Navigant Research Blog

A Conversation with Sharon Alton, Executive Director of USGBC Colorado

— September 3, 2014

On August 13, the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Colorado chapter held a commercial real estate forum to highlight green building projects in the state, particularly Denver’s recently reopened Union Station, which is pursuing LEED Gold certification. 

Following the event, I sat down with USGBC Colorado’s executive director, Sharon Alton, to discuss the state of green building and LEED in Colorado.

Madeline Bergner: Are any particular commercial building types adopting LEED more than others?

Sharon Alton: Colorado actually mirrors the rest of the country.  Office is by far the highest building sector percentage of LEED-certified buildings, and I think the reason for that is that it’s the most common one.  LEED for homes, either single-family or multi-family, comes in second behind office, and LEED for schools is third.  We have a big conference every November, the Green Schools Summit, which highlights green building in schools.

MB: What are some of the drivers of energy efficiency in new construction and retrofits in Colorado?

SA: A lot of investors are demanding LEED certification for buildings in their portfolio, so that’s definitely a factor.  Technology is the other key one.  As technology is improving really quickly, it’s just going to make the whole green building process that much easier and more economical.  Ten or 12 years ago, certain aspects of green building technology were more expensive, and they’re not now because they are more efficient and new technologies have started to drive down the cost.

MB: On the other side, what are some barriers to green building and LEED certification?

SA: If decision makers don’t adopt LEED early in the planning process, costs can increase.  A green building doesn’t need to cost more than a non-green building.  However, many times, because people think about pursuing LEED too late in the process, then it does end up costing more, and that’s what gives green building a negative reputation.  As a result, part of what we need to do is educate people and explain to them that they need to adopt this early on in the process, and therefore costs won’t need to increase.

MB: Is green building activity in Colorado mainly concentrated in Denver? What other kinds of projects are going on around the state?

SA: Since Denver is the most dense, populated area of the state (as well as other areas along the Front Range), that’s where you’ll see the most green building.  However, there are great projects going on throughout the state.  We have a group in Aspen that promotes green building there, and there are some interesting projects in the area.  USGBC Colorado gives green building awards, and we received some great award applications from Grand Junction, Colorado Springs, and other parts of the state.  You’ll find green building all over, but along the Front Range is where most the green building is, purely because it’s where most of the buildings are.

MB: At the forum, one panelist said that the ultimate goal of USGBC and similar organizations was to no longer exist.  Is this how you see the future of green building?

SA: If we get to a point where everyone is doing sustainable things and utilizing green building, that’s going to become the status quo.  As we try to push the envelope and make things greener and greener, and get to net zero, LEED Platinum may end up someday just being the code that all buildings have to build to.  So then you wouldn’t call it a LEED building, it would just be a building.

 

In New York, Greening Older Buildings

— July 21, 2014

Building energy efficiency has reached the mainstream.  Clean energy technologies have become so common that technical training in renewable energy and energy efficiency retrofits is becoming more and more accessible.

Green City Force (GCF), a Brooklyn, New York-based non-profit, has trained nearly 300 young adults living under the poverty line in New York City for careers in the green economy with the group’s Clean Energy Corps.

Clean Energy Corps supports a variety of projects related to energy and efficiency, including energy audits in low-income homes, urban agriculture, and energy efficiency retrofits.  The corps provides its members with an academic and technical training program to prepare them for college; the program leads to certification for entry-level work in energy efficiency and includes GPro, a nationally recognized certification in building science.

Retrofitting

One of the major partners for GCF, and for Clean Energy Corps specifically, is the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).  More than 8.4 million people reside in New York City, and 615,199 of them are served by the authority’s Public Housing and Section 8 programs.  This represents 7.4% of the population of New York City.  Together, both programs cover 12.4% of the rental apartment stock in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

NYCHA’s property portfolio is equally impressive and rivals commercial housing developers.  It oversees 334 developments, including 2,563 buildings and nearly 178,000 apartments.  In contrast, the Chicago Housing Authority has 21,000 apartments in 128 properties.  Los Angeles has 2,491 apartments across a portfolio of 93 properties.   Only 20% of the developments in NYCHA’s portfolio are less than 30 years old, and one-third of the authority’s developments are more than 50 years old.  Modern buildings are built with energy efficiency in mind, but older buildings have more room for improvement.

The More the Better

GCF develops service projects in partnership with NYCHA, city agencies, and other non-profits.  One example is the Love Where You Live Challenge, which bring corps members together with fellow NYCHA residents to reduce energy use in homes.  Corps members gain experience and skills, while the authority reduces its energy costs.  NYCHA spends $535 million annually on utilities.

NYCHA is not the only public agency using innovative approaches to promote energy efficiency.  The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) recently awarded Philips Lighting a 10-year lighting performance contract to upgrade lighting across 25 parking garages to LED lighting.  Instead of paying out of pocket for the 13,000 fixtures, WMATA will share the savings in energy costs with Phillips over the 10-year period.

For disruptive technologies such as energy efficiency, the more business models in the market, the more accessible the clean energy economy becomes.

