Environmental Intelligence for Health and Well-being: A Master Class at Green Cities in Sydney

by Chris Pyke, Aclima’s Chief Strategy Officer

I am excited to join leaders from across the Australian property industry at this year’s Green Cities conference in Sydney. I am especially looking forward to the opportunity to dig into new challenges facing the industry with a new Master Class about the science and technology of human performance and indoor environmental quality.

From my time with GRESB, I learned that Australia is the perennial world leader in the design and operation of high-performance buildings. Over the past 20 years, Australian property companies have innovated and adopted a comprehensive set of practices and technologies to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy, water conservation, waste management, and more. The next step for the Australian industry is to continue its leadership through the promotion of health, comfort, and human performance in buildings and communities.

This evolution has begun with widespread recognition about connections between health, comfort, and human performance and the design and operation of our built environment. Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA)’s Green Star and National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) have led the way in defining best practices and recognizing them in practical rating tools. This has helped propel a new generation of high performance buildings and communities. The next step is to connect the aspirations of design with the reality of operations and the lived experience of occupants. This is the new “performance gap” for the green building industry. Architects, engineers, and allied professionals will need new resources to measure and manage buildings to promote health, comfort, and human performance.

Tools of this new trade include surveys, sensors, sampling, analytics, and more. Some of these tools are familiar, but some are only just emerging into widespread practice. For example, most professionals are broadly familiar with periodic occupant satisfaction surveys. However, they may be less familiar with the difference between instantaneous experience and long-term evaluations. Similarly, many landlords routinely use annual air quality sampling services; however, they may be less familiar with new technologies for continuous environmental measurement.

These distinctions are increasingly relevant to day-to-day building management. Moreover, we see new dynamics emerging in landlord-tenant relationships. For example, tenants like multinational corporations are increasingly aware that many urban areas suffer from periods of unhealthy air. The proliferation of public data about these conditions creates awareness among employees and questions about the level of protection provided by facilities. Simultaneously, buildings occupants are increasingly carrying personal environmental sensors. Although data from these inexpensive sensors is highly variable, it does provide a basis for discussion. These trends put building owners and managers in an unprecedented squeeze between rising public awareness and occupant-collected data — and, most often, owners and managers have little or no data of their own to contribute to the conversation.

During our 3-hour Master Class, we will jump into these issues. We will start with a discussion of core scientific and technical issues underlying human performance in buildings and communities. We will then review long-standing and emerging tools, including a hands-on exercise to design an indoor environmental measurement strategy. Finally, we will have a panel of experts provide their perspectives from practice, including Jorge Chapa (GBCA), Lane Burt (Buildings Alive), Chris Nunn (AMP Capital), and Andrew Cole (LendLease). At the end of the half day class, participants will have a new sense of the state-of-the-art environmental building measurement practices, the role they can play, and the road ahead.

Learn more about “Environmental Monitoring for Health and Well-being” and sign up for the Master Class on the Green Cities website.

An unprecedented heat wave just blasted Australia, but commercial building operators were ready. Will they be ready in the US?

Big buildings’ energy consumption and demand is managed differently in Australia than here in the U.S. There are many reasons, like more expensive energy, higher demand charges, peaks that can be set annually, better metering etc. With experience in both countries, I have seen first-hand that premium offices in Australia manage energy more actively than their peers in the US, and some argue more effectively. GRESB survey results and the continued increase in the average office building energy rating (via NABERS) would seem to back them up.

So what happens when Australia gets blasted by an unprecedented heat wave and these buildings are really tested? How much energy do they use when its 110 Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) in Sydney? How do those supposedly well run premium office buildings fare?

Pretty damn well, actually. From the Buildings Alive blog – “Is peak demand growth really inevitable?”

“Despite the challenging conditions, 18 of the 36 Sydney office towers we’ve been helping to manage demand have achieved lower peaks than they recorded last year. The average increase was 0%. This is good for the environment and good for network stability. It is also good for the bottom line – combined, the buildings’ facilities managers have shaved 3,000kVA (~3MW) off the network peaks and will save their owners an average $12,000 per building in capacity charges over the coming year compared to what they would have paid if they had done nothing special.”

