Category Archives: Measuring performance

What’s missing in green buildings? Training

The following post is from Washington State University:

More than one-third of new commercial building space includes energy-saving features, but without training or an operator’s manual many occupants are in the dark about how to use them.

Julia Day recently published a paper in Building and Environment that for the first time shows that occupants who had effective training in using the features of their high-performance buildings were more satisfied with their work environments. Day did the work as a doctoral student at Washington State University; she is now an assistant professor at Kansas State University.

Julia Day

She was a WSU graduate student in interior design when she walked into an office supposedly designed for energy efficiency and noticed that the blinds were all closed and numerous lights were turned on. The building had been designed to use daylighting strategies to save energy from electric lighting.

After inquiring, Day learned that cabinetry and systems furniture throughout the building blocked nearly half of the occupants from access to the blind controls. Only a few determined folks would climb on or under their desks to operate the blinds.

“People couldn’t turn off their lights, and that was the whole point of implementing daylighting in the first place,” she said. “The whole experience started me on my path.”

Working with David Gunderson, professor in the WSU School of Design and Construction, Day looked at more than 50 high-performance buildings across the U.S. She gathered data, including their architectural and engineering plans, and did interviews and surveys of building occupants.

She examined how people were being trained in the buildings and whether their training was effective. Sometimes, she learned, the features were simply mentioned in a meeting or a quick email was sent to everyone, and people did not truly understand how their actions could affect the building’s overall energy use.

Green-building occupants aren't always taught how to use the building's energy-saving features.

One LEED gold building had lights throughout to indicate the best times of day to open and close windows to take advantage of natural ventilation. A green light indicated it was time to open windows.

“I asked 15 people if they knew what the light meant, and they all thought it was part of the fire alarm system,” she said. “There’s a gap, and people do not really understand these buildings.”

According to CBRE Research, the amount of commercial space that is certified as high-performance in energy efficiency through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star or U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED has grown from 5.6 percent of commercial space in 2005 to 39.3 percent at the end of 2013.

Yet in many cases, the corporate culture of energy use in buildings hasn’t caught up. While at home our mothers nagged us to turn off the lights when we left a room or to shut the door because “you don’t live in a barn,” office culture has often ignored and even discouraged common-sense energy saving.

Day found that making the best use of a highly efficient building means carefully creating a culture focused on conservation. In buildings with an energy-focused culture, workers were engaged, participated and were satisfied with their building environment.

“If they received good training, they were more satisfied and happier with their work environment,” she said.

She is working to develop an energy lab and would like to develop occupant training programs to take advantage of high-performance buildings.

“With stricter energy codes, the expectations are that buildings will be more energy efficient and sustainable,” she said. “But we have to get out of the mindset where we are not actively engaged in our environments. That shift takes a lot of education, and there is a huge gap right now.”

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The next big thing in energy conservation? Small commercial buildings

The following post is by the Preservation Green Lab:

A new report released by the Preservation Green Lab in Seattle says an array of energy savings in small commercial buildings across the United States could profitably yield more than one quadrillion Btu annually, which translates into more than $30 billion in annual cost savings and improved financial performance for small businesses.

Conservation efforts commonly focus on larger structures, but 95 percent of all commercial buildings are less than 50,000 square feet. This is a massive and largely untapped opportunity for new energy savings.

“The energy savings detailed in our report represent the equivalent of 580,000 permanent new American jobs,” said Mark Huppert, Director of the Preservation Green Lab, and a lead author of the report. “Harvesting energy efficiency from small buildings is like striking oil, except it’s domestic, clean and keeps dollars in our local economies. The savings will produce real jobs that can’t be offshored or outsourced.”

Ninety-five percent of all commercial buildings are less than 50,000 square feet — a largely untapped opportunity for energy savings.

The report, “Realizing the Energy Efficiency Potential of Small Buildings,” was produced by the Green Lab in partnership with the New Buildings Institute, a nonprofit that works collaboratively with commercial building interests to remove barriers to energy efficiency. The analysis was funded jointly by The National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Here are the key findings:

  • Small buildings are responsible for 47 percent of the energy consumed by commercial buildings.
  • Small businesses or firms with fewer than 500 employees own 84 percent (3.7 million of 4.4 million total) of small buildings.
  • Potential energy savings in small buildings range from 27 to 59 percent, depending on the building type. This represents 1.07 quadrillion Btu annually or 17 percent of commercial energy use.
  • Small, neighborhood businesses such as restaurants, grocers and retailers can improve profitability by more than 10 percent through smart investments in energy savings.

The report recommends that utility regulators create incentives for energy efficiency to unlock the potential savings in these smaller buildings. Pilot projects that pay customers for measured energy savings could demonstrate how the private sector can drive down energy costs while utilities continue to earn a profit. These innovative programs also offer utilities the opportunity to burnish their images.

