Better's not enough: Adobe and Integral aim for Best Buildings

Under President Obama's Better Buildings Initiative, the U.S. government has helped push green building toward the norm. For example, in 2010 Obama created the Better Buildings Challenge, where he challenged participants to cut their buildings' energy use by 20 percent by 2020. Sounds good, right?

Why settle for good when there's better — or even best? As if to say, "We're the leader anyway, so why don't we do something that might actually be a challenge and really push the industry?" California created the Best Buildings Challenge, in which Challenge participants will meet Obama's goals of 20 percent energy reduction by 2014, six years sooner than Obama's Challenge partners. To go even further, the Best Buildings Challenge — created by the Northern California chapter of the US Green Building Council — has a pledge to reduce water use and waste by 20 percent by 2014 as well.

Participants in the California challenge include some very large and notable brands, such as Adobe, Genentech, Google and Lockheed Martin, to name a few. Integral Group, with an office in San Jose and an office in Oakland, signed up as well, and we're the smallest firm to do so. In fact, we're dramatically smaller.

The first year of the Challenge concluded in December. The next year is the measurement year, in which we will see if the measures implemented achieve a reduction of 20 percent.

Turning Better into Best

"Just so you don't think this is going to be some walk in the park, California already has the lowest energy usage per capita in the country," commented former President Clinton, who USGBC-NCC recruited to unveil the Best Buildings Challenge. California's energy use is 55 percent of the national average.

Google's David Bennett, the Team Operations & Innovations Lead, points out an additional wrinkle: When your portfolio already consists of high-performance buildings, it can become increasingly difficult to find the easy, low-cost measures, let alone ones that can lead to 20 percent reductions in two years.

IDeAs building pv/electrical system drawing by Jim Burns

"I wish there were more low-hanging fruit," he said. "It's been really inspiring to see the teams discover ways to pull together conservation measures despite the fact that we went into this challenge with buildings that were already operating to very high standards."

Measures Bennett said Google is taking to meet the Challenge include AC unit upgrades, lighting retrofits and clearly labeling bins throughout the buildings that separate the various waste streams (landfill, mixed recycling, paper recycling and compost).

Big companies and small ones can both make big improvements

Genentech is winning the Challenge so far. They are halfway through the measurement year. They chose a baseline year starting mid-2011 and already have achieved more than a 20 percent reduction in energy, waste and water on average across the five buildings that are part of the Challenge.

"In one of our buildings we piloted a new type of lighting control with dimming ballasts, occupancy sensing and daylight harvesting, and we also made improvements in our HVAC system, resulting in a 44 percent energy reduction so far," said Katie Excoffier, Genentech's sustainability manager. In another building, Genentech piloted plug-load monitoring power strips, which led to employees giving up their personal printers and other energy-hungry devices.

IDeAs building photo by David WakelyIntegral also worked on their lighting control system and moved everyone to the perimeter to take advantage of daylighting in the Oakland office. "This building is already LEED Platinum, relying mostly on natural ventilation and daylight. When you are already performing at a high level, it can be difficult to find more opportunities. We don't have an intensive server room like Google and or other companies," said Integral project Engineer Willy Stober.

The difference between Integral and Google and other big companies is that our predominant energy use is plug loads: the amount of energy you use from things that are plugged in, such as computers, printers and other office equipment. That's what you see with high-performance buildings that already have reduced energy use with efficient HVAC and building envelope.

To achieve a 20 percent energy saving, we're working on our circuit monitoring system so we can trend data on each circuit. "It lets you see what normally you would never see," said Stober. "Normally you would just have one monthly number. Without the granular data, it is hard to know where to focus your efforts."

Integral's Silicon Valley office, the IDeAs building in San Jose, recently became the first officially certified Net Zero commercial office building, meaning it generates at least as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year, so energy savings are also hard to come by there. "No matter how well you think you're doing, you can always do better," said Jeff Thomas, senior engineer at Integral Group. Energy savings on a net zero building means the energy the PV generates can go back to the grid, providing more clean energy for someone else.

Tougher challenge delivers bigger rewards

So, yes, Obama's Better Buildings Challenge was too easy, Thomas said. And yes, a lot of companies are doing these sustainability measures anyway. Adobe, for example, already diverts 100 percent of its waste from Bay Area landfills as well as pursuing other impressive sustainability achievements such as carbon neutrality on a daily basis — and California's Challenge may give participants the opportunity to get public credit for that.

Nothing is wrong with raising awareness. "I'm not sure many people had heard of Obama's Challenge," said Thomas. Perhaps California's Best Buildings Challenge will bring it to light — and show that we can do better.

"We hope," Excoffier said, "that by showing the feasibility of achieving 20 percent reduction in just two years, we, along with other Challenge participants, will inspire others to reach further faster."

Green building by Andrew Lam via Shutterstock