So on average, these buildings DID NOT increase their peak from the previous year, and half of them actually set LOWER peaks! Buildings Alive sends out “Peak Demand Forewarnings” up to three days in advance when their models suggest a building is in danger of setting a new peak. BA service engineers have worked with the FMs to put plans in place for dealing with these extreme conditions.

It is not like these buildings defied physics. They just pre-cooled spaces overnight, modified weekend set points, and tried to smartly ramp up and “coast” through the hottest hours. And of course they delayed energy use that could be delayed without impacting building occupants.

And we are pretty sure what would have happened without those changes:

“Ordinarily, such conditions would cause electricity demand to rise by roughly 8-10%*, as the AEMO data suggests. But is demand growth inevitable? Or, put another way, with sensible preparation and reliable forewarning of peak conditions, can over-investment in infrastructure and the dangers of blackouts be avoided?
(* We have found that for every 1 degree [C] increase in indoor-outdoor temperature differentials during summer, HVAC load increases by approximately 6%. This corresponds to roughly 3-4% higher base-building demand from office buildings for every degree increase in ambient temperature.)”

Now to speculate a bit, what would happen in the U.S.? If it hit 110 degrees F in New York? Are commercial building operators ready?

Hard to say. Our systems for “demand response” are different, but I do know that many facility managers give very little thought to peak demand events, and they generally do not have a strategy to avoid setting new peaks. But should they? I’m of the opinion that FMs should always make strategic changes to building operations so that the adequate conditions are provided to occupants, if at all possible, at maximum efficiency. This is true for heat waves just as much as it is true for opportunistically maximizing free cooling during nice weather. A building should always strive to run at its optimum efficiency in the conditions it faces. Put another way, there is no downside to active, informed, and prepared facility management.

Let’s hope we still have a while to study before we take this test!

Buildings Alive now optimizing buildings on four continents!

I know I have not been the most communicative this year from Ember Strategies HQ, but I have a good excuse…I’ve been busy! Take a look at the newly updated clients and projects list to see why.

I am most excited to share the official launch of the Buildings Alive facility optimization program here in the U.S., after many months of initial legwork. Clearly the appetite for human-centric engineering support for energy, water, and indoor environment quality optimization is not limited to the land down under, and the launch has quickly become international. We are happy to be working not only in the E.U., U.S., and Australia, but also in Israel, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, and India!

A little background on Buildings Alive, if I have not had a chance to tell you in person, is that they are a Sydney-based firm that works with large commercial real estate owners and operators on optimizing energy, water, and indoor environment quality. I initially noticed them during my time in Australia last year because of their results – averaging 17% energy savings in every building they touch, without capital projects or equipment upgrades. Further, I was quite taken with their human-centric, programmatic approach. The Buildings Alive “secret sauce” seemed like the missing ingredient from my experience with energy efficiency programs in the U.S.

The Buildings Alive secret sauce is not all that secret – they provide their clients unlimited engineering support and have used behavior science and thousands of interactions with facility managers to optimize the tools that make up the program. Maximizing facility manager engagement and creating human-to-human connections with building engineers yields results faster than software, analytics, or widgets. A continuous, programmatic relationship keeps the insights from being lost, as they often are with audits or consultants. The Buildings Alive program includes site visits and incredibly sophisticated analytics and software, but if you focus only on those components you miss the point of the broader program.

We initially “beta tested” our approach in the U.S. at the University of California at Berkeley, in partnership with LBNL and the University of Sydney. You can view Berkeley’s case study and Department of Energy profile of the project if you are curious. We cut operational expenses without any capital investments, sure, but the quotes from the on-site staff at U.C. Berkeley are more notable than the numbers.

Buildings Alive’s clients in Australia include the Sydney Opera House, Brookfield, Charter Hall, AMP Capital, Goodman, JLL, and Investa Property Group, among others. These clients have been recently joined by U.C. Berkeley, Google, and Tishman Speyer (specifically on IEQ), and we hope to add a few more.

But Lane, there are a million energy efficiency start-ups in the U.S., why would you import one from Australia?

It has long been a goal of mine to find ways to get more engineering into day-to-day building operations, and I think the Buildings Alive program is an incredibly effective way to do that, both in terms of cost and results attained. If you are curious about results, check out the Buildings Alive website for more info, and the graphic you'll see on the front page shows how the buildings they work with actually performed yesterday! The reality is that I had to go all the way to the other side of the world to find face-to-face engineering support and honest results.