Some utilities are already embracing this approach. “I believe the cleanest power plant that I will build in the future is the one that I don’t build,” said Duke Energy CEO James E. Rogers during a 2012 address to the Urban Land Institute.

Programs that engage small businesses owners represent a big opportunity for the financial sector, as well as for the businesses themselves. “Since 2005, Wells Fargo has financed more than $21 billion for “green” businesses, “green” buildings, and “clean” energy customers, including $900 million in loans and investments benefitting low-income communities or housing projects,” said Andrew Kho, senior vice president with Wells Fargo Commercial Banking. “These investments can help our customers reduce their monthly operating expenses and support a transition to a “greener” global economy.”

The Preservation Green Lab is a sustainability think tank focused on the reuse and retrofit of older and historic buildings. A project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Green Lab was launched in 2009 and is based in Seattle.

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Crunch the numbers and preservation wins

The following post is by Kathleen O’Brien:

New is not always better.

I have to confess that I’ve been a little put off by local historic preservationists self-righteously declaring that “preservation” equals sustainability and leaving it at that. Yes, yes, I understand that recycling buildings intuitively makes sense, but since sustainability sometimes asks us to think counter-intuitively, I needed more. At a recent Sustainable Cities Roundtable conducted by King County’s Green Tools Program, I got what I needed.

Photo courtesy of McKinstry

The previous owner used stacks of wooden pallets to keep the ceiling from falling in on this 104-year-old railroad building in Spokane, but McKinstry bought it and spent $20 million to create high-tech office space for its 150 Inland Northwest employees.

Robert Young, PE, LEED AP, is professor of architecture and director of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Utah, and author of the new Island Press release, “Stewardship of the Built Environment.” He was guest speaker at the Roundtable. Young provided some very satisfying arguments for promoting preservation and building reuse as a sustainability strategy. In making his arguments, he gives equal weight to what he terms SEE (or what some of us have called the “three E’s”): social, economic, and environmental factors, and defines stewardship of the built environment as “balancing the needs of contemporary society and its impact on the built environment with the ultimate effects on the natural environment.”

The Historic Preservationists have been at their best when justifying conservation due to social factors, and Young does speak to this. What I appreciated is that he also addresses environmental and economic factors in an analytical but highly accessible manner. One of the areas he touched on in his talk was the idea of calculating energy recovery as part of understanding the energy performance of preservation vs. new construction. As Young notes in his book, “the argument for measuring embodied energy to justify the retention of a building is (still) met with skepticism.” He claims this is largely because embodied energy is considered a “sunk cost” and therefore not part of decisions about future expenses. I think he would also say it’s because of our societal preference for the glitter of “new” vs. the practicality of “existing,” which may not be part of the accounting equation, but certainly humming in the background.

In his talk, Young used his own home to compare the energy recovery periods required to simply perform an energy upgrade to his home, to abandon the home and build a new one in the suburbs, or to demolish and rebuild in place. When he accounted for the embodied energy in the new buildings (whether in place or in the suburbs), the energy to demolish the existing building, and operating energy required for the remodeled or new building, it became clear that the remodel was the best choice when considering true energy performance. In scenarios provided in his book, energy recovery calculations result in recovery periods that exceed “the expected useful lives of many buildings being constructed today.” And this is without calculating in the transportation energy expenses that are likely to accrue when the new building is built in a greenfield out in the suburbs.

In the economic realm, Young compared the job creation resulting from highway, new, and rehab construction. In jobs per million dollars spent, rehab wins again. Although a small part of the construction activity (Young estimated 5%), rehab creates roughly 5 more jobs per million dollars spent than highway construction, and 2 more jobs per million dollars spent on new construction. If I am interpreting Young’s figures correctly, just by turning our economic recovery lens on rehab and away from highways and new construction we could potentially create between 6-12% more jobs per million dollars spent on construction. (And we might actually reduce the environmental, social, and economic negative impacts of sprawl — even if it’s “green”)!

Young’s talk introduced some great food for thought, but I’m so glad to be reading his book. In his concluding chapter, “Putting it All Together,” he provides a list of “challenges” for stewards of the built environment, ranging from advocating outcome-based codes (since prescriptive codes are based primarily on new construction practices) to presenting project lessons learned (both positive and negative) to “decision makers and policy shapers who mediate building preservation and reuse policies.” Lots to work on.

Kathleen O’Brien is a long time advocate for green building and sustainable development since before it was “cool.” She lives in a green home, and drives a hybrid when she drives at all. She continues to provide consulting on special projects for O’Brien & Co., the firm she founded over 20 years ago, and provides leadership training and mentoring through her legacy project: The Emerge Leadership Project.

