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."

From 1979 to 1986, the average square foot of a commercial building cut its energy use by about a third, according to the Energy Information Administration. But from 1986 to 1999, the last year of published data, the number stayed flat.

Policies play a role, too. Freihaut cites a 1913 Pennsylvania law, for example, that requires all public construction to offer separate bids for electrical, heating, ventilation and plumbing systems. At the time, the goal was to keep politicians from shunting all contracts to a few, well-connected firms and allow greater participation from the many small businesses that make up the construction industry.

Today, however, that law makes it hard to design a building whose pieces work together, rather than against each other. Engineers distrust architects; plumbers doubt construction teams. Each player overdesigns her part of the building, and the spiral continues.

Today, thousands of buildings in the Philadelphia area have been constructed according to this model. It's Freihaut's, and GPIC's, goal to point out a huge retrofit opportunity -- and to convince the building industry it can be lucrative to change the old way of doing business.

That's where Building 661 comes in: to do the convincing.

The new mission of Building 661
A crumbling, clammy reminder of the Philadelphia Navy Yard's past, Building 661 languishes a few blocks from GPIC's current offices. Once, it was where sailors and mechanics shot hoops, swam with their families, played locker-room hijinks.

Today, vandals have had their way with parts of it, dashing the walls with graffiti. The air sits utterly still, unperturbed by any humming machines or distant voices that would suggest human life. Upstairs, in what used to be the weight room, ceiling panels have been blown out by the cycle of winter chills and summer swoons. They droop; they gather in unkempt piles.

A ghost-hunting squad, or a demolition team, might salivate for a shot at Building 661. But first dibs go to GPIC, which has until 2015 to convert it into a tip-top green building -- and its headquarters.

The hope: If Building 661 can do it, anyone can.

At 30,000 square feet, it's the Joe Blow of commercial buildings. According to the EIA, 98 percent of America's commercial buildings are 100,000 square feet or smaller -- everything from fast-food joints to warehouses to office towers.

Building owners upbeat
Together, they account for about 10 percent of all energy consumed in the United States, representing one of the most distributed and toughest to crack sources of energy savings in the country.

If GPIC can crack the code in Philadelphia, the private sector is watching.

"This type of stuff is huge on our radar, as an organization," said Don Haas, who recently chaired the Philadelphia chapter of the Building Owners and Managers Association, or BOMA. "Their mission and how they're approaching it, I don't know, personally I'd be optimistic."

Historically, he said, energy efficiency has been pushed by salesmen -- by companies that stand to make money from the retrofit -- but GPIC could play the role of honest broker.

"I would be extremely hopeful that we would end up with something that was useful in a generic fashion, and not a manufacturer-specific type of product," Haas said.

Tomorrow: the makeover of Building 661.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500