One Way to Meet Energy Standards: Lower Them

Commercial buildings account for nearly one-fifth of power consumption in the U.S. Now, a new green certification.

Commercial buildings are notorious energy hogs, accounting for nearly one-fifth of U.S. energy consumption, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Efforts to make them sustainable have proved more effective among developers of new buildings than the owners of older properties. 

One way to break the logjam: Make it cheaper and easier for properties to get certified as green.

In a new program, announced this week by BRE Group, the U.K.-based company will begin offering its green certification system for existing U.S. buildings. The aim is to attract commercial real estate owners who want to pursue sustainability upgrades without spending a lot of time or money. 

"It became obvious that we were missing a lot of the marketplace," said Barry Giles, chief executive of BuildingWise, a San Francisco-based consulting firm, who is leading the new effort together with BRE Group.

The certification that Giles is bringing to the U.S. is a version of the Building Research Establishment Environment Assessment Method, or Breeam, which has been around in the U.K. for 25 years. The specific standard Giles is touting is called Breeam In-Use and is intended as an alternative to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED EB, short for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design for Existing Buildings. Both LEED and Breeam offer their own separate standard for new buildings. 

Breeam In-Use starts building owners out with a questionnaire and a $1,000 fee. The owners get a score intended to show how their property stacks up against others. They can then invest more money to upgrade their buildings or get third-party certification to demonstrate that they've met Breeam's standards. While certification can help market a building to tenants or prospective buyers, many owners will probably stop after getting the score, Giles said. 

In either case, the system is intended to be more accessible than the LEED standard for existing buildings, which Giles said is too expensive or time-consuming for most building owners to take on. The new system is less about moving the goal posts and more about gathering information and educating owners on how to operate more-efficient buildings, he said. 

"Many landlords don’t know how much energy they’re consuming," said Giles, adding that 5.6 million commercial buildings in the U.S. don't have any kind of green certification. "There’s low-hanging fruit in terms of recycling, or waste disposal, or many other things we can do to save a client money."

Whether the new certification system proves popular, it's clear there's an opportunity to be exploited. A study published last year by CBRE Group and Maastricht University in the Netherlands showed that in the 30 largest U.S. markets, 39 percent of the total office space has obtained green certification, but only 13 percent of total buildings have it. 

In other words, owners of larger buildings have proved more likely to go to the trouble of meeting efficiency standards, either because they're better equipped to invest in more efficient systems or because green certification is a bigger incentive for the types of employers that tend to occupy more expensive office space.   

"Certification does show the tenant that the building is performing well," said Niall Trafford, chief operating officer for BRE Group. He said it can be a good way for an employer to show staff that the company is committed to sustainability. "The important thing for us is getting more building owners involved and making it easier to just have a go and start something," Trafford said.

Scot Horst, chief product officer at the U.S. Green Building Council, agreed that appealing to the owners of older structures is crucial to the effort to reduce the environmental impact of buildings. Only about 7,400 buildings have registered for LEED EB since the standard was launched in 2008, he said. Two years ago, the council launched a lower-cost way for building owners to track energy consumption. Called the LEED Dynamic Plaque, it tracks building performance in real time but doesn't require owners to hire consultants to pore over building plans. 

"We need to keep coming up with innovative ways to get people onto a path to improvement," Horst said. "We see the same need [as Breeam USA]. We just have different approaches."

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