Despite all the hype about “smart” buildings, the job of a facility manager continues to get more complex, and the number of compliance reports and surveys that asset and portfolio managers are required to submit only increases, and for good reason. We should all expect that commercial buildings are operated in an energy and water efficient manner while providing the healthy indoor environment that will maximize well being, health, and productivity, but we shouldn’t assume that achieving those goals is easy! The Buildings Alive program is a way for owners and operators to make the job a bit easier and get results.

Of course, I’ll be at Greenbuild, will you? I'm happy to talk about Buildings Alive and portfolio-wide strategies for energy, water, and indoor environment quality optimization. We expect to be announcing some exciting partnerships that will be of interest to folks working on sustainability in commercial real estate very shortly, so stay tuned!

CBECS 2012 released...so how much has energy use in commercial buildings changed since 2003?

With little fanfare, DOE released the consumption portion of the 2012 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) a few weeks ago. It is disturbing how little attention this received, since it is only the quantified impact of every commercial building energy efficiency program over the decade! The last survey results were from 2003, and hopefully a lot has happened since then.

Just having the results published is an accomplishment, as many (myself included) worked very hard to make sure the survey continued after a previous version was bungled. A broad thank you is owed to AIA, ACEEE, BOMA, USGBC and all the building industry organizations that threw their weight behind keeping this program alive back in 2010 and 2011.

Maybe even more disturbing than the lack of response to the release is that when I looked to find some thoughtful analysis of the results in comparison to the last survey from 2003, I found nothing! Am I the only one who cares? Come on energy efficiency professionals, where are you? I remember plenty of complaints about benchmarking with old data; where is the celebration? (That’s not completely true, as EPA did send out a blast about their plans to update ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager scores based on the new data, but still.)

So in an effort to encourage the creation of that thoughtful analysis, I have decided to release a quick and dirty version just to prime the pump. A more thorough effort is needed, to say the least.

All I have done here is take the “Total energy consumption and gross energy intensity for sum of major fuels, 2012” table of the 2012 survey and compare it to the same table from the 2003 survey. A few excel formulas later, here are the differences, in percentage terms. Of course, all rational caveats about drawing conclusions from simple statistics without the context of significance apply, because where there are not that many buildings to survey there may be huge differences in results that are not actually meaningful. (For example, the total floor space built before 1920 "increased" from 2003 to 2012, and that would require time travel.)

How does 2012 compare to 2003 for commercial building energy use:

So the first thing to understand is that the survey looks at the composition of the U.S. commercial building stock as well as energy use, for all fuel types, locations and uses, and then slices and dices the data. This chart shows the percent difference for the sum of all energy use, in site BTUs.

The top line conclusion is that the size of the U.S. commercial building stock increased, but energy use per building stayed the same and energy use per square foot dropped by 11%! Congratulations everyone, job well done!

Yes, but unfortunately the total energy used by the sector, and the associated environmental consequences, increased by 20%. So as a whole, the commercial building sector is using more energy, but using that energy more efficiently. Progress, but not nearly enough.

Digging a little deeper, CBECS shows us where efficiency gains may be happening. First, by building size:

I’ve highlighted the extremes in these columns. The first two columns show the growth by building size, and it occurs across the board. We are building big buildings, but maybe not as many huge, city-block sized buildings.

Interestingly, those giant city-block sized buildings are where much of the energy may have been saved. Buildings over 500,000 square feet do not show an increase in total energy use, like all other sizes. We seem to have not been as successful with energy efficiency in smaller buildings, as is to be expected.

How about by space use?

I can’t venture to guess how we have gone wrong in food service and food sales (never mind what the difference is between them), but we have all certainly done an amazing job in vacant buildings! Hi-fives all around! Joking aside, the results in offices, warehouses, and public buildings are legitimately encouraging. Healthcare looks to be a tremendous challenge moving forward.

And by year of construction? Are older buildings becoming more efficient? Here it is by decade of construction:

CBECS Comparison Table 4.JPG

Again, time travel is still not real, but those are big savings numbers for our oldest buildings. Hard to say what these numbers mean, but obviously we should be pro-preservation of the character of our cities and towns and pro-energy efficiency. I wonder what the next survey will say about progress in buildings built during the ‘oughts from 2000 to 2010, but initial results are not encouraging.

