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Last one out, please turn off the lights

Being in the dark pays dividends for landlords, nature


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Some downtown office towers work at saving energy at night, while others light up the skyline. Look around Portland after dark and, depending on where you gaze, the skyline is ablaze with wasted light, or darker than the average American city.

On a recent weeknight, six and a half floors of the Standard Plaza building on Southwest Fifth Avenue and Main Street were lit so bright that nearly every fluorescent tube and ceiling tile was visible. Down the street, you could look into the Multnomah County Courthouse and practically read the greeting cards on display.

But the Congress Center at Southwest Fifth Avenue and Salmon Street was so dark it resembled the black monolith in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

France recently enacted a law requiring shop and office landlords to turn off their lights overnight, starting in July, to cut carbon emissions.

In downtown Portland it’s hit and miss, depending on the priorities — and environmental ethos — of the landlord.

"Leaving the lights on at night is unarguably a waste of energy," says John Russell, owner of another monolith, 200 S.W. Market St., aka the Black Box. Russell has been known to call up his management company after seeing lights there at night and ask them what's going on.

You might think turning lights off at night is an easy way to save on the electricity bill. But it's not that simple.

The Black Box was the first multitenant building in the country to be certified LEED-EB (for existing buildings) when it was retrofitted in 2006. At the time, 200 Market got a sweep system, meaning all the lights on a floor would go off after a certain time. Janitors would turn them on again to work. Now, each time a tenant improvement is made, that floor gets motion sensors, which turn off lights if they detect no movements for 30 minutes.

200 Market has some investment bankers who start work at 3 a.m., so some activity is usually detectable. But Russell says people should look for the undetectable, too.

"For 30 years, the lights were on continuously in the underground parking garage, four acres of space," he says. But you don't need a lot of light to feel safe, Russell says.

Two years ago they switched to all-motion sensors. The lights are by default dim (10 perent of capacity) until they sense movement. "As you drive around you can see the lights turn on ahead of you, if you go fast enough," he says.

Russell says he’s never been around building managers who think a shining skyline is good for a city because it looks good. "Maybe that's true in Shanghai."

He is proud of Oregonians trying to save energy, even though electricity here is eight times cheaper than in Hawaii and three times cheaper than in New York.

Russell's motivation for scrimping on electricity, ahead of saving money, is to reduce his business's carbon footprint. "I do it for the same reason people recycle at home, because it's the right thing to do."

He has found that many big tenants looking for space will only look at LEED buildings.

Age plays a factor, too. "There's a divide — people under 40 care deeply about this stuff."

Kilowatt Crackdown

No laws tell building owners to turn off their lights at night, just civic recommendations and

"education." The Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability recently partnered with the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA Oregon) and came up with the Kilowatt Crackdown to educate businesses about saving electricity and motivate them via a little competition.

Lighting is not always high on business owners' list of priorities, says Alisa Kane, the bureau’s green building and development manager. "It often ends up not being a business expense," Kane says, because tenants pay for it. "And it's insignificant compared to health care, salary and other overhead."

The notoriously gloomy Portland Building (architect Michael Graves wasn't given much of a budget for windows) moved to a daytime janitorial schedule to eliminate the need to light the offices in the evening. It's the same at the 1900 Building. "This means the bathrooms are closed between 8 and 9 in the morning," Kane says.

Ty Barker is general manager of Unico Properties Portland, which manages the US Bancorp Tower, aka Big Pink.

The building was certified LEED-EB in 2009, and in 2010 automatic lighting controls were brought in to save energy. Big Pink's lights automatically "sweep" each floor, turning themselves off after two hours in the evening.

"It pulses the building so that all nonemergency lights go off," Barker says.

Look at Big Pink at 10 p.m. and you can see what he means. The lights are patchy. Where three long fluorescent tubes make a light unit, only one is lit after the sweep, still providing enough light by which to see in an emergency.

The cleaners work from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. "The night janitorial crew turns lights on as they clean,” Barker says. They’re not the only ones working. “We have a lot of tenants who work a lot of hours: traders, tech companies and attorneys literally burning the midnight oil."

LEDs are game changers

He's watched lighting technology advance from T12s (old fluorescent tubes, the kind that flickered and allegedly took more energy to turn on than leave on) to T8s and now T5s, with LEDs coming up rapidly.

"Lighting is like bike technology. It's not sexy, but it's making amazing progress right now."

Barker marvels at the savings from using a super-bright lobby bulb that can go LED and not have to be changed for 20 years instead of five, and thinks cities will go crazy for LED street lamps.

There are two elephants in the room now for building managers trying to cut energy usage: Electronic devices and temperature.

Office workers now have a collection of charger bricks under their desks for their phones, tablets and printers.

"In the end it's easy to improve the built environment, it just takes money and time,” Barker says. “What's difficult is changing human attitudes. People want it 72 degrees at their desk all the time."

Barker says there are big energy savings to be had by letting a building "float" in an 8-degree band on very hot and very cold days, as opposed to the 4-degree band that is standard now. "But people might have to get used to taking off a jacket or putting on a sweater at work."