Good, Better, Best: The Many Ways To Green A Building

By Jack McGowan  

Signs that global economies are in early stages of recovery means many building owners will be looking for ways to re-energize sustainability efforts. But with the volume of new construction projects at low ebb — and likely to stay there for several years — facility executives should look to existing buildings for opportunities to be green.

One possibility is to look to the LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance rating system (hence forth, referred to simply as LEED), the most widely recognized standard for greening existing buildings. In many cases, even if a formal certification isn't the goal, LEED can provide a framework for prioritizing facility upgrades. But how can facility executives determine what is justifiable and what may not be?

That was the question facing the owner of a 40-year old multitenant building in Pennsylvania. This building has single-pane windows, an electric boiler, water-source heat pumps, T12 lamps, and was in great need of refurbishment. The initial analysis showed an Energy Star rating of about 40 based upon energy consumption of 100,000 BTU per square foot and an operational cost for energy of more than $4 per square foot. A 40 rating meant that the building was less energy efficient than 60 percent of comparable buildings.

The owner wanted to green the building. A detailed study identified measures to improve building operations. As a first step, the study recommended a corporate energy management program. The next recommendation was to make a $400,000 investment in capital projects to earn an Energy Star label by improving the Energy Star rating to at least 75. This was estimated to have a 20 percent return on investment.

The work necessary to get LEED certification for the building would have cost more than $1.5 million with an estimated 8 percent return on investment. The owner elected to implement the first two steps, but forgo the third.

The Good-Better-Best Approach

In short, LEED is not the only way, nor even the first step, to achieving a green building. This is not a criticism of LEED; rather it is a recommendation that facility executives consider other paths to green.

As a marketing strategy, Sears used to divide merchandise into three categories: good, better, best. A similar approach might make sense for energy projects in buildings. Because having a sustainable building must include energy efficiency, energy is the starting point.

  • Good: corporate energy management programs focusing on measurable efficiency goals and energy business intelligence tools to collect and analyze energy data
  • Better: Energy Star label for all buildings
  • Best: LEED certification

The body of knowledge that exists in organizations such as the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE), the Department of Energy, and Energy Star provides solid ground for pursuing good energy management programs. A resurgence of interest in AEE's Certified Energy Manager (CEM) program shows that many organizations are already pursuing the "good" step. Doing so is really a no-brainer and begins with evaluating energy consumption profiles and performing energy audits and other studies to assess building energy characteristics.

An energy management program measures energy consumption by capturing an energy utilization index on a building or campus. This index will summarize energy consumption over at least two years and provide a baseline for the facility energy use. Energy units, such as kilowatt hours (kWh) and hundreds of cubic feet of natural gas (CCF) can be converted to BTUs (British thermal units) to provide a universal measure of energy use. Energy Star will want to know BTU consumption in thousands of BTUs per square foot. Building owners who manage facilities across the country may also want to normalize for weather in degree-days, a universal measure of intensity for heating and cooling.

A basic energy analysis of buildings and campuses provides management teams with essential information to reduce their energy cost and carbon footprint. With it, they will be in a much better position to vet proposed technology and to evaluate existing investments. Many organizations have CEMs on staff and may be able to complete this entire step without any outsourced help. Initial steps will revolve around getting more value from existing technology and identifying no- and low-cost actions that can reduce energy use and cost. These types of actions can reduce energy cost by 5 to 10 percent and require minimal investment. Ideally this should not be a "one-time" assessment but a continuous process.

The Next Step

The "good" process segues nicely into the "better" program, focusing on the Energy Star label for buildings. During the initial corporate energy program, buildings in a single portfolio are compared against one another and data is developed from internal information. Energy Star allows owners to benchmark their buildings against other buildings using the Energy Star tools. This process quantifies the larger opportunities and points out ways to boost efficiency, possibly using the Energy Star label as incentive to the organization to invest in energy.

As a function of this process, a wide range of measures will come up for consideration. Certainly, fast payback efficiency measures are top priority — typically, steps like lighting retrofits, building automation, variable frequency drives on motors and installation of plate-to-frame heat exchangers. The Energy Star process will also point to HVAC opportunities, such as upgrading to more efficient equipment, enhancing digital controls, and looking at optional systems such as ice or thermal storage, geothermal heat pumps, and solar thermal heating systems.

