Navigant Research Blog

Ending the Office Climate Wars

— July 17, 2014

For some commercial building tenants, interacting with the heating, cooling, and lighting of their offices has been a challenge.  There are the dummy thermostats, the inoperable windows, the buildings that are running heating and cooling at the same time, and the hot and cold calls from the corner office.

Many cubicle dwellers use space heaters in summer to keep their overly-cooled selves from shivering, while others need fans to mitigate afternoon sun – even in the winter.

Improved automated buildings controls, networked light sensors, occupancy sensors, and re-commissioning have all helped office workers be more comfortable in their workplaces.  Yet, the overarching problem remains.  This is due in part to the challenge of keeping old and complex system running optimally.  The other challenge gets back to the dummy thermostat: You can’t keep all people happy (or warm, or well-lit) all of the time.  It’s no simple matter to gain an understanding of people’s comfort levels and equip a building to serve those different and diverse needs.

My Chair, My Climate

The University of California Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment (CBE) has led a number of research efforts that try to determine how comfortable we are when sitting at our  desks.  CBE has developed prototypes of office chairs that incorporate user-controlled fans and thermometers.  These climate-controlled chairs, known as Personal Comfort Systems, aim to take some of the balancing load off the HVAC system.  A one-degree expansion of a building’s deadband (the temperature range where HVAC systems do not have to heat or cool) can result in energy savings reductions of 5% to 15%.

CBE also conducts regular occupant surveys in buildings of all kinds.  One recently found that occupants of LEED-certified buildings feel no more comfortable than those in buildings that lack the LEED plaque.  One interesting observation is that, over time, LEED-occupied people report less and less comfort.  Perhaps there’s a honeymoon period for green buildings when people seem to feel more comfortable.

The Goldilocks Strategy

For some occupants, the proximity to windows is an attractor, while others find the glare and the heat disruptive.  The smart glass company View has created a mobile application that enables users to remotely control their windows’ opacity from their desks.  The app allows a user to schedule tinting depending on personal need – for instance, when it’s time to wake from an afternoon nap.  For more on smart glass, see Navigant Research’s report, Smart Glass.

Meanwhile, a startup called Building Robotics is attempting to solve the collective comfort puzzle using an algorithmic technique.  Its innovative occupant comfort product, called Comfy, asks users to rate their comfort simply: too hot, too cold, or just right.  Comfy then tunes a building’s HVAC system to deliver maximal comfort based on occupant feedback instead of predetermined setpoints.  Using machine-learning algorithms and facility management guides, it can create user-focused HVAC schedules based on what feels good to most users, not what temperature air is being delivered.

Comfy will likely prove to be a disruptive technology, reducing the engineering focus on setpoints and increasing the striving for customer satisfaction (i.e., comfort).  As these types of technologies spread, office workers will be more comfortable; and in serving them, buildings will use less energy.


Silicon Valley Tackles the Energy-Water Nexus

— June 18, 2014

No two systems in the built environment are more tightly linked than energy and water.  It’s hard to identify a pathway of conversion, conveyance, and utility of energy and water that does not touch the other system in one way or another.  This is commonly referred to as the energy-water nexus.  A recent Navigant Research report, Smart Water Networks, touched on this topic, in the context of water network innovations and their link to recent changes in the smart grid.

A recent blog by my colleague Eric Woods emphasized the future trends in water at a global scale.  According to the United Nations, water demand will increase by 55% by 2050, with drastic increases in the manufacturing sector.  At the same time, more than 40% of the global population is projected to be living in areas of severe water stress through 2050.  On the energy side, energy consumption is set to grow as well.  According to the 2013 International Energy Outlook, world energy consumption will grow by 56% between 2010 and 2040, mostly in the developing world.

(Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Stresses on the System

And where do energy and water meet?  For consumers, look no further than your daily shower or dishwasher.  Heating water consumes 7% of commercial and 12% of residential energy in the United States.  With common appliances, it’s clear that making them more water or energy efficient cascades to savings of the other resource.

Another clear linkage in the energy-water nexus is hydropower.  In 2010, 16.1% of the world’s energy was generated using hydropower, and four countries – Albania, Bhutan, Lesotho, and Paraguay – generated all of their power from this source.

Looking back upstream in both energy and water, the linkages are equally impressive.  15% of all water is used for the energy sector.  Conveyance or pumping consumes more than 3% of the world’s energy, and in California alone, 7.7% of energy is used for water infrastructure.  Both systems are under stress from increases in demand, as mentioned earlier, but also from droughts, energy scarcity, and in some regions, political vulnerability (virtually all major river systems pass through more than one country).

Open Water Dive

Industry is taking notice.

At a recent Silicon Valley Leadership Group Energy and Sustainability Summit, I moderated a panel on how the cleantech space is making strides to manage the energy-water nexus in California and globally.  Chris King from eMeter (a Siemens company) discussed the need for open water data, analogous to the Green Button initiative.   Cynthia Truelove of the Center for Collaborative Policy argued that the disruptive technology that has made Silicon Valley so successful should carry over into creating disruptive policy that enables joint energy-water regulation that accounts for carbon impacts.  David Koller, from the Coachella Valley Water District, chronicled a pilot study that enabled customers to drastically cut down on water by providing them with smart water meters and relevant feedback in their bills.  From Imagine H2O, a water startup accelerator, Scott Bryan identified how WaterSmart, a company in its portfolio, is demonstrating success at becoming the “Opower for water.”  Some utilities are achieving a 5% reduction in residential water use in 6 months.

