Energy Sleuths in Pursuit Of the Truly Green Building

Check out this commissioning article from Yale University's "environment360." Written by Richard Conniff, a 2007 Guggenheim Fellow and a National Magazine Award-winning writer.

Energy Sleuths in Pursuit of the Truly Green Building

The practice of "commissioning," in which an engineer monitors the efficiency of a building from its design through its initial operation, just may be the most effective strategy for reducing long-term energy usage, costs, and greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. So why is it so seldom used?

In a different world, it could be a reality television show — “Buildings On Trial,” with a street-savvy engineer going into skyscrapers, factories, offices and other commercial buildings to find the dumb mistakes that make them waste energy and produce a disproportionate share of the nation’s global warming emissions.

And in almost every case, even new buildings proudly displaying a LEED “green building” plaque by the front door, the engineer would come back out with a list of energy hog culprits: Here’s the ventilation system fan installed backwards, so it blows full force into another fan blowing in the right direction. Here’s the control system set up so heating and cooling systems both work at once, like driving with your feet on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time. Here are the stuck dampers that prevent the building from drawing on outside air when the temperature is right.

Such mistakes are commonplace even in the best buildings — and often costly. In one case, says Dave Moser of Portland Energy Conservation, Inc., an Oregon nonprofit, it cost a building owner $5,000 to fix stuck dampers — and cut $50,000 off the annual energy bill. In a case of simultaneous heating and cooling at an 85,000-square-foot academic building, a minor programming fix cost almost nothing and saved $100,000 a year in wasted energy, according to Mark Miller of Strategic Building Solutions, a Connecticut company.

The business of finding and fixing these mistakes is called “building commissioning,” a term borrowed from the standard naval practice of commissioning a new ship with sea trials to determine whether it’s fit for service. People started doing roughly the same thing with non-residential

In one study, the energy performance of LEED-certified “green” buildings was worse than conventional buildings.
real estate in the mid-1990s, as buildings with computer-controlled systems became almost as complex as ships at sea. Commissioning frequently involves no more than a few weeks of testing out systems. But in the most complete form, the commissioning agent works with architects in the design stage, to help save money by specifying properly sized energy systems, then follows the building through construction, trains the operating staff, and tracks energy performance in different seasons through the first year of operation. Older buildings now also go through retro-commissioning, in search of improved efficiency.

But if you imagine that real estate developers must be lining up for this service — if only to save money, or determine whether they are getting the building they paid for — you would be mistaken. Even now, well under 5 percent — and probably closer to 1 percent — of new commercial buildings actually go through the process.