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Are green buildings really saving energy?

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Articles - October 2011
Thursday, September 22, 2011


The Natural Capital Center in Portland where total energy use "is kind of a wash."
Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina

A couple of years after the Natural Capital Center, a pioneering green office building in the Pearl District, was completed in 2001, the LEED gold-rated structure underwent a “post-occupancy evaluation” to see if it really consumed less energy than a conventional office building. The audit showed the structure did meet pre-construction expectations, says Sidney Mead, director of events for Ecotrust, the nonprofit that owns the Natural Capital Center. But several years later, Mead adds, Ecotrust added three new “kitchen-ish spaces,” including a coffee kiosk and walk-in freezer, both of which “used quite a bit of energy.” It was only because the nonprofit also happened to install solar panels that “total energy use came out kind of a wash,” she says.

A leader in the nationwide green building movement, Portland is pushing the envelope when it comes to the use of cutting-edge sustainable building materials and technologies. Now the city and state are exploring what energy experts describe as the next big thing in green building: ensuring that new energy-efficient buildings actually meet expectations once they are occupied.

“The real frontier for driving energy use down is in operations and behavior of occupants,” says Tom White, technical director for Green Building Services, a Portland consulting firm. About 20% to 25% of energy use in buildings “is influenced directly” by those factors, he says.

Energy codes for buildings have become more stringent over the past 15 years, says Alisa Kane, Portland’s green building manager. Nevertheless, she says, “actual energy use has not gone down.” Why? Blame the increase in cell phones, computers, space heaters and other “plug loads” that increase energy use beyond the building’s design expectation. For that reason, says Kane, “Behavior change is the most compelling iteration of work that is going to happen in green building.”

Just how that work will unfold in Oregon is unclear. Over the past few years, Seattle, San Francisco, Austin and Washington, D.C., have passed laws requiring property owners to measure and disclose their energy use, which would help place a market value on a building’s efficiency and provide a benchmark for improvements. During the past two sessions, the Oregon Legislature has considered similar legislation. But those bills failed, in part because of opposition from the Building Owners and Managers Association, (BOMA), which expressed concerns with challenges accounting for tenant behavior, especially in multi-tenant buildings.

“The making public of energy use concerns us because it is not always an accurate picture of a building’s energy performance,” said Wade Lange, vice president of property management for Ashforth Pacific’s Portland office.

So far, Portland is in “the consideration phase,” regarding regulation of energy performance, says Kane. “We’ve been wanting to explore all the different options of how we can work with building owners.”

Until then, the nonprofit Energy Trust already works with property owners to help them measure energy performance. And there are voluntary measures property owners can implement on their own. Ecotrust sets the thermostat at 68 degrees in the winter and between 72-74 degrees in the summer. It’s “quite a bit warmer than most office or retail buildings,” says Mead, adding that one tenant, Portfolio 21, “actually had to change dress code to allow staff to wear shorts.” And according to White, each employee and employer in the building should be of one mind when it comes to managing energy use. As he puts it: “There has to be a synergy between the boiler room, board room and break room.”

Linda Baker



0 #1 Summertime TemperaturesTerry 2011-09-27 10:59:13
Isn't 72-74 a little cool? We set our house at 78. I would think that to save energey, the temperature would be set higher than 74.
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Nadene LeCheminant
0 #2 Tipping point: Does sustainable construction pay off yet?Nadene LeCheminant 2011-09-27 12:19:31
Readers may be interested in a recent news release about whether green construction is cost effective, especially in terms of energy savings. One project planner says you can attempt to measure energy efficiency, but the analysis gets quite complicated. In the end, he says, the decision to build sustainably may be more about ethics than cost.

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0 #3 Misunderstandin g of the Energy Performance Score bills/ideasTheresa 2011-09-28 15:45:25
The article above says that Oregon's "Energy Performance Score" bills failed "in part because of opposition from the Building Owners and Managers Association, (BOMA), which expressed concerns with challenges accounting for tenant behavior, especially in multi-tenant buildings."

This sentence, and the one that follows it, accidentally misrepresent the approaches incorporated in Oregon's Energy Performance Score Bills/ideas. The Senate Bill 79 Task Force unanimously agreed that a score based on existing owner's use was NOT a good way to measure the energy performance of a building.

The Task Force recommended that an energy performance score should be similar to a car's miles/gallon rating: it should reflect performance under a standard set of test conditions.
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0 #4 Individual employees controlling their environment would save energyGoodIdeas 2011-10-05 17:32:13
Most office buildings use forced air heating and cooling. If each vent had a manual damper that the employee in the office (or in an area) could control, all employees would be more comfortable and it would save energy.
In the summer, cold employees could shut their vents, increasing the pressure in the main duct and blowing more air on hot employees. When enough employees close their vents, pressure sensors would reduce fan speed.
A single thermostat with a constant-flow vent would lower or stop the air conditioner compressors when the temperature at that location is too cold. The air flow fans would continue to blow. As employees open their vents, less air would blow on the thermostat, which would kick on the AC.
The same would work for heating in the winter.
No one would ever need little space heaters in an over-airconditi oned building because they could control their own environment.
I have never seen an office building designed using this system.
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John  A. Ward
0 #5 Green BuildingsJohn A. Ward 2011-10-11 12:04:27
So green construction doesn't really save energy in the daily operation, but costs more in the first place, why does this sound like something Oregon would support and put into law and construction standards?
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Dan Mathews
0 #6 Green buildingsDan Mathews 2011-10-22 14:25:17
John Ward, I think you misread the article, though the editor who picked "kind of a wash" for the caption was certainly encouraging that misreading. The "wash" quotation actually says that the building produces about as much energy as it consumes in daily operation, which of course is a great success, and obviously saves a lot of energy compared to typical office buildings. There's plenty of data out there showing that various elements of green construction can pay for themselves over periods ranging from 3 years to several decades at today's energy prices. The ratio is likely to improve a lot both with higher future energy prices and with ramping up production rates of the energy-saving products.
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