Tag Archives: LEED

Keep Your Money from Going Out the Window

We’ve all been told as children – “Turn off the lights when you’re not in the room” and “Don’t leave the water running when you’re brushing your teeth.” Now, there’s so much more we can do to conserve energy and resources in our homes and businesses. There is heightened awareness that our “small and insignificant” actions collectively have great impact on the environment and personal/corporate budgets.

To know how much energy we spend (or waste); we need to assess the situation and come up with a baseline. Just like we all go to the doctor every year and take our cars in for inspection, our homes and offices need the same check-ups. Hence, the energy audit. In short, an energy audit is a way to determine the energy consumption of a building. These audits can help individuals see where money and energy are going out the window (sometimes literally). For one of our clients, we found they were using 2.28 times the average electricity and 1.65 times the natural gas for buildings of their type. We identified 15 Energy Conservation Measures totaling a possible savings of $615,000 and approximately 30% reduction in energy use. These audits help identify troublespots in the property and methods for improving the building’s performance. Alterations can be as simple as changing light bulbs or as complex as overhauling the heating and cooling systems.

Being efficient is more than saving money; it’s about preserving our natural resources and minimizing our impact on the environment. Many elite corporations are leading the charge by greening their business practices and supply chains. They’re educating their employees on how to make eco-friendly decisions. Further, they’re investing in their buildings via retrofits and even building according to green standards such as LEED.

Building green is booming because this generation demands socially responsible corporations and healthful work environments. Unfortunately, some still cite heavy upfront costs as an obstacle to building green – materials are more expensive, the LEED process comes with additional costs and it just takes more planning and innovation.

Great ideas, innovation and progress come from challenging situations fraught with limited resources. In the case of building green, the financial aspect is favorable to the cause. A USGBC-funded study of LEED buildings in NYC found that there was no significant price differential for construction costs between LEED and traditional buildings. According to the analysis, the average construction cost for a LEED high-rise residential building was $440/sf and $436/sf for non-LEED. I think an extra $4/sf investment is worth it, especially since the returns include better air quality, lowered utility bills, increased productivity and less pollution-spewing buildings.

If we’re going to tackle the looming issue of global warming, we need to take one conscientious step at a time – whether it’s turning off the light, doing an energy audit, investing in a retrofit or starting from scratch and building green.

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Green Today, Gone Tomorrow

The USGBC recently launched its new program (v.03) that includes recertification of buildings each year. In addition, the LEED-EB program has a recertification component that must be completed annually. There has been an uproar in the green building industry arguing that a building is not just about energy consumption, but also the types of construction material used, site selection and occupant comfort.

I agree that material selection and indoor environmental quality is just as important to getting a building certified as being energy efficient. However, let’s not kid ourselves in thinking that a building that fails to remain a good steward of the environment should continue to hold the privilege of being called a green building. A building that drastically consumes more energy than when it was originally certified has issues that require investigation. Sadly, the green has wilted away and has turned brown.

Let’s look back at why we call it sustainable building. Sustainability focuses on constructing a building that efficiently consumes energy, water and other resources with minimum impact to occupants and the environment. How a building consumes energy and expunges waste contributes to its carbon footprint. Current technology does not allow for buildings to operate fully on clean energy; therefore, existing buildings continue to leave huge footprints causing irreversible damage to the environment. It should be every building’s goal to keep its footprint to a minimum by performing proper maintenance on its systems and constantly monitoring its energy patterns to identify opportunities for conservation.

Optimal building sites, sustainable building materials and healthy indoor air quality are important characteristics for green buildings and should be incorporated into the certification process. These factors should be considered at the baseline and are unlikely to change significantly overtime. However with daily use, a building’s systems and equipment may come out of sync, become old, outdated and inefficient, resulting in greater consumption of energy and increased waste. Without constant vigilance to determine how much energy these buildings consume on a daily basis, we cannot guarantee that these buildings are living up to their green labels. Without these requirements for energy monitoring, I agree with critics who favor decertification of buildings who fail to meet LEED standards following their initial certification.

