The Benefits of the Better Buildings Challenge

8 min read

Why it’s worth it for owners and engineers to engage

The Better Building Challenge (BBC) has been making strides in fostering and delivering energy efficiency in a wide variety of building types around the country. You’ve likely heard of, or been involved with, projects that take advantage of the program. There are certainly benefits to participating from an owner’s perspective.

Engineering firms, like Sparhawk Group, strive to help our clients succeed in developing affordable housing properties that support and enhance the communities they serve. Our aim is to help our clients achieve and exceed their energy efficiency, cultural and environmental goals by building capacity in their organizations and installing context appropriate solutions. Experience informs us that the culture and context needed to succeed varies widely between mission driven organizations, small to large portfolios, integrated development and property management operators and developers with third-party management firms.

The Better Buildings Challenge has helped companies, like Sparhawk Group, build and support owner capacity and deliver deeper and longer lasting energy savings to affordable housing owners.

What is the Better Buildings Challenge?
The Better Buildings Challenge is a program established by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) aimed at reducing energy usage in commercial, public, industrial and residential buildings by 20% over the next ten years. The DOE predicts hundreds of billions of dollars will be saved through this program, as well as significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating thousands of jobs.

Owners who elect to join the program commit to conducting an energy efficiency assessment, developing an organization-wide energy savings goal, implementing projects that will have lasting savings potential, reporting performance data and sharing their approach with other program participants. The idea is to lead by example and show other owners how energy efficiency measures establish real-world savings results.

To encourage these energy saving projects, the Better Buildings Challenge offers various financial incentives to help with the cost of complying with the program. These incentive programs are administered by groups located throughout the country.

Why Should Multifamily Owners Participate?
According to the BBC 2016 Progress Report, multifamily properties spend about $21 billion annually on energy. We regularly hear from our clients that energy is one of the largest costs at an affordable housing site, and reducing energy usage is often a goal; however, effective and lasting energy reduction requires spending on engineering and operations planning and building capacity that matches the culture of the owner. The incentives offered by the BBC help to offset these costs.

Benchmarking is a key component of the BBC. All participants registered in the BBC must enter whole-building utility usage data through an on-line database called Portfolio Manager. Portfolio Manager compiles data from buildings throughout the US and uses it to compare energy usage across like categories. Do you own a five-story, multifamily building in the Northeast with a centralized heating system? You can compare how that building is performing on an energy per square foot basis with similar buildings. Do you have a garden-style property with individual heat pumps located in the South? The data is there to tell you how your site is doing relative to similar sites. The program offers an Energy Star score (from 1 to 100), giving you an easy-to-interpret rating of how your building stacks up. Fifty is the median score; anything less indicates below-average performance, anything greater indicates above-average performance. Portfolio Manager allows owners to track and monitor their heating fuel, electricity and water savings year after year.

According to the Portfolio Manager website, there are hundreds of thousands of buildings already in the database, and that number is growing as more states and energy efficiency programs require participation. More buildings in the database means a greater sample size and a more accurate description of comparative energy performance.

Portfolio Manager also provides a way to reliably track your progress toward your energy efficiency goals. By submitting the data on a yearly basis, you can see how consumption has fallen (and how your Energy Star score has increased) as you implement energy efficiency measures. The program offers owners access to Management Add-On Fee incentives, which help to offset the internal costs of gathering and entering utility data into Portfolio Manager, resident engagement, and Operations and Maintenance training. Additionally, submitting and tracking this data makes undertaking procedures, such as utility allowance reviews, much easier.

From the Engineer’s Perspective
We work with clients around the country who want to reduce energy consumption, and it’s common for them to have three overriding questions: Are our properties efficient or not? Is there affordable opportunity to reduce energy cost?  And how do developers fund the development and implementation of their projects?  They are also often unsure how to prioritize their properties and find the internal resources to achieve and maintain efficient building performance.

The funding portion is obvious – money available to be spent on efficiency projects means we can help more of our clients implement larger projects that will save them more energy. This shouldn’t be overlooked – particularly in the affordable housing industry where budgets are tight during development and even tighter during on-going operations periods.

But there are other pluses from our point of view. First off, benchmarking. As consultants, we can project that you will save 15% of your electrical costs by implementing these five measures, or that a boiler replacement will reduce your heating bill. Those are interesting propositions, but they mean much more when we say that reducing your electrical costs by 15% means your site will be performing in the top quartile of similar buildings. It provides context to the energy efficiency projects we propose, allowing our clients to get a better sense of what their efforts in efficiency mean and demonstrating how lowering energy costs can increase the value of their property.

And it helps our clients. Part of the commitment in joining the BBC is a reduction of 20% of energy usage over ten years. This is no mean feat, especially since many owners have been paying attention to energy efficiency during redevelopment and have taken part in energy efficiency programs offered by state, utility and federal sources. When looking at portfolio-wide performance, it can be hard to know how or where to start. But that’s where the benchmarking comes in – once all of an owner’s properties are entered into Portfolio Manager, they can compare across their properties to get a sense of where opportunities may exist. It helps guide the decision-making process when companies, like mine, reach out to offer help with achieving their energy efficiency goals.

Secondly, the sharing of best practices makes all of us more effective. By participating in the program, owners are encouraged to share their success stories. Learning how others are succeeding can have a big impact in developing solutions and in encouraging owners to develop and implement creative solutions of their own. We all have our own areas of expertise, and sharing our expertise helps all of us design more effective and creative solutions.

Third, access to Technical Assistance funding makes programs, like the Supertech Training recently offered here in New England possible, and creates better opportunities for owners to build capacity in their organizations. As BBC partners and energy consultants assemble and discuss opportunities and options for reducing energy consumption, ideas like the Supertech Training emerge. This training, which was offered free of charge to those enrolled in the BBC, covered a range of energy efficiency topics for maintenance technicians who manage multiple building sites. The idea of the training was to provide those who work in these buildings with the knowledge and understanding of energy efficiency they need to build the habits and culture of efficiency in their day-to-day work.

Bringing it All Together
Programs, like the Better Buildings Challenge, do more than simply incentivize the development of energy efficient projects; they help property owners and managers invest in their staffs and build capacity within their organizations. This has a long-term and wide-ranging impact. When facilities staff are working on their day-to-day tasks on site, energy efficiency is part of their decision-making process. This shift in thinking leads to incremental increases in operating efficiency, which can add up over time to significantly contribute to the portfolio- wide energy reduction goals.

We energy nerds support programs like this because they allow us to do more with less. For those of us who are passionate about energy efficiency, and who want to positively impact the internal culture and economic sustainability of the affordable housing world, the Better Buildings Challenges is a great place to start.

Scott Pinyard is a Senior Consultant for Sparhawk Group where he provides energy efficiency and acoustical consulting. His focus is on in the intersection of comfort and efficiency in the built environment. Scott works with clients to develop and implement energy efficiency plans as well as maintenance procedures to assure long-term comfort and savings. He has developed and managed whole-building energy improvement projects to a wide range of clients types including multifamily, hospitality, educational, and industrial customers throughout the country. He lives in Portland, ME with his wife and two kids.