Adopting controls or building automation leverages Energy Star efforts and helps make a building smart, clean and green. Equally important, automation can be a very important tool in completing the measurement and verification necessary to retain the Energy Star qualification over time.

All of these building upgrade opportunities will require analysis — an investment grade audit instead of a simple energy audit. The difference is that the former requires a high degree of rigor in both the energy analysis and the cost benefit evaluation.

Certification, At Last

Moving to Energy Star builds on the energy audit activity and paves the way for LEED certification, because LEED requires Energy Star performance as a prerequisite for certification. A host of tools have been developed by the EPA to assist in this process.

As the building owner moves into an energy program of this type it is likely that outside resources may be necessary. Companies that offer outsourcing for such services range from traditional consultants to energy service companies and specialty design/build energy providers.

Building owners who subscribe to the good-better-best strategy also get some other great benefits. First they don't have to go through a rigorous, and perhaps costly, process to get LEED certification right away.

Some companies have been delayed in their efforts to deploy green strategies because of the time frame to pursue LEED. Using the good-better-best approach, companies can get immediate results and bragging rights by implementing a corporate energy management program and, with some added investment, the Energy Star label. Equally important, this approach leads to energy savings more quickly and opens up a wide range of "self-funding" capital energy projects. Because the emphasis is on energy, a building's carbon footprint can also be dramatically reduced through energy savings.

For the building in Pennsylvania, this was an ideal approach. Achieving LEED certification in that case would have required upgrades to windows to improve comfort, mechanical equipment to eliminate CFCs, plumbing to reduce water use, and air filtration. These measures were cost-intensive, but did not produce enough energy or cost savings. As building owners gain experience with this approach, expanding sustainability efforts through LEED may be appropriate.

Although not all buildings are good candidates for LEED, those that are should seriously consider it. The LEED rating system is designed to help building owners measure operations, improvements and maintenance on a consistent scale, with the goal of maximizing operational efficiency while minimizing environmental impacts.

Selling the Organization on LEED

Unlike corporate energy management programs or the Energy Star label, which focus on energy alone, LEED addresses whole-building cleaning and maintenance issues (including chemical use), recycling programs, exterior maintenance programs and systems upgrades. The successful implementation of LEED not only entails the technical aspects of building operations and upgrades, but also requires an organizational commitment to implementing the program.

For building owners, this means soliciting the support of key players by educating them about the benefits of operating buildings sustainably. Beginning with the corporate energy management program and continuing with Energy Star, the management team must put emphasis on selling change throughout the organization. LEED continues this process. The approach taken within a specific organization could include the following steps:

  • Identify the benefits of LEED for the organization.
  • Sell LEED up through the organization by communicating its benefits.
  • Build support for LEED within the organization.
  • Obtain the organization's commitment and financial support to pursue certification.
  • Work with organizational leaders to set and pursue annual sustainability achievement targets.
  • Work to get sustainability achievement goals included in the organization's business plan.

Closing the Deal

The ongoing effort at this stage is to maintain, and tout, the results of the sustainability program, while selling the key benefits of LEED. Among these benefits are that LEED is good for the environment by reducing the use of energy, water, and materials. Doing so lowers the emissions and waste disposal normally associated with building operations and upkeep.

LEED is also good for building occupants because it improves the environment inside the building, leading to fewer occupant comfort complaints, possibly higher occupant productivity and attendance, and an overall healthier space for the people who work there. By promoting energy and water efficiency, LEED reduces expenditures on these resources as well. Building valuation increases with reduced operating costs, leading to even more substantial economic benefits.

Finally, LEED can be combined with tools implemented throughout the greening process to provide guidance for achieving sustainability goals and justifying needed investments.

As good as it is, LEED is not the only route to greener existing buildings. The good-better-best approach offers a path to follow that is measured, prudent and cost-effective. With the building in Pennsylvania, the owner still wants to achieve LEED certification, but in the interim real savings and results are being achieved from cost-effective investments. What's more, more than a third of the LEED points address energy, so focusing on corporate energy management programs and the Energy Star label will help save money by reducing building operating costs and solving building operating problems while putting the facility on the path to LEED certification.

Jack McGowan, CEO of Energy Control Inc., is chairman emeritus of the U.S. Department of Energy GridWise Architecture Council. He is co-chair of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building to Grid Working Group.

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  posted on 11/4/2009   Article Use Policy

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