And what about building location? Here it is by census region and division.

Come on, California, get it together! I think the rest of the country is tired of your lack of enthusiasm for energy efficiency! Good job East North Central (Great Lakes states)! Here’s the census map for those of you unpatriotic Americans who don’t know it by heart.

So in conclusion, good work everybody! Energy efficiency has undeniably improved. Energy use by commercial buildings has also, unfortunately and undeniably, grown. The reality is that we have saved the country a whole lot of money through energy efficiency in the last decade, and certainly done less environmental harm than would have been done over that time period. Energy policy is complicated, and of course the impact depends on the fuel sources as much consumption and demand. Interesting exercise, but can we conclude anything more than that from the breakdowns? Probably not.

Hopefully someone will do a much more thorough and thoughtful analysis of the 2012 CBECS in the coming weeks.

Breaking: Harvard/Syracuse scientists say more bad stuff in the air is bad!

I finally got around to reading the Harvard/Syracuse paper recently published about the impact of VOC and CO2 concentrations on cognitive function in office buildings, and the results certainly justify the attention this study is receiving. You can read the study here, and the Fast Company article on it here.

Of course it is intuitively true that more bad stuff in the air is bad, but it is interesting that it has taken this long for research specifically on the office environment to quantify the impact in business relevant terms. We have all known that IEQ is business relevant and impacts the bottom line, because we have all experienced working environments where we felt unproductive but couldn’t explain why. Now we are finally getting some data to support the supposition! It’s great that these direct connections are being highlighted, and it’s even better that these connections are going to bring about a very tough question when it comes to buildings and energy efficiency. Namely, what are you getting out of your building for the amount of energy you put in?


It turns out that where work happens has an impact on the quality of the work, so naturally this will lead any rational business owner to take a good look at the quality of their work space. After all, they are paying for it, so what, exactly, are they getting? Does Class A rent in Class A office space mean Class A indoor environment. What is Class A indoor environment? What exactly are they getting for their money?

In the context of energy efficiency, this question is extremely powerful. We spend lots of time thinking about reducing energy use and water use in big buildings, but we don’t often consider what that energy is being used for. We talk about energy use in kWh and BTUs, but these are just the inputs into the building as a system, but the output is the indoor environment itself.

Energy efficiency is often talked about in energy use per area or square foot, but that’s not really energy efficiency. Real energy efficiency would be input divided by output. The EUI (energy use intensity calculated in energy per square foot or meter) is a dumb metric, as is openly acknowledged. We don’t actually care about EUI; we care what the total energy use for environmental and financial reasons. We should also care about the output, but we could never really define it. We did our best, in terms of thermal comfort and humidity and temperature, but we knew we were missing the effect of air movement, noise, odors, that annoying guy in the cube next door, etc.

Combine the conclusion of this study with much more advanced and cheaper sensors hitting the market that can measure things like VOCs and particulates, and perhaps can we try to understand the output side of the equation. You spent how many kilowatt hours of electricity to get what? Is that a lot or a little? Was there a better way to provide that same level of output with less energy input? Should you actually use more energy to improve the output of your system?
Actual efficiency is a measure of input compared to output. I’m not suggesting that more metrics and more performance outcomes are going to lead to less energy use, but at least we will have a better idea of where that energy use is going and to what end. We’ll have to figure out if it is worth it later on…

The CBD Program and the Energy Performance of Offices Down Under

From a one page fact sheet on my research in Australia:

Lane Burt was awarded the 2014 Fulbright Scholar Grant in Climate Change and Clean Energy, and as a result spent the first half of 2015 in Melbourne, Australia working with ClimateWorks Australia to identify the effects of the national Commercial Building Disclosure (CBD) program. The conclusions that follow are drawn from the context of the regulatory structure and real estate market in Australia.

Key Takeaways on Benchmarking:

The availability of energy benchmarks is having an impact on the commercial real estate market, in all tiers. The NABERS program results are compelling: the average improvement for a base building benchmarked multiple times is 8.6%, and between 300 and 400 ratings are produced quarterly.

The CBD program’s reliance on base building ratings (only owner controlled areas, no tenant spaces) has advantages and disadvantages.

