Touring Cobo Center's 2.4 million square feet of energy efficiency

Posted on July 31, 2012

When Detroit architects, Giffels and Rossetti completed Cobo Hall and Convention Center in 1960; they could not have known how much the 700,000 square foot facility would change in the next 50 years. The complex underwent a massive face-lift and expansion in 1989 that nearly doubled the original footprint to 2.4 million square feet and converted the original modern facade to the massive cubic formation we now see along Washington Blvd. The building’s infrastructure — it’s heating, cooling, and electrical systems, however, were never appropriately updated to handle so much square footage.

Now, 23 years later, the rebranded Cobo Center is undergoing a $300 million renovation that will once again dramatically alter the complex’s appearance. This time though, the changes are more than just skin deep. The renovation includes substantial energy-saving infrastructure and operations improvements. The Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority (DRCFA) hopes these efforts will help attract new events, increase revenue, and positively impact Detroit’s reputation as a destination choice. When they hired the specialty venue management company, SMG to take over operations in 2010, reducing utility costs was a top priority.

So far, their efforts are paying off. Between January and June of this year, Cobo saved $1.1 million in energy costs. Thom Connors, SMG Regional Vice President and General Manager at Cobo Center says the reduction, “came as a result of energy saving improvements and capital investment, more strategic planning in how we operate the building, and more hands-on management over our use of power and heat. And it helped to have environmental conditions we could take advantage of; a warm winter and a dry summer.”

Many of the changes hinged entirely on instituting best practices and educating the staff to operate from an environmentally conscious perspective. The facility has implemented a comprehensive recycling program, now uses all non-toxic cleaning products, sources most of its in-house catering locally, and even grows its own herbs and greens on site. For now, they are in planters, but a green roof may be installed soon.

By the end of 2011, the facility had completed most of the infrastructure upgrades as well. The steam heating system now benefits from new steam traps and a reset schedule that adjusts the hot water based on the outdoor air temperature; a converted chiller plant with variable speed drives and optimized controls cycles grey water from the river to cool the complex; new occupancy sensors installed in the exhibit halls adjust the temperature according to CO2 levels in the room; and a new enclosed airlock at the exhibit hall loading docks keeps indoor air in and outdoor air out while crews are setting up for exhibits.

The most visible changes, however, are the thousands of new lights throughout the facility. If Cobo’s Director of Engineering, Al Vasquez’ enthusiasm during a recent tour is any indication, the new lighting and controls are the facility staff’s pride and joy. They have installed brand new high-intensity discharge (HID) lights in the meeting rooms, hallways, and non-exhibit areas, 3,000 new induction lamps set on variable dimmers in the exhibit halls, and new LED lights in the parking garages.

According to Vasquez, an astonishing 88,000 incandescent and fluorescent bulbs lit the exhibit halls for years. In 1996, those were replaced with 3,000 HID lights that saved about $2 million a year. The new induction lights made by Everlast, a subsidiary of Michigan-based Full Spectrum Solutions, have now replaced the HID lights in the exhibit halls. The induction lights are 50 to 70 percent more efficient overall than the HIDs and produce a color more suitable for illuminating large exhibit spaces. They also last at least 10 to 15 years. For a facility with 725,000 square feet of exhibit space and ceilings as high as Cobo’s, only changing a light bulb once in 10 years amounts to a substantial maintenance cost reduction.

On the exterior and in the parking garages, new dimmable LED lights are now controlled by a solar sensor that determines the appropriate level needed. They are also equipped with motion sensors that trigger the dimmers when a person approaches. Vasquez promises that as long as that solar sensor is working, no exterior light will ever be at full capacity during the daylight hours. “They better not be,” he says.

A large portion of the electricity savings comes from a new digital control system developed by Full Spectrum Solutions. The system allows facility engineers to control the lighting level remotely. “I can take my son to Boy Scout camp and still adjust the hall lights from my phone if need be,” Vasquez says. He can also program the lighting levels years in advance for any given event.

In the ballrooms, where more formal events are commonly held, engineers can program any conceivable color scheme a client wants. “We can match the colors of the bridesmaids’ dresses,” says Vasquez.

In the next two years, Cobo Center will see even more infrastructure improvements. Plans call for additional HVAC system and control enhancements, low flow plumbing fixtures, more efficient escalators, as well as improvements to electrical, fire, and communications systems. We may even see solar and wind hybrid area lighting, and of course, the green roof.

These initiatives are not only reducing energy costs, but also helping to make Cobo a leader in sustainability amongst large venues. In January of this year, Cobo received the state’s Green Venues Michigan Steward certification, making it the largest facility in the state to do so. The certification program, managed by the Michigan Energy Office, encourages entertainment venues and convention centers to adopt green practices that reduce costs and conserve natural resources. Other certified venues include the Detroit Institute of Arts, the DeVos Place Convention Center in Grand Rapids, and the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center in Ypsilanti.

When renovations are complete in 2015, the DRCFA will have spent $21 million just on energy upgrades. Much of that comes from a SmartBuildings Detroit grant administered by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC). The program provides matching grants and low-interest loans to eligible commercial property owners who wish to make their buildings more energy efficient. To date, SmartBuildings Detroit has impacted over 12 million square feet in the City of Detroit.

For Thom Connors, a Michigan native who worked with SMG all over the country before returning to Detroit in 2010, the project’s success is the result of the DRCFA’s effective regional planning efforts. They should serve, he says “as an example of what can be done when agencies and government authorities cooperate on a regional basis.”

Cobo Center’s renovation adds to a growing list of projects in southeast Michigan that champion environmental stewardship. It proves what Connors has known for years, that Detroit cares about its natural resources and environment.

By: Denise Mcgreen, Model D