Benchmarking, Energy, Finance

Roundtable Recap: Money vs. Power

No Comments Posted on 16 April 2014 by Cecil Scheib

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.

For EUI, lower numbers are better. For BEEC, higher numbers are better.
Credit: Buro Happold

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?

Benchmarking, Energy, Greening Codes, Removing Barriers

When Good Things Become Easier: Benchmarking Update

No Comments Posted on 12 March 2014 by Jonce Walker

The Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability has updated the reporting process for Local Law 84, making it simpler for building owners to comply.  For example, building owners can now get energy data directly from their utility provider, eliminating the need to send cumbersome and expensive paper notices to individual tenants. Tenants will like the changes because they will no longer need to spend time answering data collection requests from building owners. Everyone wins.

Check out Urban Green’s updated Compliance Checklist & User’s Guide for complete details on all the improvements.

Benchmarking, Commercial Buildings, Energy

Roundtable Recap
Benchmarking: How NYC Stacks Up

No Comments Posted on 17 December 2013 by Cecil Scheib

In Top Gun, a young-ish Tom Cruise called bars a “target-rich environment” for his principal hobby (let’s call it “dating”). His character, the hotshot Maverick, needed to determine which bar patrons were most interesting to him, so he used some sort of benchmarking tool – probably visual inspection – to determine how his fellow revelers stacked up. Then he could use this internal benchmarking data to figure out his next step. That’s harder to do for building energy use – you can’t always tell just by looking how well a building is performing. We’ve covered many of the ins and outs of Local Law 84 benchmarking here before, and this week’s sold-out technical roundtable brought the latest thinking up for discussion.

It turns out that despite some key differences in skillsets (Maverick: flying fighter jets; intrepid energy auditors: sticking their heads in dusty ducts), energy consultants can do a little bit of what Tom Cruise did. And not all consultants are created equal: Laurie Kerr (now with the NRDC City Energy Project, and an architect of the NYC benchmarking law) said that in the first year of benchmarking, just 30 firms performed 68% of all the benchmarking.

This reduced the benchmarking task “from a million buildings to a few dozen consultants,” as Laurie put it. Looking at the data submitted by this small pool, it came to light that the energy use reported by some consultants tended to be higher than the average. Maybe something was systematically going wrong, like excluding basements from floor area calculations, which would lead to artificially high reported energy use. The city decided to circle back to these consultants in an attempt to improve their accuracy.

When the city sat down with Steven Winter Associates (SWA), there was an interesting  development. Roundtable moderator Erica Brabon (SWA), said there was no surprise that the buildings her firm benchmarks had higher energy use than average – they actually specialize in buildings with bloated bills. Why? Because after the benchmarking report is filed, these energy hogs are a target-rich environment, having the most need for follow-up audits and retrofits. Like Maverick, SWA knows exactly what they’re doing.

So in this case the city’s analysis that some benchmarking scores were artificially high was not borne out by reality, but still, score one for Erica as top gun. This is important not just for SWA’s bottom line, but for the city as a whole. According to Laurie, the worst quartile of multifamily buildings are creating almost as much carbon pollution as the entire office sector! Just bringing all NYC buildings up to the current average energy intensity would mean a 20% savings citywide. Laurie thinks that NYC, like Lake Wobegon, shouldn’t stop there: she’d like to see a city where “all of our buildings are above average.”

The area of the bar equals total emissions for that quartile. The circled bar, the worst quartile of multifamily buildings, has almost as much emissions as the whole office sector.

















In some areas, though, we are still trying to understand what the benchmarking data is telling us. For instance, multifamily building energy usage increased for 80 years – but it’s declining in newer buildings. On the other hand, energy usage in offices has gone steadily upwards, to the point where new buildings are now at a level 40% above buildings built before the Great Depression. There may be many reasons for this, including more glass, more ventilation, and more data centers. Portfolio Manager, the tool used to submit benchmarking scores, is supposed to adjust for some usage factors when giving commercial buildings an ENERGY STAR rating, but it clearly can’t explain all the variation. So no one yet knows for sure.

