Benchmarking gives owners and buyers a better understanding of a building’s energy and water consumption, which helps the real estate industry increase efficiency. But there’s a stumbling block to using the benchmarking data effectively, and everybody knows it . It makes intuitive sense that simply comparing total energy use per square foot between different buildings omits important context, because it’s obvious that a data center uses more energy than a yoga studio, and an investment bank working three shifts will use more energy than an office only open 9 am – 5 pm. In “Money Vs. Power”, Steven Baumgartner (Buro Happold) wondered, “wouldn’t thinking about what the building is used for be a good part of the discussion?”
In theory, that’s the purpose of ENERGY STAR ratings: to make apple-to-apples comparisons by taking into account what the building is used for, how many people work there, how many computers there are, its hours of operation, and so on. But ENERGY STAR doesn’t cover every kind of building in New York, so many benchmarked buildings aren’t eligible for this more contextual rating. Baumgartner decided one way to help benchmark those missing buildings more accurately would be to compare building energy usage to another important metric: contribution to the economy.
Baumgartner used federal standard industry classifications to determine how each tenant in a benchmarked building contributes to GDP, adjusted by New York State indirect and induced benefits for each business sector. The result is an indication of each tenant’s contribution to the economy, without using any private financial data from individual businesses. After weighting each tenant’s economic impact relative to its floor area, the overall building economic impact can be compared to its total energy use per square foot.
This result is called the Building Economic Energy Coefficient, or BEEC. In this system, a building with tenants that have a larger contribution to the economy will have a higher BEEC than another building with the same energy use per square foot but with tenants whose business types provide fewer economic benefits.
So in the absence of universal ENERGY STAR ratings, what would it mean to use BEEC to fill the gap? Well, it would accurately represent the real world in at least one fundamental way: money talks. For a city where economic development is a constant focus, it’s not enough to look at the energy use of a building without considering its economic benefits. As one audience member put it, while we all want buildings to save energy, “it’s a dangerous world to be in where NYC is pushing against bank headquarters.”
However, some say BEEC only tells part of the story. In the federal and state databases, a bank makes more contributions to the economy than a school, and a trading floor has greater economic impact than a nonprofit. These critics wonder whether we shouldn’t consider some other contributions to the city when benchmarking building energy use. What if we made the same type of calculation using a database that defines how each type of business contributes to education, or happiness, or future job creation? It sounds like a great idea, but that database doesn’t exist. For now, our tax dollars pay for federal and state government to measure how different business types contribute to the dollar economy. They don’t tell us how happy, healthy, or safe different businesses might make us.
From an engineering standpoint, BEEC presents a couple of challenges. While building energy usage is measured directly with meters, economic activity is calculated using only tenant business types, not actual financial data. Since the real-life density and productivity of tenants can’t be included in the calculation, a BEEC number is a general indicator, not a precise measure.
In addition, while attempting to solve the problem of comparing buildings of different use types, BEEC adds a layer of complexity that can obscure differences between buildings of similar uses. A building could improve its BEEC score by lowering its energy use; it could get the same result if during tenant turnover, low-contributing tenants move out and high-contributing tenants move in, whether intentionally or not. Is that the desired result, or is there some basic standard of efficiency we hope all buildings should reach, regardless of their tenants?
Can BEEC help NYC lower its carbon footprint? Baumgartner says that “BEEC hasn’t been put on the table to drive policy. It’s been put on the table to spark discussion.” But, since NYC’s interest is not for these high-contributing tenants to leave for other areas and instead to make buildings more efficient, the attempt to make benchmarking more useful is a worthy goal. Because ENERGY STAR doesn’t fully take other variables (economic or otherwise) into account, there’s a gap to be filled.
Until there is some way of comparing apples to apples, simply lining one building’s energy use per square foot against another will be difficult for even experts to interpret, and downright misleading for the general public. While tenant economic contribution seems like one important variable, it may not be enough on its own. What would you use?