The LEED certification process says a lot about how building owners view energy. Following a comprehensive design, an energy model should be performed to predict how the building will function. But it shouldn’t stop there. I’ve seen companies brag about their supposed “LEED-certified” buildings, screw the plaque onto their pristine walls before commissioning is completed and actual building performance is validated. What message is the USGBC sending when they give certifications out before performance is verified? There is no value to the plaque if a building doesn’t measure up to LEED standards from the beginning or throughout its lifecycle.

I have requested the USGBC to modify its program during revisions in LEED-NC 2.2 and my suggestions fell on deaf ears. If the USGBC will not change its policy on certifying new buildings prior to validating its energy consumption, then I say grab the screwdriver and uninstall the plaque after the first year if the building doesn’t meet Energy Star requirements. This may sound harsh, but we must have integrity and make sure our buildings perform as we say they do.

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Building Commissioning for Existing Buildings

Building commissioning is one of the most compelling, and yet least understood, strategies for managing energy consumption, cost and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the DOE, 54% of commercial buildings were built in 1979 or before. Times change quickly and the way we conduct business now is completely different from five years ago, let alone 20+ years ago. Technological advances have changed the entire paradigm for building operations. In addition, building ownership changes hands over the lifetime of the property leading to clashes between current occupant needs and original design intent. Since only a small number of buildings incorporate commissioning from the get-go, it’s crucial to implement commissioning plans for existing buildings.

A recent Department of Energy sponsored study conducted by Evan Mills, Ph.D. of Lawrence Berkeley National Labs highlighted the cost-benefits of commissioning in new and existing buildings. Mills found that existing building commissioning projects cost $0.30/ft² and have a payback time of 1.1 years. Of the existing buildings analyzed in this study, over 6,000 energy-related problems were found through commissioning. Addressing these problems resulted in 16% whole building energy savings! At Horizon Engineering Associates, we conducted a case study of the Allen Park Public Schools in Michigan and found that our commissioning services saved the school over a quarter million dollars in utility costs within the first year. These findings prove that building commissioning is the single most effective vehicle to reducing green house gases and energy costs in America.

Also worth mentioning is changes in terminology over the years, causing some confusion as to what type of commissioning program is required. To eliminate this miscommunication, what was once called “retro-commissioning” or “re-commissioning,” is now identified as “Existing Building Commissioning” (EB-Cx). Both ASHRAE and the Building Commissioning Association (BCA) have adapted this change in terminology to create a standard within the industry.

To help owners and developers navigate the four phases of EB-Cx (planning, investigation, implementation and turnover), the BCA created a “Best Practices” document.

Commissioning is a cost-effective means for ensuring a healthy and efficient building. Owners and developers should consider partnering with a commissioning authority to meet their financial targets, as well as our country’s ever-growing “green” agenda. It would be wasteful and irresponsible to let these buildings run their course without taking all available resources and methods to improving their performance. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it saves a few bucks in the process!

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Should We Be Energy Efficient Only When it Hurts Our Wallet?

Riding through my hometown, I noticed that the price of gas was starting to creep up again. This week it averaged $2.89/gallon – a far cry from the $4.00+/gallon we were paying last year. When gas was $4.00/gallon, people would sneer at the SUV drivers and seemingly overnight, everyone wanted to drive a hybrid. Now that the price of gas has dropped, does anyone still care?

It’s apparent that the consequences to a person’s wallet are directly proportional to their interest/concern in fixing the problem. This concerns me as we talk about carbon footprints, greenhouse emissions and polluting the environment. The “as long as it doesn’t affect me” mentality that exists in this country will continue to dominate society. When gas gets back to $4.00/gallon, will we be scrambling to drive a hybrid again? We are becoming fair weather energy efficiency supporters.