To help understand this, Laurie mentioned a hot-off-the-presses metric that might help account for the range of energy intensity found in modern office buildings. At Greenbuild, Buro Happold/Happold Consulting tried to link tenant contributions to the economy to building benchmarking scores. The more economic activity a building contains (based on the mix of tenants it houses), the more energy use you might expect, since newer, high-end office buildings often contain energy-intensive activities like trading floors and data centers. It’s a worthy addition to the conversation on how building tenants can affect energy intensity. But as Laurie pointed out, it risks being interpreted by some as meaning “a nonprofit can’t use any energy, but a bank can use a lot.” Please don’t take away my laptop!

Throughout the audience discussion it was clear that we are at the beginning of new era of “big data” for buildings. Our tools are far from perfect – but are good enough to get started. While EPA and DOE have work to do to improve our tracking and reporting systems, Laurie says “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” The best of benchmarking is still to come.

This post was edited on December 19, 2013 to better describe the Buro Happold study.

Benchmarking, Commercial Buildings, Energy, Residential Buildings

Benchmarking: World Series or Little League?

No Comments Posted on 30 September 2013 by Richard Leigh

Last week, New York City released its second report on building energy use and the data that underlies it. I’m pleased to report that the building I live in has a source energy utilization intensity (source EUI) of 91. Aren’t you impressed? Well, probably not, unless you happen to be one of a handful of geeks who follow this stuff. Numbers like this[1] are as opaque as the results of a blood test. And as effective in getting folks to engage in air sealing or steam trap replacement as the blood test results are in getting you to cut back on ice cream.

So I’m very pleased that the city has translated these numbers into letter grades for multifamily buildings. Almost like school, a building gets an “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D,” depending on its energy use. Unlike school, the lower your raw score, the higher your grade (since using less energy corresponds to emitting less carbon). And also unlike school, there is no “F,” although perhaps there should be.  The buildings are measured against each other, and the 25% with the lowest usage get the “A”s, the 25% with the highest usage the “D”s, and so on. (My building gets an “A.”)

The letter grades combined with clear communications are essential if benchmarking is to have any real impact on real estate transactions. These measures of energy use should be a standard component of any property offering – rental or sale – as they are today in Europe, and as automobile fuel economy and appliance energy efficiency are today in the US. But to do that, we need a simple presentation like the NYC grades. Energy Star ratings, available for commercial buildings, could do this but are not available for multifamily buildings. The Benchmarking Report supports the EPA’s ongoing effort to construct a meaningful Energy Star score for multifamily buildings, but it’s not here yet. In the meantime, the letter grades provide a decent representation of how your building is doing.[2]

How do we get people to actually care? A recent and thought-provoking white paper by the Friends of Benchmarking (an independent group of which Urban Green is a proud member) and supported by the Sallan Foundation emphasized the importance of an easy-to-understand scoring system and attractive graphics. It included a nifty rendering put together at Atelier Ten, showing midtown buildings displaying their Energy Star scores. Can we pull multifamily buildings in this direction?

We could require the Benchmarking letter grade be publically posted in multifamily buildings the way Department of Health ratings are posted in restaurants. One could imagine aesthetic objections, but it would ensure all residents see the information and hopefully motivate action. (We would need to tie the letter grades to fixed values of the EUI, so that as the city improved, we would not be condemning the worst 25% of buildings to “D”s forever.)

OK, I don’t know if that’s the only or best way to proceed, but I’m afraid that the political importance of Benchmarking will fade rapidly if we can’t get more public interest. As my title indicated, we need to elevate benchmarking comparisons from academic discussion to serious competition. The release of the 2011 data and the second Benchmarking Report provide tools that are essential to moving this mission forward.

PS: The second Benchmarking Report includes all kinds of insightful analysis of the data. I encourage everyone to download, read, and digest it. Also take a look at useful blogs from our friends at NRDC and the Institute for Market Transformation.

