The Steady Elevation of High-Performance Buildings

In a growing world of green building, energy-efficient design and sustainability, you might assume the number of high-performance buildings is approaching the norm. Not quite. Certainly the demand for optimum building performance is growing; however, while some committed owners are taking an all-in approach, many more favor steady, incremental changes. It pays to know not only where these retrofit opportunities exist, but also at what pace.

While there is no universal definition for high-performance buildings, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 states they include “energy efficiency, durability, life-cycle performance, and occupant productivity.” In “A Path to Achieving Higher Building Performance: Through Retrofits and Ongoing Operational Improvements,” Siemens and McGraw-Hill Construction have taken the pulse of high-performance building activity and its future growth and provided owners, builders and contractors “a map to migrate lower performing buildings to high performance” with building improvements and ongoing operational services.

“While building owners and managers recognize that efficiency and sustainable building practices result in increased asset value, cost savings and improved indoor environments, the vast majority of buildings and building portfolios have a long way to go on the path to high performance,” said Ari Kobb, LEED AP, head of sustainability and green building solutions, Building Technologies Division-Siemens Infrastructure & Cities. “We attempted to capture and define that path as it exists today.”

Conducting the study

To guide respondents and provide a clearer analysis, the report authors set a four-stage spectrum of high-performance building improvements.

“We asked where [building owners] placed themselves. What we discovered was little uniformity. Some of their buildings were high-performance or even net-zero, while others were low performing with little improvement investment to date,” Kobb said.

Participants had to be from an organization that completed or initiated two or more building improvements totaling at least $250,000 within the last three years before the study. Those improvements and projects planned for the next three years became the grist for the report. Report authorities interviewed more than 150 building portfolio owners (50 each) from the office, healthcare and higher education markets.

“Of those interviewed, 29 percent reported steady progress in improving building performance within their portfolio; 17 percent said they were rapidly trying to upgrade their improvements,” said Michele A. Russo, LEED AP, director of Green Content & Research Communications for McGraw-Hill Construction. “Each level or stage pushed performance further.”

About 75 percent of improvements were rated as more than minimal. Specifically, stage 1 represented the lowest level efforts defined by small upgrades, replacements and repairs without a specific high-performance goal. Return on investment (ROI) was easier to understand at this first stage. Stage 2 represented a low moderate effort that might include some upgrades and maintenance that enhance building performance without a formal building-performance program. Easy payback upgrades were the norm. Stage 3 represented a high moderate effort where owners evaluate their buildings’ potential to meet the latest standards or exceed code through equipment and operations updates and maintenance. Finally, stage 4 was that “all-in” or high-level effort where building upgrades and maintenance regularly exceeded code. Owners at this stage typically pursued green certification or other formal recognition of high performance. Some added on-site sustainable energy to their operations, an emerging demand.

The bulk of buildings (61 percent) across the three markets were engaged in stage 2 and 3 activities at varying levels.

“There were different speeds to incremental improvements,” Kobb said. “That makes sense as the construction market is down but showing improving activity on the existing building side.”

The results also defined the types of actions taken within each stage in both operational services and building improvements. Stage 1 represented foundational work, including utility bill management programs, sustainability policies such as recycling, and some energy monitoring and management. Focused actions included lighting improvements, sustainable waste management practices and use of green cleaning products. Stages 2 and 3 served to optimize operations through energy benchmarking and monitoring. Improvements were made to HVAC systems, the building envelope and building automation systems. Stage 4 saw higher operational performance through commissioning and remote analytics and monitoring. Actions included water conservation measures, continuous metering and submetering.

“We wanted to show manufacturers how their products were perceived in the market and at what stage,” Russo said. “And we wanted building owners and contractors to see at what stage(s) their peers found opportunity and discover where the market stands within these different levels. With lighting [efficiency, control management], owners know what they are saving. It just makes sense to get rid of inefficiency.”

Kobb described lighting upgrades as a “low-hanging fruit” that continues to be popular as owners tackle sustainable building performance. That’s certainly good news for electrical contractors. Lighting controls are emerging as a popular next effort. In fact, high-efficiency lighting is an ongoing activity across all improvement stages, building types and regions.

“Seeing what people are doing at what stage gives us pretty concrete stats,” he said.

High-efficiency lighting was the most common improvement made to buildings in stages 1, 3 and 4 and the second highest for stage 2 buildings.

“What’s great about retrofitting buildings is that ECs and other subs have much more influence than they might in a new construction,” Kobb said. “They are less constrained and can step out to show leadership. I think contractors play a much bigger role than they might take credit for in bettering building performance. Helping an owner achieve success at one stage can lead to more work as the owner moves forward into other stages.”

Market action

Respondents with office portfolios placed more than one third of their buildings under stage 2 and a fair degree in stage 3. In essence, this seemed to communicate these owners were regularly working to keep their buildings running smoother. Offices also had the largest number of flagship high-performing properties and premium rental buildings (stage 4). The need to improve their asset value and attract or retain tenants seems to motivate higher performance standards for this sector.

Healthcare properties largely pushed their performance between stages 1 through 3, focusing efforts around energy efficiency and improved occupant wellness.

Higher education showed similar but higher activity in the same stages. The ability to work toward stage 4 improvements was said to be hampered by tighter state budgets and a reduction in endowments and other private grants.

Energy management and monitoring was a popular option engaged in stages 3 and 4 and most used in the higher education market. With energy benchmarking and commissioning, higher education again showed the strongest increase in adoption and fell between the second to fourth stages of performance improvements in all markets. Higher education, office and healthcare were equally viewed as an opportunity for continuous metering and submetering with increasing activity seen in stages 2 and 4.

Geographic region largely had little influence on activities, with the exception of the West, where 82 percent of owners said they anticipated installing building automation controls multiple times over the next three years. The average across other regions was 54 percent.

“I think we will be seeing the notion of commissioning take hold more, including data analytics, fault detection software and other continuous commissioning efforts,” Kobb said. “At our company, customers are actively involved in building automation at all levels.”

“Monitoring is becoming important for better performance assessment and as a way to confirm when capital investments in equipment and operations are truly needed,” Russo said.

Russo said owners’ biggest drivers for achieving a high-performing building were how it will save money, how it saves resources, and how it will promote health and comfort for building occupants. It’s a triple bottom line, not just dollars and cents.

“The electrical contractor can play a role in meeting the needs of all three drivers,” Russo said. “It’s the EC who can educate on lighting quality, visual comfort, visual interest and integrated design. Selecting the right efficient lighting source and control system, knowing how to work with alternative energy and commissioning can keep an EC in play through all the high-performance stages.”

Determining investment success

Owners’ measurements of success depended on the performance stage. Stage 4 owners most highly valued decreasing operation costs and meeting efficiency benchmarks. Stage 2 and 3 owners rated occupant satisfaction and ROI higher. Stage 1 owners identified the importance of such measures, as well, but in smaller percentages.

An improved ROI was most valued by the healthcare sector (18 percent), followed by higher education (15 percent) and office (13 percent). Healthcare also valued a reduction in operating costs by year one (11 percent), followed by office (10 percent) and higher education (8 percent). Looking at a continued reduction over five years, the importance increased but was valued in the same market order.

“The takeaway of our report is that owners are investing in high-performance buildings,” Russo said. “Contractors should look for owners making investments and having an implementation strategy. When you can show operating cost savings, better ROI and maybe increased value to their buildings, you’ll be aligning yourself to the interests of the building owners.”

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Gavin, LEED Green Associate, is the owner of Gavo Communications, a sustainability-focused marketing services firm serving the energy and construction industries. He can be reached at .

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