It’s Time For A National Buildings Policy For Energy Use

by Ryan M. Colker, via Institute for Market Transformation

Buildings serve as the cornerstone of the nation’s economy. Citizens depend on them for housing, businesses operate in them, and children learn in them. They represent more than half of the nation’s wealth. New construction and renovation activity amounts to over $800 billion annually. The sector employs over 10 million people (five percent of total U.S. employment) and is responsible for 13 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Beyond the economic impact of buildings, building owners and occupants and government agencies look to them to provide numerous services. From protection from man-made and natural hazards and maintenance of occupant comfort to accessibility and sustainability, buildings provide many benefits to society.

The U.S. Congress recognized these diverse needs in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 where they defined high-performance buildings as those that integrate and optimize on a life cycle basis of all major high performance attributes, including: energy conservation, environment, safety, security, durability, accessibility, cost-benefit, productivity, sustainability, functionality, and operational considerations.

However, given the broad and far-reaching impacts of buildings, no national buildings policy exists. Programs are scattered across numerous agencies often with little to no coordination. Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office identified 94 separate initiatives in 11 agencies with implications for private sector green buildings alone. Accounting for all buildings related programs, the numbers are likely even more staggering.

Understanding how each program meets national goals related to buildings, the economy, security, and the environment is impossible without clearly identified priorities and the metrics necessary to verify such achievements. As policymakers struggle to cut budgets and federal agencies must respond, efficiencies can be gained through better coordination and cooperation across agencies and programs. A National Buildings Policy with clearly identified priorities, metrics, and recommendations for cooperation can help to reinvigorate the building sector and provide much needed focus to its diversity of participants.

The identification and acceptance of common metrics to measure success are vital to achieving any identified priorities. Even despite an obvious focus on building energy use, the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) is struggling to maintain funding to complete the survey. In addition to CBECS, the National Institute of Building Sciences (Institute) identified numerous data needs to achieve high-performance buildings. A unified database of building performance data across numerous attributes is possible, but requires the focus and motivation that a comprehensive building policy can provide.

The expansion of tools like Building Information Modeling and processes like Integrated Project Delivery have begun to shift the building community away from a fragmented, every discipline for itself industry. However, development of a National Buildings Policy is necessary to continue this transformation and bring focus to the numerous efforts underway in both the public and private sector.

As indicated above, the diversity of federal agencies shaping building policies is significant. Establishing an interagency working group on buildings charged with providing feedback and reducing overlap in federal policy could be a valuable starting point. Organizations like the Institute—which was established by Congress to work across the public and private sectors to improve the built environment—can provide the forum for development of a holistic National Building Policy, but the engagement of all relevant stakeholders is required.

Leadership from legislators (including members of the High-Performance Building Caucus) and executive agencies (including the National Science and Technology Council, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Homeland Security) can provide a signal to the building community that such an effort is valuable to meeting national goals and providing high-performance buildings for our citizens.

Ryan M. Colker is Director of the Consultative Council and Presidential Advisor at the National Institute of Building Sciences. This piece was originally published at the National Institute for Market Transformation’s blog and was reprinted with permission.

7 Responses to It’s Time For A National Buildings Policy For Energy Use

  1. Mark El says:

    The regs governing real estate market appraisals need to be part of this initiative. When two houses side-by-side appraise for very nearly the same amount of money even though one has undergone a deep-energy retrofit (using mostly hidden materials) and the other has not, then there is a serious problem.

    When I’ve raised this elsewhere, rebuttal arguments go “Appraisers find what the market will bear”. The deeper truth is that appraisers need to minimize the effort put into each transaction, and collect their fee, and this means a lot more work for them. Meanwhile, the number they come up with is only really capped by sales of mis-described comparable sales nearby…. only knowledgeable buyers can not offer any more for the energy efficient building than what the appraiser says its worth…. and so the problematic business model resists solution due soley from market forces. Sellers of such properties should be able to demand meaningful value for those improvements, and knowing buyers should be able to get the mortgage needed to pay it. But when appraisers give only a token extra sum for energy upgrades, one divorced from meaningful data, it maintains their mass-production m.o. for these appraisals, keeping their jobs easier and our buildings grotesquely inefficient.

  2. AA says:

    The interruption of CBECS is a major problem. The data stops just when we need it most.

    At least the program wasn’t ended altogether.

  3. fj says:

    Moving forward on this at war-time speed would be a terrific boost for the economy in addition to starting to address climate change at scale.

  4. I clearly remember a web cast presentation that featured Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Ed Mazria talking about climate change and how we can start now to reduce energy use. Mazria may no be so well known. He is an architect and provided the initial leadership for an organization called Architecture 2030. If you are not familiar with them, you should be. Link: http://www.architecture2030,org/

    If we had the focus on the built environment that we have on power generation or transportation, following Mazria’s guidelines, we would be a lot closer to our goals for 2050.

  5. AA says:

    Architecture can do a lot to reduce demand, but there will always be some need for energy on site. Once you reduce your energy consumption to a minimum, it’s easier to solve the problem on the power generation side than on the architecture side.

    I think there are two main reasons:

    1. Distributing energy in a grid makes renewable energy much easier to work with. Note the relative proportion of new grid-tied vs. off-grid PV systems.

    2. Only single family homes can really go to net zero energy… Once you get past two stories, it’s very hard to generate enough power on site to match demand. There are some clever graphs that show this in Smil’s books. (some big box stores could probably also get to net-zero, especially in sunny areas).

    Oh, and one more: focusing on power generation helps bring down your embodied emissions in goods and materials, and gives you a way to reduce transportation emissions (EVs, PHEVs, electrify rail, etc).

  6. Ryan M. Colker says:

    Mark, I totally agree that we need to look at all sides of the building industry–including finance and insurance. Traditionally, the design and construction and the finance and insurance sectors have rarely interacted and each doesn’t really understand how the other works. The most common response to why high-performance buildings or features are not valued differently is the lack of data supporting such a valuation. While we certainly need improved data to understand building performance, we also need to do a better job communicating existing data. To help better communicate across the finance and insurance sector and the design and construction sector, the National Institute of Building Sciences recently established the Council on Finance,Insurance and Real Estate. The Council’s first project is to connect the various risks perceived by the finance and insurance sector with the high-performance attributes that could help mitigate such risks. I would invite you and anyone else interested to participate in this Council.

  7. Thanks so much for reposting my blog and the excellent comments that follow.

    The diversity of comments illustrate the need for establishing a forum for a comprehensive and holistic examination of the role of buildings and the attributes we expect buildings to posses. While energy is a key consideration in the development of a National Policy, we also need to consider other needs. Recent hazards including droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes and flooding demonstrate the needs for buildings to be safe and secure and contribute to the development of resilient communities. We also need to assure that buildings perform the functions they were designed to facilitate–including productivity of the occupants.

    As you read the post, I hope it became clear that a myopic focus just on energy may produce energy efficient buildings, but if no one wants to occupy them then what is the point. We need to put all our needs on the table and decide as a nation what are the priorities. Then organizations like the National Institute of Building Sciences can help develop the policies, programs and tools to help us get there.