Non-Clinical Topics

Engineer Seeks to Make VAMCs More Energy Efficient Without Interrupting Their Mission

by U.S. Medicine

March 20, 2018

By Stephen Spotswood

James Symanski

WASHINGTON—Anyone who’s ever worked in a hospital knows how much energy a facility of that size consumes. From the electricity to keep the lights on and the technology running to the water used to keep everything sterile, medical facilities can be far from energy efficient. However, that’s what James Symanski, VA’s Sustainable Design Program manager, is tasked with doing—finding innovative and sustainable ways that hospitals can conserve energy.

Symanski spent nine years as an engineer officer in the Army before going to work at DoD. Stationed at Presidio of Monterey beginning in 2009, Symanski was tasked with ensuring the base upheld Executive Order 13514: Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance—namely its 10-year goal of cutting energy and water usage.

“We had a lot of challenges with water shortages there,” Symanski explained. “And that really piqued my interest and got me interested in sustainable design.”

In 2012, Symanski was recruited by VA to serve as the leader of its Sustainable Design Program. At the time, there had never been anyone full-time in that role at VA, but that didn’t mean Symanski was without a defined mission.

“There are lots of federal mandates for sustainability in our facilities. These are laws and regulations that Congress has come up with over the years and they keep getting added to,” he said. “We had somebody at VA wearing that hat part-time and trying to keep up with the mandates and make sure we were in compliance. [VA leadership] saw that was becoming too much, so I was brought on board.”

Symanski started off with a deep dive into the existing regulations and where VA was in regard to compliance. Then he began making a point of bringing more attention to the program and making sure VA advertised it.

“My being at meetings and bringing sustainability to the table—it’s got people thinking about it a lot more,” he explained. And the more that VA staff recognize sustainability is a priority, the more they’ll find ways to act on it.

The biggest focus for Symanski and his team is energy. “Hospitals use a lot of energy, so that’s where we can get the biggest bang for our buck. Current legislation actually requires us to design our facilities to be more energy efficient than the standard—30% better. That’s a huge step forward.”

Symanski makes sure that VA hospitals are looking to maximize everything they can in terms of energy. “We look at heating and cooling systems and wherever else we can cost effectively add efficiency or sustainability. On top of that, once we design it to be as efficient as possible, we begin adding renewable energy.”  

Water is the next biggest focus of the program, though a medical facility can only be so water-efficient and still do the work it needs to do. “Healthcare uses a lot of water,” Symanski explained. “You go into a hospital and they have much higher flow rates on the faucets, even in public bathrooms. And that’s because of infection control reasons.”

Still, Symanski looks to push the envelope on sustainability while protecting safety standards.

“From the get-go, we have sustainability built into the design contract and the construction contract,” Symanski said. “I’ve helped establish standards—the basic criteria every project has to meet. And I’m involved in the reviews and designs of all construction documents.”

The program not only keeps an eye on the designs for new buildings, but also innovations to existing hospitals and leases of existing structures. The result of this concentrated focus on sustainability has been significant. VA currently consumes 30% less water per year than it did in 2007. VA hospitals use 40% less energy per square foot compared to other U.S. hospitals. And in 2015, 24.5% of VA’s electricity came from renewable sources.

“I can’t say this is all due to the Sustainable Design Program,” Symanski noted. “Because it’s a VA-wide effort. A hospital has to not only be designed efficiently, but also operated efficiently.”  

Symanski is now turning his attention to what he calls the “sustainability/survivability nexus.” How can hospitals use energy efficiency to better prepare them to stay open and functional during catastrophic events, like hurricanes?

“We want to make our hospitals more resilient,” he said. “If we can keep the power on—renewable energy combined with generators and backup batteries—we can stay operational. It’s still in the conceptual phase. We’ve been in touch with hospitals that have been through hurricanes to get better ideas of how their systems are set up so we can better develop our criteria and requirements. And we’re still waiting on data from the latest hurricanes. It’s definitely a challenge.”

Related Articles

VA Vows to Stop Whistleblower Retaliation; Some Lawmakers Skeptical

VA leaders said loud and clear that the agency “will not tolerate” whistleblower retaliation.

VA Surgeon Sees His Role as ‘Pillar of Hope’ for Veteran Patients

The theme of this year’s Harlem Fine Arts Show—the largest touring African diasporic art show in the United States—is “Health and the Healing Power of Art.”

U.S. Medicine Recommends

More From news


VA Vows to Stop Whistleblower Retaliation; Some Lawmakers Skeptical

VA leaders said loud and clear that the agency “will not tolerate” whistleblower retaliation.


VA Surgeon Sees His Role as 'Pillar of Hope' for Veteran Patients

The theme of this year’s Harlem Fine Arts Show—the largest touring African diasporic art show in the United States—is “Health and the Healing Power of Art.”


GAO: Applications for VHA Healthcare Benefits Frequently Mishandled

VHA does not have the right protocols in place to ensure applications for enrollment are processed in a timely manner or that enrollment determinations are accurate, according to a new report.


VA End-of-Life Care Push Increases Hospice Use Among Veterans

An intense effort by the VA to improve end-of-life care is paying off, with hospice use increasing more among veterans than nonveterans.


Paliperidone Palmitate Helps Some Schizophrenia Patients

Even though nearly half of all patients diagnosed with schizophrenia have a history of substance abuse (SA), data on treatment of schizophrenia with paliperidone palmitate (PP) among patients with comorbid SA have been limited.

Facebook Comment

Subscribe to U.S. Medicine Print Magazine

U.S. Medicine is mailed free each month to physicians, pharmacists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and administrators working for Veterans Affairs, Department of Defense and U.S. Public Health Service.

Subscribe Now

Receive Our Email Newsletter

Stay informed about federal medical news, clinical updates and reports on government topics for the federal healthcare professional.

Sign Up