The same amount of carbon emissions are produced at $2.89/gallon as they are at $4.00/gallon. We need to be constantly vigilant of our energy consumption – in our cars, homes and businesses. It appalls me that, as a society, we are not concerned about energy efficiency until it hurts our wallets. Improving energy efficiency should be something we are always doing.

I was struck by an article in the New York Times that spoke of oil companies abandoning their efforts to drill, as it no longer made fiscal sense because of the reduced price of oil. I would think trying to find new oil reserves would be a top priority in decreasing our reliance on foreign oil supplies. Aircraft and military machinery will not be using renewable technology in the foreseeable future. The sheer power needed in such a short period of time can only be generated from an internal combustible engine (a battery would be inadequate). Therefore, let’s find those extra deposits and leave them in the ground for a rainy day. Don’t abandon the effort. The reality is the price of oil will rebound and fuel will be needed.

During a visit to our office in St. Louis, I was shocked by the lack of awareness towards energy efficiency. It costs roughly 5¢ per KW in St. Louis, while in the Northeast it averages 15¢ per KW. Triple! Compare the interest in energy efficiency in these two areas – increased cost equals increased interest.

Energy efficiency needs to be on all of our minds and we should always be thinking about saving energy every chance we get. This should not be merely a cost-driven exercise, but a focus because we are wasting our resources and polluting the environment.

Sadly, the economic features will always exist and if big oil is not making a buck then why should they drill? The greater society is no different then big oil. If consumers aren’t saving money, will they care about being energy efficient? We owe it to our children’s children and the environment to be energy efficient, all the time.

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Reflections from a Recent Hotel Stay

On a recent trip to one of my offices in St. Louis I stayed in a well-know national hotel chain. As I walked into the lobby, I was greeted by a mini-wind turbine on the front desk and was pleasantly surprised to see this hotel’s support for being green.

As I got into my room, I saw a small placard in the bathroom that stated the hotel’s commitment to being environmentally-friendly and encouraged guests to reuse their towels. It went on about the millions of gallons of water and detergent used to wash towels daily and how it was unnecessary waste if the towel was still clean.

Sitting on the couch, I noticed the lights were left on by housekeeping, TV was tuned to a local station for my enjoyment and most notably the air conditioner was set to a chilly 65 degrees turning my eyebrows into icicles. I sat back and reflected on all of this and thought, “Do they really care about being green? What about their sign in the bathroom…maybe they just don’t want to spend money on laundry?”

My curiosity got the best of me. After shutting off the TV, turning off the lights and opening up the curtains to let light in, I called the front desk and inquired about the true meaning behind the placard. After questioning the very polite hotel manager, I found out that laundry wasn’t even done on-site. So, the placard is not about wasted water, detergent or staff; it’s about saving money and the bottom line. Less towels means less laundry, which means less to pay the launderer. Speaking of the launderer, does the hotel know whether they have any green practices, like using environmentally-friendly detergent, recycling the water or conserving energy?

I’ve seen similar placards all across the country and can’t help but think it’s a PR tactic to make me feel better about staying at their “forward-thinking-clean-green-therefore-expensive” hotel. I would rather they say, “Please help us keep your rates down by using your towel more than once.”

If the hotel is going to be environmentally-friendly, it would have more impact on me by keeping the air conditioner off when someone is not in the room, keeping the lights off or put them on motion sensors and keeping the TV off. Also, I would love to see a recycling bin and a sign that reads, “When you’re done with the beverage we’ve conveniently placed in your refrigerator and ripped you off by charging $5, please put it in the recycling bin provided.”

As I checked out, I asked the young man at the front desk when the last time someone used my room. He said business was a little slow and it had been four days since someone was in there. So much for the wind turbine.

