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Study: Bigger is Better in Green Building

Thursday, March 30, 2017

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Green building certification programs are having a significant impact on large-scale Class A buildings, however effectiveness of these programs flounders as buildings decrease in size.

That's the conclusion of a new study, published on Monday (March 27) in the journal Nature Energy. University of California-Los Angeles researchers say the study is a "first-of-its-kind."

The Study Details

The team looked at 178,777 commercial buildings in Los Angeles and compared data in a way that isn’t typically applicable because energy consumption numbers are usually private.

“What we are doing has not been done before, just because there was no access to data of such quality and such coverage,” said study co-author Magali Delmas, a professor at the UCLA's Institute of the Environment.

A partnership program at UCLA enabled access to such data, which compared commercial buildings in energy savings programs (such as the federal Energy Department’s Better Buildings Challenge, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star certification program and the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program) to other commercial buildings of similar size and stature.

Jon Sullivan, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The participating L.A. buildings (which occupy 125.9 million square feet of floor space) are avoiding about 320 million pounds of carbon emissions.

Comparatively, L.A. buildings participating in the Better Buildings Challenge used 18.7 percent less energy than nonparticipants, Energy Star buildings 19.3 percent less and LEED-certified buildings used nearly 30 percent less.

The participating L.A. buildings (which occupy 125.9 million square feet of floor space) are avoiding about 320 million pounds of carbon emissions.

This is good news to be sure, Delmas said, but the study also found that these programs are having little to no impact on smaller and mid-sized commercial structures, which make up almost two-thirds of the commercial structures in L.A.

The study suggests this is because of the up-front costs that can come with committing to a green certification, along with the amount of time smaller building owners would have to wait for the payoff.

What it Takes to be Green

Each of the programs has extensive advice on energy efficiency, most notably recommendations on changes that can be made to a building’s envelope to reduce air infiltration.

Energy Star, for instance, reports extensively on cool roofing in its “Building Upgrade Manual.” It lists the benefits such as less air-conditioning equipment, extended roof life and reduced heat island effect. However, when it comes to referencing a case study, the numbers show a 100,000-square-foot commercial property.

U.S. Green Building Council

LEED-certified buildings used nearly 30 percent less energy than comparable buildings not participating in any kind of energy program.

A search on the Better Buildings website will lend itself to multiple webinars on building envelope upgrades with categories on roofing and walls, but disappear once a filter is applied to search for tips specific to a building’s size.

David Hodgins, executive director of the L.A. Better Buildings Challenge, said that these programs need to be better tailored for all different types of commercial structures.

“A lot of these smaller buildings are going to be family owned,” Hodgins said. “Part of the pitch should be that we’re going to make sure the building doesn’t become obsolete so it will benefit your children and grandchildren.”

How Do We Fix it?

Delmas said that one way to incentivize smaller-sized building’s owners to make the investment is simply to provide better information. She added that mandatory disclosure laws should be implemented so that energy consumption data is publicly available.

“We need more transparency,” Delmas said. “If you don’t know about your usage, how can you change it? If you don’t know that your building is using 10 times more energy than the one next to you, how can you make adjustments?”


Tagged categories: Better Buildings Initiative; Building envelope; Building Envelope; Cool roof coatings; Energy Star; Green building; LEED; North America; Research

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