Over the 10 years of its existence, the LEED certification program has designated 25,000 buildings, representing 1.6 billion square feet of cumulative floor space in the United States and abroad, as officially green. Three years ago, less than one-tenth of that had been certified. So, at this point, there is a critical mass of buildings from which to pull data and draw conclusions about how well green buildings perform.
Indeed, the growing mountain of data to mine in the construction industry was one of the key themes of Greenbuild, the green building industry’s flagship conference. Greenbuild went to Toronto this year, marking the event’s 10th anniversary as well as its first time outside of the United States. Grumpy airport workers aside, I think most of the conference’s 23,000 attendees would agree that it was a successful event.
Last year, at Greenbuild 2010, attendees tended to talk in a more theoretical sense about what could be done with data; now, the conversation is shifting toward an examination of what to do with the data we now have. In addition to the growth of the green-certified building stock, advances in building energy management technology are allowing building owners, CEOs, and tenants gain insight into their buildings’ performance in a way that could only be imagined just a few years ago.
As James Finlay of Wells Fargo put it, today’s buildings are like cars with no odometer or speedometer. Imagine paying for gas once a month rather than when your tank runs out – you can’t do anything about how much gas you’ve used once you receive that bill, nor do you know whether your high bill was related to driving with a lead foot or whether your car is just a gas-guzzler. That’s how we operate buildings today, and the advent of new forms of data is starting to bring the Prius effect to the building sector.
In addition to making building owners more aware of energy consumption in real-time, data on how green buildings perform in terms of energy use as well as in terms of the real estate markets is lowering hurdles for green building. Data on energy efficient system performance as well as other metrics such as sales price, occupancy rates, and perhaps even worker productivity will continue to apply hard numbers to the claims of many reports and anecdotal sources that suggest that green means value. And with that data comes the potential for the lending institutions and appraisers to develop lending instruments that accurately reflect this added value.
What kinds of data can we expect to see in the next few years? The U.S. Green Building Council, for example, is developing a Web-based database called the Green Building Information Gateway that will allow users to access new information on green certified properties, such as energy performance, and analyze data in charts and maps that show green building progress.
Another important new source of building data will come from commercial building benchmarking laws, which are brewing in several major metropolitan areas throughout the United States. Although it’s unclear to what extent the data sets generated by these laws will become accessible to the general public, New York City officials expect to release aggregate numbers once the project is in full swing. In most cases, the data is coming together via the EnergyStar Portfolio Manager, which evaluates building performance against benchmarks established through the DOE’s CBECS database. (Note: The CBECS database, whose fate has lain in question for the last few months, looks like it’s coming back.)
The rapidly evolving field of building energy management is going to be an engine of building performance data generation, too. While data will be highly variable in terms of content as well as accessibility, the advent of new technologies such as sensors and networking in commercial buildings will create piles of real-time data on building performance. In addition, LEED 2009’s five-year utility bill submission requirement and points for technologies like submetering will dramatically increase the number of data-giving nodes throughout the built environment.
The coming challenge, as I see it, will be getting that data into the right hands in the right format. Building owners may benefit from largely the same data as lending institutions, but bundling, analyzing, and visualizing that data in a way that transforms the status quo will depend largely on what tools software companies, building service companies, and others bring to the discussion.