Getting Serious About Energy In Buildings

Here in Rhode Island, as elsewhere, well-intentioned people are proposing legislation that would mandate that any public building or any building receiving public subsidy be LEED rated. I already addressed my concerns with that proposal in “Legislating Greenness”. The problems include:

1) Empowering a single private out of state organization with essentially unregulated monopoly powers to define, change, certify and charge for greenness certification, which is effectively being mandated as a building code standard.

2) Eliminating market based competition and real market signals for defining, evolving and improving green building standards and practice.

3) In the only study ever done on LEED buildings, when rigorous statistical analysis was applied to the data in an independent review, it ended up that at least to date, LEED buildings actually have used more energy than typical buildings.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that rating systems like LEED add more layers of complexity and more fees for LEED professionals, architects, engineers and construction managers, but they don’t add any meaningful accountability to the system. That’s exactly why LEED buildings can use more energy than conventional buildings and why LEED rated skyscrapers can leave their lights on all night when nobody is in the building. Once the rating is determined based on design, the building can call itself green no matter how poorly it actually performs.

With the economic situation we are in, the goal of green building advocates has to go beyond putting plaques on walls and having nice things to say in the press. We know that real green buildings actually save energy and save significant amounts of money in their operation. We need real accountability and serious incentives to make that happen.

So lets stop counting points and instead focus peoples attention much more clearly with a measurement we all understand very well – dollars.

The way states fund new buildings needs to be changed. Rather than coming in as an allocation or grant of cash, half the funding should be delivered as it is now under current funding mechanisms and the other half should be delivered to the agency or municipality building the building as a short term zero interest loan with a two year balloon payment. That loan would be forgiven given after two years of operation if gas, oil and electric bills are 25% lower in energy units used per square foot than on comparable existing buildings in the state. If the building doesn’t meet this goal, the agency, municipality or other recipient of the funds would have have to repay the loan in full.

Such serious incentive would focus attention on what actually matters far more than counting greenness points.

With financial incentives that very clear and serious, the building procurement process for new buildings would quickly evolve to requiring energy performance bonds from architects and general contractors which would focus their attention very clearly. Architects and contractors would quickly become more serious about details. Schools would have to start training architects and engineers on issues that actually matter. Companies that failed to deliver would have a hard time getting energy performance bonds for future projects. The market would start providing real significant rewards for real green building.

Building operations and maintenance staffs would have more prestige and be considered a far more important part of organizational management with serious money on the line for real measured building performance.

Among other benefits, this kind of legislation would require getting baseline data on the existing building stock. The process of collecting and comparing real baseline data would get the state and municipalities comparing their existing buildings to each other on very simple and easy to calculate metrics – annual therms, gallons of oil and kWh per square foot. It would immediately become very obvious which buildings need to be fixed.

Both through improving the worst performing buildings and building new buildings that use 25% less energy than baseline, the goals and minimum performance levels constantly and automatically reset higher toward better performing buildings.

Such a system doesn’t need “Accredited Professionals” using abstract rating systems to count points. All that is needed is the utility bills that get delivered every month anyway.

Henry Gifford deserves credit for inspiring the concept that buildings should be rated on actual performance as measured by utility bills. All that is needed is add some real accountability to that very clear and simple rating system.

The situation or country is in regarding energy, the environment and the economy is serious. We need serious incentives and serious penalties to drive serious solutions.

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Filed under Energy Policy, Environmentalism, Fundamental Perspectives

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