 

Green Buildings Get Capital Vote

— July 2, 2014

While Congress drags its heels on climate change legislation, the District of Columbia has become a leader in green building requirements.  The D.C. Green Building Act of 2006 requires that all new private development projects 50,000 SF or larger qualify for the LEED-certified designation.  As a result, Washington not only has more LEED-certified buildings than many states, but also has the second-largest number of ENERGY STAR-certified buildings of any city in the United States (Los Angeles is first).  As the number of green buildings in the nation’s capital increases, attention is being focused on the actual energy efficiency performance of these buildings.

The Washington Examiner, a local tabloid, provided a shockingly poor analysis of the impact that LEED certification has on buildings in D.C.  The report looks at data provided by the district government on energy intensity based on actual utility bills to determine if buildings constructed to LEED standards are more efficient than buildings that are not.   The analysis examines the performance of buildings over a set period of time and compares a group of LEED buildings to non-LEED buildings.  But buildings are considered to be LEED buildings if construction to meet LEED standards has been completed, is ongoing, or is even just planned as future work.  Examining projects such as Ballou High School (estimated completion date: June 2015), Stuart-Hobson Middle School (December 2015), and Lafayette Elementary School (August 2016), the report overlooks the fact that the performance benefits of building to LEED standards are not realized until after construction.  Rather than conclude that the buildings with the poor energy performance were chosen to be renovated to meet LEED standards, it concludes, bizarrely, that LEED standards are meaningless.

Commissioning Key

Though it may be easy to dismiss this analysis outright, it raises an important question about how to ensure that a building’s performance is aligned with its design.  During operation, buildings drift toward inefficiency.  Periodic commissioning of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems can optimize the building’s performance.  (This process is described in Navigant Research’s report, Building Optimization and Commissioning Services, from 2012).  Indeed, the LEED standard for new construction requires fundamental commissioning of buildings and provides an additional credit for enhanced commissioning.  However, commissioning is rarely repeated more than once every 3 to 5 years.  The drift in building performance is an opportunity for new approaches to energy savings.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is attempting to capitalize on this opportunity through the launch of its dynamic plaque, which provides an ongoing LEED rating to measure and display a building’s rating in close to real time.  But a dynamic plaque still needs an operator to diagnose and address changes in performance.  The future of well-tuned buildings lies in ongoing commissioning, which automates the process.  Solutions available from several building energy management system vendors not only monitor performance, but also detect anomalies and recalibrate the control system to meet ideal parameters.  By applying fault detection and diagnostics-based algorithms that track individual control and equipment performance on an ongoing basis, continuous commissioning provides the best opportunity to guarantee that green buildings are energy efficient buildings.

 

GSA Tackles Building Energy Management Challenge

— May 6, 2014

The keynote of this year’s Building Energy Summit was delivered by Dan Tangherlini, the administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).  It provided a refreshing look at how the federal government is in many ways a leading adopter of innovative building energy technology.  Tangherlini showcased a variety of energy-saving measures that have come out of the Green Proving Ground program.  The most interesting by far was GSALink, a building energy management system (BEMS) aimed at improving building operations.  This tool provides information on the performance of a building, including its envelope, heating and ventilation, lighting, plug load, water use, occupancy, and other critical resources.

The advances the GSA is attempting to make in energy management seem challenging.  Under President Obama’s Executive Order 13514, the GSA is mandated to reduce energy consumption in the buildings it manages by 30% by 2015 compared to a 2003 baseline.  This is a daunting task, as the agency manages 360 million square feet of buildings, with many historic and iconic buildings in its portfolio.  GSALink is one of the approaches being used to meet this ambitious target.  By flagging spikes in energy or water usage and providing operators with possible causes and solutions, buildings can operate more efficiently.  The system went live in June 2013 and won the FedScoop 50 Award for Technology Innovation of the Year.

Strange Bedfellows

With over 400 active players in the global BEMS market, the range of options for connecting with building systems is nearly as diverse as the number of players.  As pointed out in Navigant Research’s report, Building Energy Management Systems, a leading model for BEMS vendors has yet to be established.  The early players in the space are each adopting different approaches, with solutions available from building control systems vendors, enterprise-level data IT integrators, utilities, and facilities operators.  One of the questions is whether energy management will become a facility management application or whether facility management will become an energy management application.

The GSALink contract was awarded to IBM, SkyFoundry, Environmental Systems Inc. (ESI), Tridium, and several other firms, with IBM leading the project.  The GSA appears to have opted for an IT systems integrator approach, treating the data fed from a building as a potential big data problem suited for such an integrator.  Other approaches include relying on the companies whose products generate and transmit building data, like Johnson Controls, Schneider Electric, and Siemens, and relying on utilities to provide submeter-based analytics.  GSALink hasn’t provided a definitive answer as to what building model will lead the BEMS market.  But at the least, the 32 million square feet of buildings currently covered by GSALink and the potential additional areas will solidify IBM’s presence in the BEMS market.  It will be interesting to watch how these developments affect this nascent vendor landscape.

 

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