The Better Buildings Challenge: An energy diet for facilities

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.

The data is coming from EPA's "Portfolio Manager". This is an interactive tool that allows managers to track and assess energy and water consumption across an entire portfolio of buildings in a secure online environment. Whether the manager owns, just manages or holds properties for investment, Portfolio Manager helps set investment priorities, identify under-performing buildings, verify efficiency improvements, and receive recognition for superior energy performance.

Vargas finds it helpful to use a weight-loss metaphor. "A lot of people know they should lose weight; a lot of people want to lose weight; but they don't know how to do it," Vargas said.

"It's about trying to figure out the right platform in the market so that you can talk to commercial building owners, integrate what already exists (e.g. Portfolio Manager) and leverage other resources," Vargas said.

So Portfolio Manager can provide the data. But "the motivation," Vargas is quick to add, "has to come from the organization. If they really want to lose the energy waste people need to be transparent and step up about exactly what they did."

Three of the 10 cities experiencing the most robust push for Energy Star buildings are in California: Los Angeles (#1), San Francisco and Riverside. But Washington, DC, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Houston, Dallas and Boston are also in that mix.

At the end of 2011, there were nearly 16,500 Energy Star-certified buildings across America that have saved an estimated $2.3 billion in annual utility bills. They've prevented greenhouse gas emissions equal to emissions from the annual energy use of more than 1.5 million homes.

If, as developers and building owners are proving in these cities, the technologies already exist to save 20 percent, why aren't more of them doing it? Because something else has to move them.

"It's such a heavy lift," Vargas explained. "Facility managers or global energy managers never get rewarded for saving energy."

Three Hurdles to Overcome in the Race to Better Buildings

People don't buy expensive Nike athletic footwear because they're inexpensive. It's the brand that can make the difference between a purchase, or investment, or not.

HEI Hotels & Resorts is among the leading corporate participants in the Challenge. It has faced three distinct hurdles in preparing to achieve significant energy savings, according to Senior Vice President of Operations and Asset Management, Glenn Tuckman.

The first was getting management to buy in to the program. The second was motivating employees to treat the hotels much like their homes. The third was justifying major capital expenditures.

HEI has an eight-point plan that focuses the company on, among other objectives, lowering costs, providing low-cost financing, empowering group leaders for asset classes, standardizing measurement and verification, recognizing achievements and providing industry-specific benefits such as mandating government travel to Partner hotels.

Bob Holesko, Director of Facilities at based HEI Hotels & Resorts, is one of these un-sung "heroes." Rather than take a top-down approach, Holesko opted to empower chiefs at each of HEI's properties. Vargas said he "recognized that a lot of energy savings were going to come from the people who clean the rooms and launder the sheets and towels, many of whom may not speak English.

"Organizations may look the same from the outside but inside they are very different. They've all got their own cultures. The organizations we're working with understand their cultures," Vargas said.

"Nothing sells like success. These guys are looking at what each other does all the time," Vargas said. "There's that constant competition in the marketplace. The challenge is really trying to harness that."

"If you can illustrate what the leaders are doing in the marketplace, our hope and true belief is that other people will want to do what others are doing. That takes the risk away from doing it too."

Green building photo via Shutterstock.