The Importance of Understanding Timing and Delays in Greening Buildings

The Importance of Understanding Timing and Delays in Greening Buildings

To follow up on last week's piece about measuring and managing information in buildings, altering the timing of feedback loops can be one way of changing the system to better react to New Normal (and maybe in the process reduce the severity of the impact of New Normal global weirding). Altering the length of delays relative to the rate of system changes comes in at No. 9 on our Top 12 list of places to intervene in a system.

In a business school operations course, we played the beer distribution game. (No, I didn't attend a party school.) The purpose of the game was to show how different parts of the supply chain -- producers, distributors and retailers -- receive and react to information at different rates. These differences can cause the distribution system to break down, as the team playing the retailers usually found out when about a year's worth of beer arrived all at once.

There are any number of places where mismatched time lags cause problems in buildings. I'm sure we've all had the experience in a hotel or an apartment where normally fluctuating temperatures in the water and our overreaction cause us to swing from shivering to scalding in the shower as we adjust the temperature too much or too little in one direction or another: We respond much more quickly to changes in temperature than the boiler in the basement can. And how many of us treat thermostats as valves -- believing that if we want the room to be 72 degrees, that setting the temperature to 68 instead of 72 degrees will cool the space faster (it won't).

The time it takes the market, whether locally or in general, to respond to demands for better equipment often forces us to make sub-optimal decisions.

For example, you read about a great product or technology and you want to obtain it. The time it takes for you to act on that information takes a matter of hours to weeks depending on the scale of the action. But for a market to react -- whether it is the local hardware store carrying compact fluorescents or T-5 lamps, or the local building design and development infrastructure to learn to deliver a green building -- can take years.

Thus, all of the individuals who get the message before the market does will either take what they can get when they need it (ever try to buy an efficient room air conditioner during a heat wave) or they will go to extreme, and some would say non cost effective, means to get what they want.

Similarly, trying to retrofit a building or replace failing equipment can mean juxtaposing replacement cycles with budgetary and accounting cycles, which operate on different timelines than the engineering and implementation activities. If there isn't enough budget for that needed piece of efficient equipment, there may not be the option to wait.

The big centralized power and water infrastructure that services buildings is similar: The time lags for adding new supply (power plants, dams, etc.) are vastly different from those of adding new demand (lights, toilets, buildings), which generally means we are either in over supply or undersupply.

Similar to changing the physical structure, altering the feedback time in a system can be very effective, but things often take the time they take, so it is a very difficult thing to change, which is why it's not higher on the list. Sometimes changing the structure of the system is necessary to change the feedback times within that system.

For example, if buildings were built with distributed energy supply and intelligent meters, then supply and demand would be much better matched and society would spend less on unnecessary capacity. This is one reason that energy efficiency (famously coined "negawatts" by Amory Lovins) is the best short-run response to growing demand: Saving energy occurs at the pace of building construction, not at the pace of central power plant construction.

However, one problem with the relatively short timeline for implementing distributed energy and energy efficiency is that people think they can just turn it on and turn it off. Delivering an individual piece of energy efficiency or renewables may not take that much time or effort, but delivering it at scale requires a complex infrastructure that does take time to build. And if a power company tells us one year to save because it is short of capacity and the next year pushes us to buy waterbeds because of an excess capacity at the brand new power plant, one can forgive the poor consumer for being confused.

Investors often fare no better. One reason the energy efficiency and renewable energy industries have been relatively slow to take off in the U.S. is the difference between the time needed to build capacity to deliver efficiency, and the length of funding support for that capacity building. Expensing -- instead of capitalizing -- energy saving programs leads to a continual oscillation in funding for efficiency at the state level. Federal support for renewable energy seldom lasts more than a few years, far less than investors need to comfortably invest in building the industry. As a consequence, much of the renewable energy industry has moved overseas.

The time lag of getting into and out of unmanageable climate change is measured in decades, if not centuries. Contrast this with the timeframes involved with political, economic and technical decisionmaking. Because of these differences in feedback times, an effective, unpopular strategy for reducing carbon pollution stands essentially zero chance of implementation. Heaven help us.

Rob Watson is executive editor of You can reach Rob at [email protected] 

Image CC licensed by Flickr user nicksarebi.