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A Business Case for Green

New Protocol Aims to Bring Green wisdom to Real Estate Business Data


By Nadav Malin

As green buildings expand into the mainstream, compelling stories are no longer enough, especially for the skeptics in the financial industry.

A Business Case for Green
Photo courtesy JIM Frazier

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Anecdotes of dramatic financial benefits—far exceeding the potential savings from energy or water conservation—from increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and improved retail sales are routinely bandied about. Yet there is a marked shortage of hard data to support those claims.
Since 1999, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have been cataloging studies from around the world that quantify the impact of specific green measures, including daylighting, natural ventilation, and controllability of systems. They’re also documenting some factors, such as ergonomics, that are not necessarily associated with green building. Their metastudy of the results of these individual research efforts is compiled in the proprietary Building Investment Decision Support (BIDS) tool.

The research documented in BIDS is a critical piece of the puzzle, but developers and green advocates are seeking a comprehensive source of data on the benefits of sustainable buildings as a whole. The true believers tend to assume the benefits are there and seek to find supporting evidence. The more hard-nosed investigators approach the problem as an unknown area to be explored:

Are there consistent financial benefits to building green? If so, what are those benefits, and on what are they based?

One private policy initiative that is making slow but steady progress in pursuit of these questions is the High-Performance Building Data Protocol and Repository project of the Green Building Alliance (GBA) in Pittsburgh. With phase-one funding from the Roy J. Hunt Foundation, GBA has assembled a large consortium to scope out and pilot-test a solution to the data problem.

Although the title of this project makes it sound redundant with the High Performance Building Database created for public use by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), in fact it is intended to satisfy very different needs and employs a different approach. DOE’s database, in collaboration with the U.S. Green Building Council, the American Institute of Architects, and other partners, collects and shares data on individual green buildings. The GBA Protocol and Repository, on the other hand, is designed to aggregate confidential data from both green and conventional buildings. That data could then be used by design teams, government agencies, and others to gauge the effectiveness—and true economic value—of a variety of building systems. For example, GBA data might show the average productivity benefits of mixed-mode passive- and-mechanically-ventilated buildings, which could help to convince a developer to embrace a more sustainable approach on a project.

From this perspective, the GBA project has more in common with market-data sources on real estate values and trends, such as those from CoStar Group, CoreNet Global, and the Building Owners and Managers Association. In fact, those organizations and others in the real-estate data arena have participated in the phase-one work on needs assessment, and any of them could end up contributing to the project’s eventual implementation.

GBA’s goal is “not to overtake or push aside anything that is going on, but to help things happen in a more consistent and collective manner,” says executive director Rebecca Flora. The group is currently seeking to collaborate on any related initiatives. The plan is to begin pilot-testing a protocol in the fall of 2007 and launch a full-fledged data service in 2009. Whenever and wherever a good source of such data appears, there is sure to be a ready market for it.

This article appeared in the July 2007 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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