decades. That might be tough enough.
Freihaut and his team have a five-year charter -- one year already down -- and $122 million from the federal government to meet this challenge: Convince the Philadelphia construction industry to do deep energy retrofits on some 7,000 commercial buildings, by proving it makes good business sense.
The team is called an Energy Innovation Hub, and it's modeled after the teams that cracked crucial scientific challenges in the 20th century. These hubs, designed by the Department of Energy, are based on the thinking that when scientists and engineers are given a clear goal and top talent, they can deliver breakthroughs.
If the team doesn't make headway, it could fall prey to Republican budget-cutters convinced that the federal government's place is basic energy research, and nothing more.
"At the end of a few years here, we're going to have to be able to go around the architectural design and engineering firms in this area and say, 'Are you doing things differently now, or not?'" said Freihau, director for technology and operations at the hub, called the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster for Energy-Efficient Buildings, or GPIC. "And if they say, 'We're doing them the same way we did them five years ago,' we've failed."
Pieces that might fit together don't
At the heart of GPIC's mission is a puzzle. Over the past 20 to 30 years, every important building component has improved in energy performance. From air conditioners to lighting to windows, construction crews today have an array of green technologies at their disposal.
Once they're put together, though, the finished building performs no better than its predecessors of two or three decades ago. The parts have gotten better, but not the whole.
That has climate consequences. Buildings account for 40 percent of the country's energy appetite, and roughly half of that is commercial buildings.
Freihaut spent 22 years at a firm known for selling those components: United Technologies Corp. It's where he got a vantage point of the entire construction industry, from the folks making building materials all the way through the folks who manage a finished building.
And he thinks he understands why buildings squander their energy-saving potential.
To construct a building takes a sizable cast of characters. An architect must design it, and a construction team has to build it. Plumbers and electricians must figure out where their systems go. Various engineers must figure out how to make the lights, air conditioning, ventilation and power work.
None of them wants to be responsible for a building that is too hot or stuffy, can't heat its water or is too dim. So when each party gets to his part of the blueprint, he leaves no room for doubt.
A symphony without a conductor
A 100-ton chiller becomes a 150-ton chiller, which will never be maxed out and will always operate below its peak efficiency. As for the windows, they may be three times more energy-efficient than their predecessors. Still, the architect asks for three times more windows than the average building has because it looks sleeker.
All too often, Freihaut said, energy efficiency gets lost in translation.
"By the time you get to the end, everyone will have spent every effort they could to minimize their risk and maximize their profit," he said. "What happens? You wind up with the same building you could have had 20 years ago. And the data indicates that's actually what's happened in the industry."