This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Report finds uneven results in green building projects

A new report on green buildings in Illinois shows owners who pay a  premium for eco-friendly features find it’s worth it, but only if managers maintain the building’s systems as intended.

In addition, green building projects in Illinois that made energy efficiency a priority in the design and construction stages have lower utility bills than green buildings that didn’t emphasize those elements, according to the study, conducted by CNT Energy, a non-profit that specializes in energy efficiency matters, and the U.S. Green Building Council — Illinois Chapter. Still, most of the total 51 green buildings in the report use less energy than a commercial building of comparable size.

The study was released this week in time for the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in Toronto, the industry’s mega-gathering that draws thousands of green building professionals from the U.S., Canada and many countries beyond North America.

The buildings included in the Illinois study (mostly in Chicago) all are LEED certified, short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a designation awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) after applicants meet environmental and sustainability standards. The study is a followup to a 2009 report that analyzed energy usage and other sustainability features in 25 LEED-certified buildings in Illinois. There are 19 buildings in the current study that also participated in the first one.

Doug Widener, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Illinois Chapter, has been in Toronto all week attending sessions at Greenbuild. Crain’s caught up with him by phone to talk about the buzz at the conference and discuss some findings of the Illinois chapter’s latest study.

Crain’s: What was one of the most surprising findings of the study, compared to the first one released two years ago?

Mr. Widener: When we first started the study three years ago, lots of building owners were happy to have their LEED plaque they could mount somewhere. There was some expectation that a green building should always perform well. In many cases, they weren’t taking a hard look at their energy use month over month. Many also weren’t keeping their systems in check and that’s where we found some differences in performance.

Doug Widener

Sometimes assumptions during construction or initial use change over time. If staffing among tenants doubles from the initial assumptions, for example, there could be double the number of computers — and much more energy use — than was originally expected in the modeling.

Crain’s: What can go wrong in a green building that reduces its efficiency?

Mr. Widener: Even if you have the best HVAC system in the world and good water conservation, you have to look at how managers are using it. If they (or occupants) override systems to turn off lighting controls or heating and cooling controls and the building isn’t being efficiently managed day in, day out, then it doesn’t deliver the promise of what’s possible. If I don’t have my hybrid car tuned up every 3 months, the performance could be worse than a regular car.

People started to see the daily operations of green buildings were more important than they originally thought. We are moving beyond design to performance. We’re finding that occupancy behaviors are really important too. The USGBC prioritized energy use in a big way in 2009 and the LEED rating system went through a big change.

Crain’s: Why did the USGBC change the weighting system of its certification program to focus more on energy use? Mr. Widener: LEED is a broad based rating system that looks at all kinds of things to award ratings. Now the prerequisites (to get a LEED rating) are higher in areas of energy efficiency and water conservation because we’re dealing with a carbon crisis and limited energy resources. We must focus on making buildings more efficient because they emit 40% of all carbon and use over 70% of all the electricity in this country.

Crain’s: What can small business owners learn from this study?

Mr. Widener: Small business owners can take a comprehensive look at their energy data and define a baseline going forward. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Over time, they can develop strategies for workers’ education, including lights-off campaigns, or getting them to shut down their computers. A lot of improvements can come at no cost and from changing people’s behaviors. Lots of people get energy audits too. They’re not expensive, they can find where energy is being wasted and can identify things that could be low-cost fixes.

Crain’s: You’re at Greenbuild in Toronto now. What are the hot topics at the conference that might apply to Chicago’s green landscape?

Mr. Widener: Building performance is one of the big trends here at GreenBuild. What people are learning is that once you open a green building, the sustainability journey is just beginning.

I’m looking forward to a presentation about taking energy modeling to the next level. In modeling, sometimes it’s science and sometimes it’s an art. We need to make it more of a science so it’s more predictable.

The USGBC is announcing the launch of more online resources to measure building performance. G-BIG, short for Green Building Information Gateway, is a new platform for LEED building owners to go online, enter their utility and resource data, and see how they compare to other buildings in their category. The ultimate goal is for all buildings to get access to that.

Another hot topic here this week is affordable green housing. There’s also a green jobs summit that focuses on the nexus between green building and green jobs. Because the meeting is in Toronto, there’s a bigger international crowd here too. The green building movement is global and there’s a lot we can learn from each other.

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