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BCA Certification for CxAs

Recently, I’ve been working with the BCA to create new certification guidelines and I wonder how we can make the process easier without sacrificing integrity. I presented the question on my LinkedIn account and received this post from Nathan Gauthier, Assistant Director at Harvard University’s Office for Sustainability:

“As someone who has worked with a lot of bad commissioning authorities, I think the certification requirements are great. How many projects have a commissioning authority sign off despite never having an OPR or BOD? How many CxA’s use the nominal group technique to facilitate development of the OPR? How many CxA’s use Guideline 4 to prepare the systems manual? CxA’s that confirm As-Builts are As-Built? CxA’s that suggest envelope commissioning in a complex building? I think the BCA and U of Wisconsin certifications give educated owners a level of confidence in their consultants and help give the industry a better image. I’ve worked on lots of clients who feel (after paying for bad commissioning) that it was a worthless investment though I’m convinced and the data supports that good commissioning is the smartest investment an owner can make.”

Well, to Nathan and others who share this experience, I’m sorry you’ve been the recipient of poor Cx services. The fact that this occurs is one of the reasons we started certifying CxA’s with the BCA. But currently, some members of the BCA feel pressured to lower standards as other organizations tend to give out certifications without having the applicants prove they deserve it. I feel that most owners do not value a good Cx provider and are either chasing points or getting their buildings commissioned because it’s the cool thing to do. Unfortunately, this waters down the quality of the building and doesn’t help our cause. My question to all you building owners: how do we get you to value the service of a good Cx provider?

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Are We Spending Money in the Right Spot?

Is the current Obama administration’s approach to eliminating greenhouse gases (GHG) balanced? It seems the in vogue thing to do is build a wind farm, set-up solar PV panels and put more and more money toward clean energy. I agree that all these measures have a tremendously positive impact on our environment. However, it appears the lost child in this whole green initiative is improvements on how existing buildings actually consume energy.

The amount of private commercial real estate that exists is in the billions. According to the Energy Information Administration’s latest report, there are over 4.8 million commercial buildings in the United States covering over 71.6 billion square feet. These buildings consume over $82 billion in electricity and spew out GHG. The cost of improving these buildings’ energy efficiency would be a fraction of the cost to build a wind farm or install an array of solar panels. Marc Gunther of Reuters recently covered Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sunil Paul’s “Gigaton Throwdown” report that details how top clean energy technologies can have a significant impact by 2020. Gunther writes, “building efficiency is a much, much cheaper way to reduce greenhouse gas emission than solar thermal power or nuclear” noting that it’s the least expensive option.

It’s plain and simple: today’s buildings don’t run efficiently and it’s the worst kept secret in America. There are many buildings that are either too cold or too hot and are wasting energy by allowing those kilowatts to literally escape out the window. I have been involved in commissioning millions of square feet of all types of buildings and can tell you that finding savings is easy and relatively inexpensive.

So why aren’t more building owners doing it? Reasons abound – building operators are too busy keeping their buildings from falling apart and dealing with tenant complaints. In addition, tenants are often kept in the dark with building costs and problem areas, but still have to foot the bill because of how leases are structured. This waste is quickly written off as the “cost of doing business” and not investigated further.

What incentives will encourage building owners and tenants to look at actively decreasing energy consumption as a bottom-line saver? The highest expense our businesses face today (other than payroll, benefits and rent) is energy. Improving energy consumption by just 10% will undoubtedly increase profits and save jobs by improving the bottom-line.

ROI should be proof enough to support energy efficiency of buildings. An upcoming study by ACEEE found that for every kilowatt-hour saved by installing solar panels we spend 20¢ or more. But for every kilowatt-hour saved by improving an existing building’s systems we only spend 3.5¢. Why does the current administration not see this and invest more toward building efficiency instead of focusing so heavily on clean energy? This too creates jobs, saves money and reduces GHG. President Obama recently said changing light bulbs is not that sexy, but he’s doing it. Though I give him credit, more still needs to be done. For now, building owners can follow suit and launch initiatives to capitalize on these low/no cost energy saving measures.

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