Live Chat Software

Energy Efficiency + Building Science

Building science is critical to meeting 2020 energy-efficiency targets.

By Steve Winter, FAIA

There is some urgency: 2020 is right around the corner, and 2030 is not far behind, so it is almost too late for new buildings to meet efficiency targets by 2020. If a new building of any size is slated for occupancy by 2020 (a mere six years from now), it is already moving along its inexorable timeline: interior fit-out and furnishings commence installation fall 2019; construction starts spring 2018; design starts summer 2017; approvals start summer 2015; and property acquisition starts late 2014. So, decisions have already been, or are now being made, to define the building’s occupancy, its physical characteristics, and other parameters that will dictate its energy use. The decision makers in the entire chain of events leading to the design and construction of buildings must be made aware of the building science options that yield cost-effective, energy-efficiency solutions. This includes new construction that is already in the works as well as construction contemplated for the future.


Indeed, most buildings that will be around in 2020, and even 2030, already exist. These structures should be the primary focus of energy performance initiatives. Older buildings are typically more inefficient and create more pollution and waste than new ones (although not always, because new buildings often have more complex infrastructure and systems). Their equipment is frequently degraded, their construction deteriorated, their systems outdated, and their management less focused. Older buildings could benefit enormously from advanced building science, and building owners or managers can often take advantage of special financial programs and incentives to produce highly attractive paybacks or returns on energy-efficiency investments.

So there is no time to waste. If a building can be made to be 20 percent more energy efficient (a readily achievable and cost-effective target), then acting now will result in savings of 100 percent by 2020 and 300 percent by 2030. The savings will also be reflected in critical collateral benefits: reduced carbon emissions and water consumption, better health, and increased comfort.

Building science to the rescue? It’s not a panacea, but it certainly can help.

I couldn’t find a good definition for building science in the dictionary, but those of us who are building scientists think we know what it means: It is the application of physics, chemistry, and other sciences to design and construction practices so that buildings work properly. What we practice is building science that dictates the best way to insulate buildings, to heat and cool them, to light them, to provide fresh air, and to service and manage them. The efficient energy performance of a building is made or broken in accordance with how building science is applied by its designers, builders, and operators.

There are promising solutions out there: Technical, institutional, and conceptual solutions.

There are many answers that can help us meet our 2020 goals, so we don’t really have excuses if we fail. Here is a small set of examples.

Technical innovations are coming at the building industry with lightning speed. We barely have time to evaluate them, let alone apply them. Internet-connected elements—such as for appliances, sensors, HVAC systems, and building-management systems—can tell us when to replace, fix, or tweak them. Glazing systems continue to advance, rendering windows, doors, and skylights more effective. Photovoltaic systems are becoming less expensive and more efficient. Nanotechnology is providing smart surface coatings. LED lighting continues to provide better, more cost-effective, longer-lasting, and smarter luminaires. And so on.

Carrots and sticks have proven very powerful driving forces supporting 2020 goals.

Laws, regulations, and codes promulgated by federal, state, and local government institutions are extremely effective sticks that require minimum standards of energy efficiency, such as compliance with iterations of the International Energy Conservation Code (more than 40 states have implemented state-wide energy codes). Energy requirements in building codes are among the only criteria for gaining a building permit that are not considered “health and safety” measures. Benchmarking—the documenting of a building’s energy use profile—has become a requirement when building in cities such as Boston, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Although benchmarking doesn’t actually result in fuel savings directly, the publication of the data allows for comparison of performance of any building against others, and that has meaningfully prompted action. Local Law 87 in New York is an extremely aggressive stick, requiring owners of 22,000 larger buildings to conduct energy audits and engage in retrocommissioning every 10 years.

Carrots come in the form of financial incentives. Nationally, there are federal tax credits available under Section 179D of the Internal Revenue Service tax code if certain energy efficiencies are incorporated into new buildings. And states and local areas each have their own incentives to increase efficiency. Renewable energy technologies also have a wide array of tax credits and rebates available at many levels. Utility companies offer incentives for a variety of efficiency milestones. Financing for energy-efficiency improvements is being offered for Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs in a number of states, and by such institutions as New York state’s Green Bank and the New York City Energy Efficiency Corp. A very useful and thorough list is available in the DOE’s Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency. Private-sector financing is also available from ever-increasing sources; not only from banks and energy service companies, but also from manufacturers and installers.

It would, of course, be kismet if carrots and sticks can be aligned: If an energy improvement is required at the same time that an incentive is offered to achieve it. Such is the case in New York City, where the legal requirements for audits and commissioning can often be paired with New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s financial incentives to support engineering and retrofits. Eventually, of course, the incentives will be phased out. By the time they are, hopefully they will have demonstrated that the improvements they subsidized make economic sense without the subsidy.

Bundling of services and solutions have promise.

To meet 2020 goals, we might be able to piggyback services or installations onto each other. For instance, an energy initiative that might not otherwise be considered on its own might get adopted as an add-on to a project that has already been approved by a building owner or manager. For example, property needs assessments (PNAs, often called building condition assessments or other similar descriptors) are routinely carried out by building owners and managers for projecting capital expenditure requirements, or by lenders prior to a purchase or sale. It would be a slam dunk to add an energy audit task to the PNA, and develop cost-effective energy retrofits to the schedule. Energy audits can similarly be bundled with accessibility assessments (ADA, Fair Housing), resiliency audits (pre- and post-disaster or power-outage), and other building inspection services. Once we’re in a building we may as well look at its energy performance, whereupon we will be armed with the information to improve it.

Installations of energy improvements can similarly be bundled with other construction projects. While a boiler, fan, motor, or air conditioner is being replaced, it might as well be replaced by a more efficient one. When roofing is replaced, more insulation can be added. When new communications systems are being installed, thermal sensors and controls can be added at the same time. Almost any existing-building construction or remodeling project can and should be bundled with energy-savings strategies, and, with enlightened financing opportunities, it will be cash-flow positive from day one.

Large-scale impacts are the ones that make a real difference.

We need to think big so that energy-efficiency strategies cut through a broad swath of the nation’s building stock. We need to target entire communities, whole portfolios, and the owners and managers of large amounts of real estate, so that energy upgrades or improvements really move the savings needle substantially. We need to approach our goals by looking at “fleet performance.” In other words, we shouldn’t be concerned with a few outlier buildings that don’t perform so well, or even those few which perform exceptionally well—we want the average across large building populations to rise. Net-zero buildings are admirable as icons and can make compelling headlines, but we have over a 100 million buildings out there to deal with and need to address them in large numbers to make the necessary savings.

This article was originally published in ECOBUILDING Pulse October 2014.

Subscribe to MetalMag Essentials

Additional Features