[1] The details: A “source EUI” gives the total energy used by a building, including heating fuel and the fuel energy used to generate the electricity consumed, divided by its total floor area. The result is usually presented in thousands of British Thermal Units per square foot, so the number cited for my building is 91 kBtu/sf.

[2] Scoring in NYC is relatively simple, since the housing stock all operates under the same weather, fuel and electricity prices and availability, and uses the same workforce.

Benchmarking, Energy

Learning from Benchmarking

No Comments Posted on 20 March 2013 by Tiffany Broyles Yost

By the end of 2013, over 1,400 New York City buildings will have to comply with Local Law 87: Audits and Retro-commissioning, the second in a series of laws that make up the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan (GGBP).  In requiring buildings 50,000 SF or greater to perform periodic energy audits, the city hopes to encourage energy efficiency retrofits that typically result in significant energy and cost savings.

Buildings that need to comply with LL87 in 2013 must submit Energy Efficiency Reports demonstrating compliance by December 31, and every 10 years thereafter.

Last year, Urban Green created a Local Law 87 Compliance Checklist and User’s Guide to help property managers and owners understand the steps required to comply and get the most out of the process.  With support from NYSERDA and Con Edison, we’ve presented this information free of charge to over 1,000 building owners, managers, and operators.  That’s a lot of people but it’s not nearly enough.  We’ve undertaken a second round of outreach to more effectively pinpoint  property managers and owners who may need added support in complying with the law and re-tuning their buildings.

Here’s what we did:

For a similar educational program on Local Law 84, which required the same group of large buildings to benchmark their energy and water use, we reached out to owners and property managers overseeing the greatest amount of square footage. This methodology was carried over into LL87 outreach but with some slight modifications using lessons learned from the city’s Benchmarking Report  released last year.
First, we looked in detail at compliance rates for benchmarking and found geographic areas where compliance was much lower than the overall rate of 75%. We then reached out to Business Improvement Districts, various Chamber of Commerce locations, and neighborhood associations within these areas.

In addition, we looked at compliance rates by building sector and reached out to associations serving sectors with below-average compliance.

We’re optimistic that our combined efforts will improve compliance rates for LL87 in 2013 and subsequent years (10% of 13,500 affected buildings are required to report each year).

We continue to deliver presentations and share information about the law through our fantastic volunteer speakers bureau and Checklist mentioned above.  Please contact us if you need to find out how to comply.

The GGBP laws are truly a win-win, as they encourage building practices that reduce energy use and carbon pollution, lower operating costs, and create “green” jobs for New Yorkers who specialize in building audits and commissioning.  We think the tools we’ve developed go beyond helping property managers and owners comply with the law, adding value to the process. With an additional 12,000 buildings affected by LL87, we have our work cut out for us!

For more information on Local Law 87 please click here or email us to request an onsite presentation.


Benchmarking, Energy

NYC Releases Landmark First Energy Benchmarking Report

No Comments Posted on 03 August 2012 by Cecil Scheib

Today, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability released the first annual New York City Benchmarking Report. This landmark effort is required by Local Law 84, the first law enacted by the Green, Greater Buildings Plan (GGBP), and covers 12,565 private properties (municipal buildings began benchmarking a year earlier and their first report was issued in November 2011).

The report is the result of a foresighted and heroic effort. According to the report, of all the buildings benchmarked by law in the US, Local Law 84 alone accounts for about 61% of the impacted square footage! The data will eventually be available publicly (although the first year of data collection for each building type – municipal, non-residential, and residential – is not), which will be a treasure trove of information for the analysis of the built environment. Overall, the report is a fantastic 30,000-foot view of the city’s large buildings, boiling down complexity into clear, easily digestible chunks.

Buildings’ energy use ranges widely – even within similar building types

Among the more fascinating analyses in the report is a consideration of the factors that contribute to energy consumption. Multifamily building energy use intensity does not vary much, perhaps because they have more similar use patterns to each other. On the other hand, building use intensity for office buildings varies widely.