Disadvantage: The energy savings resulting from the program, in individual buildings and in aggregate, must be considered in the appropriate context. A reduction in the energy use of a base building is a fractional reduction of the total building energy use. Energy use in tenant spaces (and general tenant engagement) is still a challenge, and base building only ratings may be improved by shifting loads to the tenant. That does not mean sector wide energy savings will not result from the program, but it does mean such savings cannot be directly measured from the program results.

Advantage: Base building ratings are more predictable than whole building ratings because they are less susceptible to forces outside the owner’s (or designer’s) control. Tenant activity will not jeopardize a rating and the benefits of the rating, so owners can pursue them confidently. This stability has repercussions throughout the supply chain for services, as engineers and other service providers are starting to guarantee base building ratings during design (or redesign). Such confidence reinforces the market’s expectation of the energy performance of an office building.

While there is no connection between Green Star (like LEED) and NABERS (like Energy Star Portfolio Manager), the expectation in the market that Green Star buildings will be at least 5 Star NABERS is very strong. This becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Credit for this success is shared between the designers and operators.

Below the top tier of the real estate market where Green Star is strong, the CBD may be establishing expectations of moderate and improving performance. Some NABERS assessors say that building owners who receive low ratings do care, and do take measures (generally metering and controls) to improve to a mid-performance level (ex. 3 out of 6 stars), because that is where they perceive the market expects them to be. Will this hypothesis be confirmed by the program data in forthcoming years?

It is not possible to identify a single cause of the change in market expectations for the energy performance of top-tier and mid-tier commercial office buildings. Certainly the availability of NABERS ratings in advertising and the CBD time-of-sale-or-lease requirement has had a large impact, but there are also complementary policies that can also claim impact. For example:

  • The Property Council of Australia included the attainment of 5 star NABERS and 5 star Green Star ratings in its guidelines for determining Premium and Class A real estate classification (and 4 starts for Class B). This may have formalized existing expectations or enabled shifting expectations, particularly in mid-tier real estate.
  • IPD developed the Australian Green Property Investment Index in 2011, which has repeatedly demonstrated that Green Star and NABERS-rated buildings financially outperform non-rated buildings, especially at the upper end of ratings performance.

The requirement triggers for CBD (at time of sale or lease) result in different growth trends in the dataset of building benchmarks, as well as the vintages of the benchmarks. In the four years of CBD program implementation there are now 1500+ buildings with multiple ratings. This subset of the larger dataset is the most interesting. Buildings receive multiple ratings at the rate they are sold or leased in Australia, as opposed to the second year of mandatory benchmarking in many U.S. cities. This structural difference may portend a different rate of change of the ratings over time in the Australian program than in most U.S. programs.

What to Do With This Information?

A less volatile/more predictable assessment of base building energy use may benefit U.S. programs by enabling the type of performance guarantees that are beginning to happen in Australia. Perhaps the authorization for EPA and DOE to create Tenant Star rating for tenant spaces also provides the opportunity to assess base buildings in a complementary fashion, and consistent with the whole building ratings currently produced by Portfolio Manager. It is not clear that the public disclosure of base building ratings would be necessary to attain the benefits of their existence.

Energy ratings should make their way into more transactional decisions in real estate, perhaps through leasing/procurement criteria or real estate classification. BOMA provides general, non-specific guidance on Class A, B, and C office space but does not publish specific criteria. Potentially, cities (or CoStar) could use the data collected as part of local benchmarking programs to suggest energy rating ranges for local premium real estate. This may be more feasible if a base building assessment were available to avoid misleading perceptions of inefficiency in some buildings with demanding tenants or space uses.

Better metrics could be developed to identify how susceptible a building’s energy performance is to tenant behavior in the absence of base building/tenant space ratings.

What research would be required into the financial performance of rated buildings in the U.S. to enable the development of a green property index similar to the Australian index? Certainly such an index would be impactful, and perhaps better information on the performance of base buildings and tenant spaces would provide additional, usable context for investors.

Back in the States and Up and Running at Ember Strategies!

After a whirlwind of travel, it is a blessing to be back in San Francisco! I return from Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore, benefiting from work on building energy efficiency policy, specifically building energy codes, voluntary green building certifications, and building energy benchmarking requirements.

What’s next? Stay tuned! I hope to put the lessons learned from my time overseas to good use, and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company would certainly like me to finish my work on their Mills River facility. I’m looking forward to new challenges in the building sector, to say the least.

