Ask for a tour of BigHorn Materials in Silverthorne, Colo., and you're likely to start in the boiler room. Or rather, it's the boilers room, for this space features four natural-gas-fired units configured to switch on only as needed.

It's a similar story in the barnlike showroom area, where the heating system is divided into 10 individually controlled zones to assure that the floor's radiant heat system gets used as sparingly as possible.

Look up, and you'll see two banks of clerestory windows that open automatically when things get too warm for back-office workers in the balcony, thus curbing the load on the air conditioners.

The windows also reduce the need for electric lights as well as the AC required to dissipate heat from those lights. Banks of ceiling fans help circulate air as needed. On the roof, solar panels generate electricity, and out back a windmill generator helps cool the electronics.

BigHorn's array so impressed the American Institute of Architects that this building near the Continental Divide was named one of the group's 10 best green projects in the nation in 2001. BigHorn owner Don Sather figures he'll recoup in six years the extra expenses involved in building his showpiece.

But ask Sather what dealers should do first to make their heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems green, and his answer may surprise you. "The easy and simple things are where people should invest in first–caulking and daylighting and weather-stripping and energy-efficient lighting," Sather says. "Those have a relatively small incremental cost. If something is reasonably expected to give you a 10% return each year, by most standards, 10% is a good investment."

The Energy Department goes further, saying that for every dollar spent, weatherization returns $1.53 in energy savings over the life of the measures.

Whether you're installing a system in a new building or upgrading the equipment in an existing structure, its optimal performance (and reduced energy demand) depends on a high-performance building envelope. A tight, insulated shell, including thermally efficient windows and doors, creates an environment that enables ultimate control of conditioned air and ventilation demand and costs.

This is especially true if your hopes for saving on HVAC expenses start with the assumption that you're going to stay in your building. That's because some of the most noteworthy innovations available today–a radiant floor system, for instance, or geothermal or passive solar energy–are hard to implement short of gutting the place you call home.

"It's easier to [achieve superior results] at that time than trying to upgrade an existing structure," says Kim Beisser, owner and CEO of Beisser Lumber in Grimes, Iowa, and a prime example of the value of thinking ahead. In 1999, Beisser pulled the trigger on a geothermal scheme to heat and cool a new, 12,000-square-foot office and retail/showroom building at its flagship location near Des Moines. Four years later and again in 2004, he had similar systems installed for a new door assembly plant and another office-retail building in Coralville (near Iowa City), respectively.

Geothermal systems take advantage of the Earth's constant temperature 200 feet below the frost line–in Beisser's area, it's 42 F–and tap that resource with deep, dry wells and propylene glycol (a nontoxic, antifreezelike conduit) to transfer the ambient temperature to heat pumps. Because the temperature in the system starts at 42 F, the heat pumps need only make up the difference to heat or cool the buildings, resulting in far more efficiency than traditional system.

Beisser's 20 wells plus a pair of heat pumps per building carried a 40% initial cost premium over natural-gas forced-air systems. Beisser hoped to recoup his investment in seven years. But thanks to spiking gas prices, the first system paid itself off in three years. Together, geothermal systems save Beisser Lumber $54,000 a year in heating and cooling costs.

Just more than 300 miles away in Beloit, Wis., ABC Supply Co. also is thinking ahead as it remodels and expands its headquarters. The 80-year-old structure overlooking the Rock River is expected by midyear to sport a green roof, which is a rooftop typically planted with grass, plants, and flowers to help avoid turning the air above the building into a heat island while insulating the structure beneath. Green roofs also help slow the runoff of water into sewer systems during heavy rains and filter the water along the way.

In addition, the building will get a cooling system that creates and stores ice at night during off-peak hours and then uses that ice to cool the fluid in the air-conditioning system during the day. That eliminates the need to run the chiller during peak hours. ABC figures the change will cut its electric bill $800 per month.

Can't afford those changes? Then at least consider swapping out your old thermostats for programmable units, which enable peak and nonpeak settings. That can reduce heating and cooling energy use up to 15%. If your building has old windows, upgrade them to high-performance insulating units. That lessens the load on the heating and cooling system and provides passive ventilation to reduce energy use for mechanical cooling and ventilation. Or just paint your roof or walls in black or white, depending on whether you want to absorb or repel solar heat.

The bottom line is that there is no single HVAC solution for an LBM facility. So much depends on the type, use, and size of the building, whether it's new or existing, the location's climate and building's orientation to the sun, and the conventional and alternative fuel sources available–not to mention budget.

As energy costs continue to rise, an increasing number of dealers have become inventive and aggressive in their approach to heating, cooling, and ventilating systems for their facilities. Some use recycled motor oil and scrap or waste lumber as fuel, parking lots as solar collectors, and other solutions outside the status quo in an effort to stem the tide while maintaining attractive, comfortable, and safe working and sales environments.

–Craig Webb