Architect Eric Corey Freed specializes in green designs and his firm makes extensive use of geothermal heating and cooling in his projects. That experience led the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association to invite him to deliver the keynote at this year’s Technical Conference and Expo, held Oct. 9-10 in Las Vegas. National Driller spoke with Freed about his keynote, his views on geothermal and a range of other topics. This is a part of that conversation. Find the rest in October’s print issue of National Driller.

Q. First, let’s start with the basics: Who are you, and why would contractors in geothermal want to hear what you have to say?

Well they might not want to hear what I have to say because the message I want to give them is we have to transform how we build our buildings and how we look at energy. But, I’m a green architect and have been for the last 20 years and I’ve been essentially on a mission to make every building a “living, regenerative building.” And you can’t do that without looking deeply at the energy systems, the heating and  cooling systems that go into it, since that’s such a large part of the energy use of the building, and since buildings are such a large part of the energy use of the entire country.

Q. Can you talk about the value of geothermal versus other types of heating and cooling?

Geothermal is one of the many tools in my tool belt of what I use, and it all really depends on the type of project and the site, of course. But, I will say that every project is at least reviewed for geothermal, just as every project is reviewed for both solar and solar thermal. To me, architects, builders, engineers, we have a responsibility to offer the best solution to our client and not wait to be asked to do it. So, yes, every time that we build a site, we should be looking at geothermal, (and) we should be looking at solar and pricing it, designing it and seeing if it’s feasible.

Q. Geothermal tends to be pricier than other options up front. How do you broach that with a client, or does that even matter for the types of clients you have?

If the client is a developer, and the developer’s goal is to make money, then it’s a more difficult sell. It’s not impossible, it’s just more difficult. For example, the developer wants to build a building as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible and sell it or flip it to someone else in the shortest time possible. Any time you have a scenario like that, the developer is not going to be interested in anything that has higher upfront costs, but a better payback, as would be the case with a ground source heat pump, or with solar, or even with just basic energy efficiency. It’s a harder argument to make.

So, what I’ve been doing in those situations is, we’ve been flipping that financial model. When I’ve been talking to a developer, I say to them, “You’re going to get into the energy business. You’re going to be selling not just the building. You’re going to be selling services. So, when people buy your building, they’re going to also be buying from you for the next 20 years energy and heating and cooling. And you’re going to sell it to them.

I’m presenting it to them as a longer-term opportunity. So here, you’ve have a monthly residual income for the next 20 years by selling the services that energy provides. Remember that people don’t necessarily want to use oil. They just like the services oil and natural gas provide. So, let’s focus on those services: those services being electricity, warmth and cooling. So, we can commoditize those into real services and get the developer to realize the goal is not to sell the building as cheaply and crappily as possible, but to actually provide the best building possible. Then, suddenly, they’re open to the conversation. Quite frankly, after the crash of 2008, developers are now open to having that conversation more so than ever before. After the crash of 2008, developers have realized that the old financial models might not be working as well as once previously thought.

If I can come along and then offer them a new arrangement that still makes them money, but makes for a better building, they’re not opposed to it. … It’s a relationship. It’s moving from a product-based model, which was the heart of the 19th and 20th centuries, to a service-based model. And if we can do that with our buildings, we can really start to reverse some of these incentives we’ve had that have been blocking these options of things like ground source heat pumps and solar.

Q. A prominent quote on your website reads, “I quickly grew tired of waiting for clients to ask for a green building. … Instead we just force it on all of our clients equally.” Geothermal contractors don’t design the buildings; they just work on a small piece of the overall structure. That said, is there a way for contractors to apply the same philosophy?

That’s a great question. I think too often we are apologetic about what we’re doing, whether you are an architect who’s struggling to be an environmentalist, or whether you’re a ground source heat pump installer struggling to educate people about the benefits of your system. I think, in a way, we’re almost too apologetic. “Oh, gosh, please, do you think you could look at my energy efficient system?” I think what they fail to remember—and I’m going to talk about this in my keynote—what they fail to remember is you have right on your side. You’ve got the better argument. You’re offering the better system. I mean, after all, you’re offering a system that could cut emissions by 40 percent. You’ve got one that could cut energy use by up to 70 percent. You’ve got something that’ll really have a much longer lifespan, is more in touch with the building, ends dependency on foreign oil, and probably gives a better quality of heating comfort than just blowing recycled air over and over again. You’ve got the better argument. What are you so apologetic for? I think we just need to remember that: Not only are you doing the right thing, but you’re making the building better. I think, if you keep that in mind, talking to people will change, and change just enough it’ll turn their heads. That’s really been my approach to it.

Obviously, we need architects and builders to understand these systems better, so they start specifying them. That way, the installers can just go in and do their jobs. But, in the meantime, the installers are going to have to play the role of evangelists and start telling people about these systems, how wonderful they are. The more they can educate people about it, the better off we’ll all be.

Q. Are there types of training or professional knowledge you’d like to see more often among geothermal contractors?

No. In regards to their systems, I think they know their systems inside and out. What I would like to see is maybe an understanding of the bigger picture of the energy use of a building. Buildings in the U.S., for example, are responsible for half of our energy and material use and, therefore, are responsible for half of our carbon emissions. On the electricity side, it’s even worse. The average building in the U.S. is responsible for 72 percent of our energy consumption. So, as much as people like to point the finger at  cars, and say cars are the environmental villain—and I guess they are, in a way—it’s really our buildings that are to blame. Our buildings have the biggest impact of any other system. And that’s what I mean by saying, if they realize that they’re working to fix that, they’re working to make that better and they’ve got the better environmental argument, they’ve got the better value proposition, that geothermal and solar don’t need to feel so apologetic about it. They can hold their head high knowing that they’re actually actively working to make the world a better place.

Q. In which parts of the country would you expect to see geothermal increase its market share in the next 10 years?

I would definitely say in the Midwest, more north central region. I think there’s a huge advantage there, because their heating and cooling bills are so great, and I think it’s a missed opportunity. I think if you look at a place like California, our climate is rather temperate. Although we have a heating load, it’s rather laughable compared to what they have to deal with in Minnesota.

It’s also a place that’s experiencing growth, so if you look at a projected growth map of the U.S., that’s one of the areas that’s projected to grow. So, it kind of makes sense to target that area there.

I think the idea of using geothermal in the broader sense—whether it’s using thermal mass, whether it’s sinking the buildings into the ground, whether it’s using earthen berms to help shield it—I think in some form, every one of my buildings addresses the idea of warmth from the Earth in some way, whether it’s a formal system or not. And, therefore, it’s applicable to every region of the country.

Q. Are there any obvious questions I didn’t ask, or any parting thoughts you’d like to leave with my readers?

I’d like to encourage them to come to the show and after the show to come up and say “hello,” of course. But I want them there, I want them in a good mood, I want them to be ready for a fun, engaging keynote. We’re going to have a lot of laughs, we’re also going to learn a lot and look at the world in kind of a unique way. So, I’m excited to meet them in Las Vegas.