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

By U.S. Medicine

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.”


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