The Better Buildings Challenge: An energy diet for facilities

How can the sustainability world best brand more energy-efficient buildings without focusing solely on cost savings?

That is the quintessential challenge of the recently launched Better Buildings Challenge by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

After its first year, the initial 60 participating organizations appear to be off to a smooth start; but using 20 percent less energy throughout their entire stock of facilities by 2020 will be no small task. Then again, some companies are angling for even-greater savings. And therein may be the appeal of the Better Buildings Challenge. If building owners and employers value sustainability, increasingly they will want to create and work, in buildings that meet -- and continue to meet or exceed -- ambitious criteria.

The more desirable a building is as a place to work or serve whatever role it plays in civil society, the more competitors will want to emulate those qualities, says Maria Vargas, Director of the Better Buildings Challenge. She envisions buildings becoming "branded" so that customers will want to associate themselves with the qualities that make those buildings stand out in public and in the marketplace.

Vargas is drawing on some of the lessons learned during 15 years as the lead brand manager for the Environmental Protection Agency's "Energy Star" program for appliances dating back to the 1990s.

With Better Buildings, Vargas faces a very different challenge than she did with Energy Star. There, the challenge was and remains to combine a new product's appeal to the retail consumer with category-leading energy savings.

"We wanted people to get a TV that was just as good as the TV they were going to buy but more energy efficient," Vargas said.

The 'Secret Sauce' for Building Energy Efficiency

Today, any energy- and cost-conscious consumer is bound to at least consider an Energy Star-rated appliance and probably will end up buying one because the certification pervades showroom floors and web-based offerings.

With Better Buildings, cost savings are only part of the equation. Overall performance to improve efficiency, conserve water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is the Holy Grail. That comes by improving heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and plumbing to upgrading windows and lighting.

It's all about how a building can and should function. And it's not just one building; but a company's or a developer's entire portfolio of buildings, Vargas says.

So how do a building manager, a global energy manager and, for that matter, the CEO, get their arms around portfolio-wide performance? And how is a CEO supposed to pay attention with the economy struggling to work its way out of the recession?

The secret lies in the data. There hasn't been much, until recently.

Data to compare similar types of buildings is the not-so-secret sauce that is beginning to drive how efficiently and effectively buildings perform vis-a-vis its peers. The lack of comparable data has been the biggest barrier to creating the peer pressure among forward-looking managements. To complicate things, different industries have different barriers.

A rating based on that data, ranging from 1 to 100, determines where a particular building stands after establishing a benchmark with one year's worth of operational metrics.

To earn an Energy Star rating for buildings, a facility must score at least a 75 out of the possible 100 for that particular year. Because designs, technology and systems improve every year, a building's status is evaluated each year. Fall asleep at the switch and a building could easily lose what could become a widely coveted certification.

"Just because a building was efficient once doesn't mean it's always efficient," Vargas cautioned. "Think about if we labeled computers for their high-techiness" and how often that needs to change.

Next page: EPA's Portfolio Manager and the weight-loss metaphor for energy efficiency