The discussion highlighted the need for a concerted effort among industry, policymakers, and end users to tackle the multifaceted challenge of the energy-water nexus of the present and the future.


Workspace of the Future: Less Space, More Workers

— June 9, 2014

Since the days of George Jetson’s sprawling desk at Spacely Space Sprockets, the concept of the “Office of the Future” has been the subject of much speculation.

Today, offices have shifted from the staid cubicle and corner office model to other dynamic layouts, with a myriad of names and flavors.  Open floor plans, where there are no cubicle-type walls, create a bullpen-like environment, with some senior staff located on the perimeter (see Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton Branch layout).  Hoteling is a process of “checking out” a desk on a first-come, first-served basis (though some spaces can be reserved a day in advance); employees’ personal objects are wheeled to the desk for the day’s activities.  Flex space, project-based configuration, and dynamic space all refer to space that can be reconfigured to suit collaboration and changing needs of employees on an hour-by-hour basis.  The new GSK building in the Philadelphia Navy Yard features “neighborhoods” where even the CEO can be found out in the open.

Closer In, Please

The driving force behind these new layouts is the urge to make workers more satisfied and efficient.  Other shifts, like the rise of telecommuting and wireless technology deployment, enable laptops to rise as the tool of the day.  Also behind the shift to new space configuration is the desire for companies to rent less space, thereby reducing operating costs.   All of these changes are driving some cascading impacts in the building industry.

First is the need for retrofitting space.  And with office retrofits come upgrades in lighting (and networked lighting), heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), and other space improvements.  Secondly, these changes have led to an overall increased density of people in offices, even with the new layouts.   This trend has been reported in Arizona and across the United States.  In 2013, Gensler reported that average square feet per person dropped from 225 to 176 from 2010 to 2012, and could drop to as low as 100 square feet per person by 2017.  A 2013 report by the British Council of Offices cites that in some buildings, worker density has risen from 12.5 square meters per workspace in 2008 to 9.6 per workspace in 2009, though the trend may be leveling off.

Is It Hot in Here?

One surprise leader in dynamic space is the United States’ real estate manager, the General Services Administration (GSA).  The GSA has recommended freezing the size of the U.S. government’s real estate footprint and has touted its newly renovated headquarters in Washington, D.C., as supporting more than twice the number of employees than it did pre-renovation.

What do denser spaces mean?  While the cost per square foot is an easy win for tenants, there are other impacts that may be challenging for building energy mangers.  With denser space comes the need for differentiated lighting and air conditioning.  More people and laptops per square foot can trigger more cooling.  While many buildings already operate with HVAC systems well over capacity, the new changes in density can lead to challenges in tuning a building to its needs.   All of these changes will make the jobs of energy and facility managers more challenging.  That said, more advanced and portable tools are now available in the market.   While it is evident the office of the future will be no single layout, the needs and comfort of tenants will always be dynamic, making intelligent building management ever more important.


Buildings Battle Moves into Finance

— June 2, 2014

As mentioned in an earlier blog, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is holding a competition to see how much energy commercial buildings can save using different energy efficiency techniques.  The DOE’s Better Buildings Challenge is aimed at large portfolio owners who committed to reduce their energy use by more than 20% over 10 years.  So far, the program claims over $100 million in energy has been saved by participating partners, associated with a 2.5% reduction in energy use.  The program is organized into three sets of partners addressing different sectors.  The first is focused on the majority of the building sector, including large corporate tenants, multifamily residential (public and private), government, and educational buildings.  The second extends to the industrial sector with the Better Buildings, Better Plants Challenge.  This part of the Challenge also aims to reduce energy use by data centers, which is growing at 9.5% a year.

The third phase of the Challenge is focused on utilities (though only California utilities have signed on to date) and financial institutions that have been developing financial packages that promote energy efficiency.  To date, 21 “Financial Allies” have committed to extend $1.77 billion in financing for energy-savings programs.  These companies have agreed to publicize their involvement in the Challenge, attribute and measure the energy savings from their program, and report quarterly to the DOE.  For many of these companies, this is hardly a stretch.  For companies like SCIenergy and Green Campus Partners, energy efficiency financing is the core of their business model.  General Electric (GE) Capital is using the program to highlight its lighting retrofit program.  Still others are using the program as way of advertising their products to government agencies.


(Source: U.S. Department of Energy)


As evident from the chart, the “reinvestment of equity” pathway is the most popular.  This service is aimed at the identification of energy savings at the institution’s customers, and using different programs to tag those savings for reinvestment.  It’s interesting that more financial institutions haven’t joined the bandwagon, as the Better Building Challenge gives them free publicity for their active business models.

The DOE has also included water in the Challenge.  The Water Savings pilot will enable concerted tracking of water savings investments.  Some of these will focus on IT-based solutions, like smart water meters and information management.  The utility approach to these topics was the focus of a recent Navigant Research report, Smart Water Networks.  Incorporating water will align with many companies’ sustainability goals, which include water and carbon in addition to energy.  However, the extension of water in the Better Buildings Challenge could further confuse the average consumer as to which U.S. government entity aims to reduce which resource.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is typically responsible for maintaining clean water regulation, yet it also runs the Energy Star Portfolio Manager Program, which tracks building energy.   The history of these departments is rich, and sure to be the subject of many political science dissertations.  We’ll just stick to the challenge of understanding these entities for now.


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