I’ll be writing a bit more about my observations of the Australian real estate market, and the energy policies and programs impacting it on the blog, so keep an eye out for those upcoming posts, if you are in to that sort of thing.

“Building Energy Rating & Benchmarking: Understanding Similarities and Differences” written by Lane Burt, Andrew Burr, and Adam Hinge published at the 2015 ECEEE Summer Study on buildings in Hyeres, France.

A paper I co-authored with Andrew Burr (U.S. Department of Energy) and Adam Hinge (Sustainable Energy Partnerships), informed by my time in Australia, was published at the biennial ECEEE Summer Study on Buildings. I took one for the team and presented the paper at the event held in the French Riviera.

The paper details the structural differences in benchmarking programs in Europe, the U.S. and Australia, looks at the initial data these programs are generating, and suggests outstanding questions that need to be answered in the coming years. There is no link yet, so contact me if you would like a copy.

Cities continue to move forward on public benchmarking programs for big buildings

While I was down under, Atlanta and Kansas City added their names to the growing list of real estate markets where annual energy data will be available. The multifamily sector in Philadelphia was also added to the city’s existing program.

While the benefit of this information to those that buy and sell buildings (or those that invest in companies that acquire, own and operate buildings) is clear, are there other uses for the data these programs generate? Based on what I saw in Australia, I think I have some ideas. Ask me.

Fall in San Francisco...

Its still between 55 and 65F and breezy by the bay, and its still very busy at Ember Strategies. Who needs seasons?

This week is Greenbuild in New Orleans, and the week after is VERGE 2014 in San Francisco. If you'll be at either, let me know - I'd love to catch up.

At Greenbuild you can hear about progress on the City Energy Project on Wednesday at 8 AM, at a high level in the Master Session A15: The Future of Sustainable Cities and in specific cities in the education session A03: Leading Southern Cities Ramp Up on Building Efficiency.

Shameless: Check out this profile of me on the NC State Alumni Association blog

Small profile as a result of the Fulbright and CIES fellowship to Australia. Also, overall a great blog (Red and White for Life) that often profiles Wolfpack alums doing interesting things, and I am happy to be among them.

ncsu alumni.jpg

Alumnus earns fellowship to further studies in climate change


Lane Burt grew up in a family of engineers. Burt’s father and grandfather are both engineers, and both graduated from NC State. So it’s only natural that Burt, who graduated from NC State in 2005 with a degree in mechanical engineering, is pursuing a career in engineering.

And in February, part of that career will be spent in Australia collaborating with researchers overseas about the evolution of policies in energy efficiency and climate change.

Burt is the 2014 recipient of the Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Climate Change and Clean Energy.  The Fulbright program, sponsored by Australian and U.S. governments, provides short-term research grants to professionals in a variety of academic fields to pursue collaborative projects with eligible institutions overseas. Burt will study at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

Burt’s passion for energy efficiency research originated from his family’s construction business in Huntersville, N.C., where he worked during summer months in college.

“It’s hard to understand how much energy is actually wasted,” he says. “I’ve always had a conservationist streak, but I really noticed it when I worked in construction. It didn’t seem like a big enough issue for building managers to keep their buildings running properly.”

As a result, Burt later created Ember Strategies, a startup firm that works with clients to help them adapt to energy saving standards and products. Before he founded Ember Strategies in 2013, Burt worked in Washington, D.C., as the policy director for the U.S. Green Building Council and on the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Burt says working in Washington was one of the most valuable experiences he’s had as an engineer. “Policy makers really valued my technical knowledge and experience,” he says. “They don’t hear from engineers a lot.”

One of the biggest challenges Burt says he faces is getting people to recognize the concrete, daily changes they need to make in order to save energy, and, in turn, save money.

“Whether it’s at Ember or not, everyone is for saving money,” he says. “But when you dig deeper, it takes real effort and time.”

– Will Watkins




The LEED Plaque Unpacked: What a Decade of LEED Project Data Reveals About Architects, Engineers, and Building Energy Efficiency

Last week, the U.S. Green Building Council and Ember Strategies released the results of a deep dive study into the design energy efficiency of a decade of LEED buildings at the ACEEE's 2014 Summer Study on Buildings - the biennial gathering of building efficiency nerds in Pacific Grove, CA. Ten years of LEED data shows the evolution of the best in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry as they strive for more efficient building designs and a few industry quirks.

