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Taking the Pulse

Interest in building-performance metrics is reaching fever pitch as operational-data reporting is incorporated into requirements.


By David Sokol

Proponents of sustainability are looking to prove what they’re preaching. Efforts are underway to find out whether green buildings actually are using less energy than standard-issue structures, and how much.

Performance Matters
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Obligatory operations-metrics reporting standards are being implemented throughout the country.
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This recent push follows regulations already in place in Europe, yet observers say reasons for the shift run deeper than parroting. Gauging real-world building performance signals the maturation of green building—there is a data set large enough to do so, for example.

Moreover, the sustainability community has long known that a building’s measured performance does not often synchronize with its energy model. “As a guy who’s spent a lot of his career doing energy modeling, you should always doubt every energy model,” says Ron Jarnagin, a staff scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “It’s rare to find a building with people in it that agrees with its model.” Performance-data collection can help building owners reduce operating costs, which is especially seductive in recessionary times, allow engineers to revise subsequent energy models for greater accuracy, and validate or disprove the efficacy of existing benchmarks like LEED.

With the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) April 27 implementation of LEED v3, buildings seeking certification must record operational-performance metrics on a regular basis as a minimum requirement. To do so, program participants have three choices: Recertify their buildings on a two-year cycle via LEED for Existing Buildings Operations & Maintenance, submit energy- and water-usage data annually, or authorize the USGBC to access the data from the building’s utility provider.

Scot Horst, senior vice president of LEED, says the USGBC is trying to ease this data-recording requirement. Information could flow directly from utility companies into the USGBC’s operations-metrics database. Or, for owners of new properties who choose to transition to LEED for Existing Buildings as a building ages and operates, the USGBC will continue its policy of providing free registration.

The LEED v3 operations-metrics requirement is just one of several moves to take the pulse of completed sustainable buildings. In June, at its conference in Louisville, Kentucky, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) unveiled its Building Energy Quotient program, or Building EQ. Focusing solely on energy use, ASHRAE’s labeling program offers an “asset rating” (based on simulations) to new commercial and institutional buildings, and an “operation rating” (based on utility bills) upon one year of data collection at those properties. That effort, too, stresses ease of use. “Once the normalization procedures are established, a lot of this can be automated,” concurs Jarnagin, who chairs the committee developing Building EQ.

Jarnagin further notes the potential synchronicity of Building EQ and LEED v3’s operations-metrics requirement. Building EQ “could be deemed to meet one of the three [data-collection] methods already established,” he says. “You have to collect energy-use data, you have to collect energy bills for the building, and to get an operational rating through Building EQ, ASHRAE is promulgating precisely the same thing.” That these systems—in addition to other efforts like the EPA’s 17-year-old voluntary program Energy Star, which requires participating buildings to report performance—complement one another makes choosing a program contingent on “the statement you’re trying to make.” A building could just as swiftly apply for all badges of merit.

Will, in fact, buildings hop on the bandwagon? Some observers say that client confidentiality may prevent buildings from abiding by the new LEED reporting requirement, for example. (Refusal to report data would be cause for revocation of certification.) Yet Horst says the USGBC honors confidentiality, and that most participants in the program thrive on elevated standards like this. As of early August, 688 projects have registered under LEED v3.

Soon, though, participation may not be entirely of a building owner’s choosing. Obligatory operations-metrics reporting standards are being implemented throughout the country: In California, Bill No. 1103 requires utility companies to maintain energy consumption data for all nonresidential buildings in a format that’s compatible with Energy Star; in Washington, D.C., under the Clean and Affordable Energy Act, the Office of Property Management is tracking all District-owned buildings, next year phasing in commercial buildings, with the District Department of the Environment charged as the repository of those statistics. And should the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 pass the Senate and become law, Section 204, the Building Energy Performance Labeling Program, empowers the EPA to establish a nationwide reporting standard.

This critical mass of interest and obligation may yield more profound consequences. Jean Lupinacci, chief of the Energy Star commercial and industrial branch, says, “While the actual knowledge of energy performance should be as easy and low-cost as possible to get, that information can motivate real action and improvement.” In a kind of feedback loop, rising standards would increase the Department of Energy’s statistical baseline, which would, in turn, create even more stringent benchmarks in programs like Energy Star. And Horst says that growing comfort with these measures could pave the way for establishing new performance-metrics requirements in sustainable-design categories like indoor-air quality, access to public transportation, and stormwater runoff.

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This article appeared in the September 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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