Several factors appear to correlate with office energy use intensity. For example, higher density of occupants and longer operating hours correspond to higher energy usage. Larger office buildings tend to use more energy per square foot than smaller ones, but it’s not immediately clear if this is due to the intrinsic nature of large building construction (inability to use natural ventilation, simultaneous heating and cooling, and complex systems) or other factors.

Another correlation is with construction date. The report splits building ages by twenty-year increments, and finds that energy intensity has steadily increased over each 20-year period. In fact, offices built since 1990 use almost 40% more energy per square foot than offices built before 1930!

There are a few possible reasons why this might be the case:

1. Tenant Profiles

Tenants with high computer use or other advanced technology needs might select newer buildings. If so, actual end uses would have to made more efficient to see improvements. Building infrastructure changes wouldn’t be the answer. In commercial buildings, since 70% of energy use is typically from tenant spaces, this warrants serious future study.

2. Increase in building system capacity

Newer building systems tend to have more lighting and HVAC than older ones do. A 1920s-era office building may struggle to keep up with HVAC needs on a hot day, whereas a brand new office building may have overcapacity all the time, causing AC units to run less efficiently. This can be improved in new construction through better building load projection during the design process, ensuring the building is geared to actual loads and not “rule of thumb” overestimates, as addressed by the Green Codes Task Force recommendation EE-2 Improve Analysis of Heating & Cooling Needs During Design).

3. Building system complexity

New buildings are more complex than older ones, with computer management systems controlling advanced, interrelated technologies. Sometimes these advancements save energy, but paradoxically, these complex buildings sometimes perform worse than their simpler brethren. Programs like GPRO, Building Operator Certification, Building Performance Institute Multifamily, and others address this maintenance and operations issue. In this case, we do have a hope of improving these buildings over time, as more emphasis is put on energy-efficient maintenance and operations. Benchmarking can help in this regard, since as tenants become more informed and look for the energy score of prospective spaces before leasing, owners will hopefully respond and attempt to improve their buildings’ performance.

4. Building envelope

Building envelope styles change over the decades. Newer buildings with high vision glass curtainwall construction may exhibit worse energy performance than older, masonry buildings with less window area. And though window energy performance has improved over time, we’ve given back those gains through greater increases in vision glazing area. This is one of the reasons the Green Codes Task Force is hoping to address new building envelope u-values in recommendation EF-3 Limit Heat Loss Through Exterior Walls).

More on this topic may become clear when benchmarking data is released in September. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there is a wide variability in energy use intensity, due to age and many factors, even among similar building types. This demonstrates the improvement that is possible in the City’s building stock – although as the report’s authors state, the City as a whole is not currently moving fast enough to meet the 2030 goal of 30% citywide greenhouse gas reduction.

It’s impressive how much work went into the report. The benchmarking data will be a great source for analyses that will ultimately help New York City and the nation create and implement strategies to cut energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Congratulations are due to all who contributed to this effort.

Benchmarking, LEED

Greenbuild: Finale

No Comments Posted on 08 October 2011 by Yetsuh Frank

Greenbuild 2011 in Toronto is complete! The closing plenary on Friday was a pleasant mixture of inspiring presentations, rousing calls to action and jokes about Canadian accents.  Fortunately, the Canadians were the ones doing the joking so no international tension was sparked.

The session started with a bang for me on a personal level.  Judith Webb, USGBC Vice President for Marketing introduced Scot Case from UL Environment (a major sponsor of the conference) and she explained that she met Scot at Speak Green, the June conference I organized while I was at Urban Green Council.  She even spent a sentence describing what the conference was about.  I was pretty thrilled to have something I played a central role in lauded in front of the entire Greenbuild conference.