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When greening your office space, don’t overlook the plugs

The following post is by the New Buildings Institute:

To help commercial building owners and occupants get control of the growing amount of energy used by office equipment and other electronic devices, New Buildings Institute released the Plug Load Best Practices Guide. It is based on research done by Ecova and NBI for the California Energy Commission’s Public Interest Energy Research Program, and gives advice on how to save money by reducing energy use in offices.

Lyn Baxter |

Plug loads account for 15-20 percent of electricity use on average.

On average, plug loads account for 15-20 percent of electricity use. For offices that have already improved the efficiency of lighting and HVAC systems, that number can be as much as 50 percent. The impact of plug loads can be reduced by up to 40 percent through a combination of no- and low-cost steps such as:

•  aggressive power management settings

•  inexpensive hardware controllers like timers and advanced plug strips

•  occupant-based strategies

When the time comes to replace equipment, buying new energy-efficient models can also reduce energy bills. The guide also gives advice on how to manage energy used by computer server rooms.

According to NBI Senior Project Manager Amy Cortese, “Owners, tenants, purchasing managers, IT directors and building occupants all have a role in managing plug load energy use. Our goal with the Plug Load Best Practices Guide is to help them establish a workable plan for cutting that energy use.”

The largest plug load energy users are computers, monitors, imaging equipment, server rooms and computer peripherals.  The guide outlines steps for selecting the highest efficiency equipment for a given job when it’s time for replacement. “Simple equipment upgrades and making sure that control settings in most office equipment are enabled can make a huge difference,” said Cortese.

“Through this research, we found that occupants can and should play a significant role in managing energy use,” she said. “This guide will help office managers engage tenants and occupants in learning about these simple measures and ultimately reducing their own energy and utility costs.”

The Plug Load Best Practices Guide is part of Advanced Buildings, a set of tools and resources designed to help improve the energy performance of commercial buildings. Funding support for development of the guide was provided by the California Energy Commission’s PIER Program.

New Buildings Institute works with commercial building professionals and the energy industry to promote better energy performance in buildings.


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Community Power Works expands services to all of Seattle

The following post is by Christine Grant, an associate at Cascadia Consulting Group.

“We just got a $1,200 bill from the oil company.  We just can’t afford it anymore,” lamented a Seattle resident who recently called the Community Power Works for Home customer service line.

The Community Power Works customer service team is used to hearing stories like this. Hundreds of Seattle residents have turned to CPW over the last year because of high energy bills, drafty windows, an old furnace that just can’t warm the house, or moldy insulation that is worsening allergy symptoms.

CPW contractors Bob Thorson and Charlie Rogers

“The best part of the job is being able to tell residents that have cold, leaky homes and high energy bills — Community Power Works can help!” says Maryellen Hearn, a customer service representative.

Participating in Community Power Works starts with a home energy assessment called an Energy Performance Score, or an EPS.  The EPS measures your home’s energy efficiency and determines the recommended upgrades that will reduce energy use and make your home healthier and more comfortable. This assessment is valued at $400, but costs Community Power Works participants just $95 thanks to a special rebate from Seattle City Light. Over 800 Seattle residents have received an EPS through Community Power works since the program started last April. The results from the EPS are educational — and often motivational too.

“When we learned that 86 percent of the warm air in our house was escaping each hour and being replaced with cold air from outside, we were shocked. That provided us with the motivation to act,” said Washington Park home owner Allyson Adley.

Common energy efficiency upgrades include duct sealing, floor and wall insulation, window replacements, and heat pump water heaters.  A very popular upgrade has been the installation of a ductless heat pump — especially for customers who had oil heat and wanted to switch to electric heat.  Community Power Works home energy auditor, Charlie Rogers, explains that, “if you heat with oil, you are probably spending between $1,000 and $2,000 annually on oil to heat your home, and possibly more based on fluctuating crude prices.” Yearly heating costs for an average Seattle home with an electric ductless heat pump are much lower — usually between $189 and $394. Community Power Works is also currently offering a $1,200 incentive for all customers who install a ductless heat pump, in addition to a range of other incentives that could save you thousands of dollars.

The average Community Power Works customer increases the energy efficiency of their home by 30 percent — this not only increases the comfort of a home, but also the asking price once it comes time to put the home on the market. Starting last fall, the green features and energy efficiency of homes are now being considered formally as part of the home appraisal process. Buyers are also quick to start adding up what utilities are going to cost them — especially if they are looking at an older home.

Community Power Works for Home recently expanded to serve all of Seattle — you can sign up here.

Community Power Works also plans to conduct energy upgrades at four local hospitals — Virginia Mason, Swedish, Harborview, and Group Health — by June 2013 while also upgrading hundreds of small businesses and more than a dozen municipal buildings.




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