Basic background: LEED certification is the international language of achievement for green buildings. Buildings are certified at varying levels (from basic Certified to Silver, Gold, and Platinum) based on the number of points they earn across the categories of green building, like energy, water, indoor environment, location, and materials. Having a LEED certification is one of the ways commercial real estate owners prove their building is one of the best in the world as they work to attract tenants. This study looked at the New Construction rating system for building design and construction and specifically certain energy efficiency related credits.

Before digging in to the data, it is important to understand that a LEED rating system is born, it grows, and eventually it dies and is replaced by a new rating system. This is unlike a building code or standard. The LEED rating system is tweaked in each version to raise the bar for achievement, of course, but also to try and fix credits that just aren't working. If no one achieves a credit, there is no environmental benefit to having it. USGBC uses feedback from the market to improve the rating system over time.

Progress: More certifications and more green buildings, but not lower achievement.

One might expect that as the number of LEED certified buildings has grown, relative efficiency achievement would decrease, but that does not appear to be the case. The chart below is fairly characteristic of LEED rating system growth, by certification level (Certified, Silver, Gold, Platinum). The average design efficiency stays remarkably consistent at around 27% better than would have been required in the absence of LEED. Over the years, the industry produced more green buildings at all levels, not just at the minimum specification.

LEED 2.2 Avg Efficiency and Growth
Design Efficiency LEED 2.2

Progress: Within certification levels, consistent levels of design efficiency are achieved over the life of the rating system.

Design Efficiency LEED 2009

One might expect that design teams become good at creating LEED Gold buildings, for example, and then eschew energy efficiency points in favor of cheaper or easier options as a rating system ages. This does not appear to happen. The charts to the left show design efficiency of different certification levels over the life of a rating system, and achievement is remarkably consistent. The market does not deliver less efficient LEED buildings as the years progress. On the other hand, the market also does not deliver more efficient LEED buildings with time.

Progress: LEED building designs have become more efficient over time (but we don’t know exactly by how much).

The success of a building design in terms of energy efficiency is generally assessed by how much more efficient the design is than what is required by the most stringent energy code at that time. This difference determines how many LEED points are awarded for energy efficiency. Building energy codes get updated about every three years, and then become the baseline for the associated version of LEED (a relationship that will now expand to other categories thanks to the ASHRAE ICC, USGBC agreement). This moving baseline makes it difficult to track industry improvement over time, but not impossible.  

If we look at the percent by which LEED buildings in different rating systems are beating the code, we see consistency within rating system versions and within certification levels. According to the Department of Energy, each new energy code baseline is a big jump in efficiency over the old. Since the code is different for each building, it’s impossible to say exactly how much better this group of buildings is than code, but we at least know that 29% better than the 2007 baseline is much better than 27% better than the 2004 baseline and so on.

We know that average design efficiency of LEED v2009 buildings (about 29% better than the 2007 code) is much better than average design efficiency of LEED v2.2 ( about 27% better than 2004 code), which is better than the average design efficiency of LEED v2.1 (about 37% better than 1999 code, for the buildings that earned the credit).

LEED asks those designers to do better than they were otherwise required to do, and these improvements  are the results.

For now, YMMV (your mileage may vary) with LEED buildings, but there is reason for optimism in V4.

A Prius with four flat tires does not get very good gas mileage, and neither does a poorly operated LEED building. Unfortunately, the data shows that not as many LEED buildings in LEED v2.1 and LEED v2.2 as desired achieved the credits that help buildings realize their design potential.

LEED M&V Credit

Buildings that have a measurement and verification plan will earn the M&V LEED credit and should be more likely to identify and fix problems with their facilities. In v2.1 and v2.2, only about 20% of projects earned the credit, but in v2009, that rate doubled. What happened? USGBC increased the point value of the credit, and the market responded. It would seem there is a lesson to be learned there.

LEED Commissioning Credit

Another crucial credit to help buildings to reach their potential is enhanced commissioning, or having a third party check all the building systems in operation. While all LEED buildings get basic commissioning (it is mandatory), there is a voluntary enhanced commissioning credit for those that go above and beyond. Nearly all buildings would benefit from enhanced commissioning, but unfortunately only about half of LEED buildings in all the rating systems have been convinced to do it.  Learning from LEED v2009, USGBC has decided to triple point value of a significantly reworked credit in LEED v4. In this case, bribery (with LEED points) may be the best policy.

