The First No-Cost Step to High Performance Building: Changing Your Mindset

The First No-Cost Step to High Performance Building: Changing Your Mindset

Currently, U.S. buildings consume two-thirds of our power supply and emit 40 percent of the greenhouse gases. This is a staggering statistic when you consider that right now we have the technical capability to cut these numbers in half, cost effectively. But only by changing our approach to buildings will we be able to do this.

Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. It seems this is exactly what some in the commercial development industry intend to do. For example, energy efficiency advocates have spent the last week refuting a recent study commissioned by NAIOP, a real estate development trade association, that said buildings that use 30 percent less energy were too costly and those that use 50 percent less energy weren't possible.

The study examined the energy efficiency performance of only a few common building elements (windows, lighting and insulation) in a 95,000 square-foot building in three different locales. What it didn't do was consider the differences between the "typical" building it analyzed and the design strategies applied to the best performing buildings, in terms of energy use, in operation today such as integrated design, daylighting and better management of energy through the use of controls.

The simple truth is that low-energy buildings are already being built by developers and business owners across the country, and for no or little more cost. These market leaders, whether Wal-Mart, or developers Gerding Edlen in Portland, Ore., have already figured out that energy will be more expensive in the future. They know that tenants want environmentally friendly features and businesses care about employee comfort and productivity.

In response, these companies have changed not only how they design buildings, but how they manage the various suppliers and contractors throughout the construction process. Their performance in the market suggests that the rewards are well worth the perceived risk.

But despite the leadership of some, we know that high performance buildings are not being built at the rate they should be. In fact, New Buildings Institute's investigation of the market share of high performance buildings shows that only one in 1,000 buildings are built to 50 percent efficiency. And while this goal is certainly achievable, there is currently not the will among most developers and owners to create such buildings.

As the Obama administration and Congress gear up to set the nation in the direction of a clean-energy economy, we expect the NAIOP study to be the first of several explaining why commercial building development should not be held to higher energy efficiency standards. But rather than commission a study to "prove" developers should fight needed changes to tackle our economic, energy and environmental problems, NAIOP should lead its members to solutions. There is an entire industry of energy efficiency organizations and progressive electric power companies that stand ready to help them.

But first, they must take a no-cost step: changing their mindset about energy efficient, green buildings. Change brings risk, even learning brings risk, as it implies change. It's time for the development community to raise its collective head to look at some new realities and different practices for these new and different times. The result will be better buildings as well as a better business model.

The leaders in the industry have done it already and have a competitive advantage in the marketplace. How long before the rest catch up or get left behind?

Dave Hewitt is the executive director of New Buildings Institute, a nonprofit organization working to improve the energy performance of commercial buildings by advancing the research, design practices and policies that will make the next generation of buildings better for people and the environment.