For his part, Scot Case gave one of the only sponsor speeches I can remember that seemed heartfelt and didn’t include a laundry list of accomplishments.  He told us why he was excited to be in the room (because many of his heroes had stood at the same podium) and why UL Environment wanted to support the event (because they want to be at the forefront of certifying the impact of materials and products for buildings.)  Kudos to UL for letting him do it his way.

Four speakers comprised the closing plenary, or to be exact, four speakers, one video and one pinch hitter.

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Benchmarking, Energy, LEED

Greenbuild: Benchmarking Roundtable

No Comments Posted on 05 October 2011 by Yetsuh Frank

Benchmarking!  Energy Use Intensity!  Just saying them out loud gets me pumped!  In some ways Greenbuild is a full-on geekfest.  The more technical and the deeper into the weeds a session promises to go the more excited most of us are for it to begin.  Today’s lunchtime roundtable on Benchmarking is a case in point.  Measuring your energy and water use.  Reporting it online and comparing the numbers to your peers.  It’s not exactly Cirque du Soleil but if you understand the challenges that confront our building industry you know that just knowing how much energy you use is the first baby step in reforming the performance of our buildings.

The roundtable today brings together experts on the subject from New York City and Canada to compare and contrast the systems used, share the lessons learned in each system and discuss the potential challenges that remain and what can be expected in the near term.  It was an impressive collection of folks, including representatives of the NYC Mayor’s office, US EPA, Canadian Green Building Council, Natural Resources Canada and many others.

The Canadian benchmarking program is similar to the US EPA Energy Star program.  It’s voluntary, for instance, and some of our discussion focused on the impact if NYC’s Greener, Greater Buildings Plan- which mandates benchmarking.  On the one hand, voluntary benchmarking has, of course, low participation.  But mandatory benchmarking, while creating a much greater data pool, may encourage gaming a system that is, by necessity, a self reporting process.  Obviously, because I am familiar with the NYC program I found the Canadian program the most interesting.  They have been through a couple rounds of reporting and are starting to see the returns on retrofits.

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The Benchmarking Rule is Done: Where to next?

1 Comment Posted on 06 April 2011 by Russell Unger

This past Friday, the NYC Department of Buildings posted its 15-page rule implementing Local Law 84. Most of the rule (a good seven pages) is about how to collect and estimate energy consumption and what to do about incomplete data.  And if it takes that long to explain, it surely means compliance will require a substantial effort.

For those who would like step-by-step compliance instructions, check out our Benchmarking Compliance Checklist & User’s Guide.  It should help you determine which steps are required for your building, and which can be ignored.

Long term, there could be another way. The benchmarking law is about energy and water consumption. Yet of the 15-page rule, it takes only two sentences to explain how to input water data. How’s that? It’s that easy because those sentences explain that the Department of Environmental Protection will automatically upload the water consumption information to Portfolio Manager.

Because we don’t have a similar process for utility energy data, 24,592 private-sector buildings are or will be running around to get this information themselves. This is by far the biggest compliance burden for Local Law 84.

For many owners, benchmarking is part of “green stuff” and the easier we can make compliance, the greater their willingness to accept future regulations. Local Law 84 could be much easier to comply with if we had automatic uploading of utility data. So working with the city, Con Edison, National Grid, and the real estate industry to make this happen is at the top of our policy agenda.


Deadline Extended to August 1st for Benchmarking Law

No Comments Posted on 23 March 2011 by Russell Unger

This past Monday, the Mayor’s Office issued a statement that effectively extends the deadline for compliance with Local Law 84 in 2011 from May 1 to August 1. It only applies for 2011 while owners get used to the new requirements; we don’t expect extensions in future years.

The statement also announces the launch of a benchmarking hotline on March 31st that will be staffed by trained CUNY graduate students. It’s available via 311 Monday-Friday 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM.

Even though we don’t need to benchmark anything, the extension is a relief to us. As you may know, Urban Green Council is leading educational outreach to owners on the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan at the request of the Mayor’s Office. Now we have some much-needed breathing room before the first deadline hits!

© 2011 Urban Green Blog.