Conclusion: There is way more to learn from LEED data.

The LEED credit achievement data is a treasure trove of insight into how we design and build our buildings and what motivates building professionals to do better. USGBC is working to make more of this information available through the Green Building Information Gateway (GBIG), where it is mingled with ENERGY STAR certifications, Living Building Challenge certifications, and building energy benchmarks from cities that enable it. In the data, there are answers to countless questions about the evolution of the green building industry over time.  Questions about renewable energy, use of sustainable materials, location efficiency, water efficiency, etc are just the start.


DIY Smart Home: A Flood of New Products Promise to Let You Take Control of Your Home

It seems like every week there is a new product hitting the market promising to make your home a smart home. The products promise to save money, save energy, impress your friends at parties, or let you be even lazier than you already are. As an energy geek, I got excited about the new thermal camera for your iPhone, but many of these products can make you more comfortable and make your life easier.

This week, the new gizmo was the Ninja Sphere, which promises to control your lights, let you know when you left an appliance on, or even track your pets. Pretty cool, right? I really needed something to track my cat for me.

But if you don't want to pick one of the new products and worry about brands and the interoperability of your new stuff, why not just make your old dumb stuff smart?

A company called littleBits put out something called the CloubBit two weeks ago. It promises to let you "snap the internet to anything" so you can make your home smart without buying all new stuff. (Aside: two out of the three featured "smart" ideas on the CloubBit website are pet food related. Are we building smart homes for us or our pets?)

I've got a couple CloubBit projects in mind already: automatically turning off my wildly inefficient but great sounding tube amplifier, and remotely starting a second cycle on my clothes dryer. I even kinda wish I needed air conditioning here in SF, just so I could see what I could do with it...

Turn Your iPhone Into a Thermal Camera? Yes, Please.

FLIR, a company that makes thermal imaging tools sent out a press release yesterday announcing they will be taking pre-orders on the "FLIR ONE" which looks like an iPhone case that gives your phone the ability to display a thermal image (yes, like in Predator).

I wonder if this gizmo will bring the home improvement/DIY crowd to home energy efficiency. To this point, most DIY efficiency improvements involve guessing what to improve (weatherstripping, window sealing, some more attic insulation, why not?) or figuring out how to get access to special equipment (like blower doors and thermal cameras). 

Now with a $350 iPhone add-on you can see if you are making a difference. You can walk outside on a cold night (or hot day) and see where your money is being wasted. 

Certainly this gadget is not a replacement for a real live home energy professional, but at least now you find some energy waste problems on your own.

And leaky home aside, now I can finally convince my girlfriend there is NO BEAR outside the tent without ever getting out of my sleeping bag. I'm pre-ordering.

Like this but with an iPhone...

Like this but with an iPhone...

He's bona fide. What are you?

I spent last week in D.C. at the City Energy Project retreat, where NRDC, IMT and staff from each of the 10 CEP cities gathered to discuss how to move forward on city policies to eliminate energy waste in big buildings. (Refresher: CEP is a multiyear, multimillion dollar energy efficiency effort in the cities shown on the map below.)


It was great to hear what the cities are planning, and when you consider their plans in the context of what is happening in New York, Portland, Seattle, D.C., etc., you realize what a fundamental wave of change is happening around the country. Nearly all major American commercial real estate markets will soon begin to emphasize the importance of smart building operations and minimizing energy use. I'm convinced we are fast approaching the tipping point for big buildings, where line between "green" and "brown" will become very clear.

The total square footage of commercial built space in each of the 10 CEP cities adds up to a big number. Add the built space in New York, D.C. and others cities that are moving ahead as well and you get an even bigger number. These cities make up a huge portion of the total built space in the U.S.

After the tipping point, good building operations will be business as usual. Not doing it will stand out more than doing it.

Of course, for some of the leaders in the real estate business, smart building operations are already business as usual. Their executives can speak competently to the declining energy use in their portfolio, and increasing numbers of LEED, Energy Star or otherwise pedigreed properties.

But what about building owners and operators that cannot speak to what their building's energy use is or should be, much less the trend?

I can't help but think of Penny, from "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"

"He's bona fide. What are you?"