20 May 2010: Report

Energy Sleuths in Pursuit
Of the Truly Green Building

The practice of “commissioning,” in which an engineer monitors the efficiency of a building from its design through its initial operation, just may be the most effective strategy for reducing long-term energy usage, costs, and greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. So why is it so seldom used?

by richard conniff

In a different world, it could be a reality television show — “Buildings On Trial,” with a street-savvy engineer going into skyscrapers, factories, offices and other commercial buildings to find the dumb mistakes that make them waste energy and produce a disproportionate share of the nation’s global warming emissions.

And in almost every case, even new buildings proudly displaying a LEED “green building” plaque by the front door, the engineer would come back out with a list of energy hog culprits: Here’s the ventilation system fan installed backwards, so it blows full force into another fan blowing in the right direction. Here’s the control system set up so heating and cooling systems both work at once, like driving with your feet on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time. Here are the stuck dampers that prevent the building from drawing on outside air when the temperature is right.

Such mistakes are commonplace even in the best buildings — and often costly. In one case, says Dave Moser of Portland Energy Conservation, Inc., an Oregon nonprofit, it cost a building owner $5,000 to fix stuck dampers — and cut $50,000 off the annual energy bill. In a case of simultaneous heating and cooling at an 85,000-square-foot academic building, a minor programming fix cost almost nothing and saved $100,000 a year in wasted energy, according to Mark Miller of Strategic Building Solutions, a Connecticut company.

The business of finding and fixing these mistakes is called “building commissioning,” a term borrowed from the standard naval practice of commissioning a new ship with sea trials to determine whether it’s fit for service. People started doing roughly the same thing with non-residential
In one study, the energy performance of LEED-certified “green” buildings was worse than conventional buildings.
real estate in the mid-1990s, as buildings with computer-controlled systems became almost as complex as ships at sea. Commissioning frequently involves no more than a few weeks of testing out systems. But in the most complete form, the commissioning agent works with architects in the design stage, to help save money by specifying properly sized energy systems, then follows the building through construction, trains the operating staff, and tracks energy performance in different seasons through the first year of operation. Older buildings now also go through retro-commissioning, in search of improved efficiency.

But if you imagine that real estate developers must be lining up for this service — if only to save money, or determine whether they are getting the building they paid for — you would be mistaken. Even now, well under 5 percent — and probably closer to 1 percent — of new commercial buildings actually go through the process. Projects seeking certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (or LEED) program, managed by the U.S. Green Building Council, can earn extra points by going through “enhanced” commissioning. But they’re only required to do “fundamental” commissioning — a sort of commissioning-lite, potentially performed not by a third party, but by an “independent” employee of the construction manager whose contractors made the mistakes in the first place.

And yet building commissioning is “arguably the single-most cost-effective strategy for reducing energy, costs, and greenhouse gas emissions in buildings today,” according to a 2009 report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. If applied to the nation’s entire non-residential building stock, including retro-commissioning of older buildings, it would yield $30 billion in potential energy savings every year by 2030, the study projects, and avoid 340 million tons of global warming emissions annually. To put the latter number in perspective, other studies project that the United States is now on a path to increase global warming emissions by more than a third, up to 9.7 billion metric tons a year by 2030. Roughly 35 percent of emissions come from heating, cooling, and providing electric power for buildings and homes, split evenly between commercial and residential. So building commissioning is hardly the only remedy required. But the potential savings ought to make it one of the most attractive.

Why isn’t it more popular? A lot of developers, and even some building efficiency experts, have simply never heard of commissioning. Others have gotten turned off, says Glenn Hansen of Portland Energy Conservation, Inc., by early experiences in which “a fairly junior engineer” would go through a building checking off boxes on a clipboard. In a 2008 study by the New Buildings Institute, the energy performance in many LEED-certified “green” buildings was actually worse than in the average conventional building, probably because inexperienced people doing “fundamental” conditioning had failed to detect problems.

“Just because you have a paper process doesn’t mean you’re going to get the desired result,” says Hansen. As the commissioning industry has matured, he says, it has gotten better at putting together “a team of people who have good in-field experience at shaking buildings out.”

But the main roadblock to building commissioning is that it can seem expensive. And the company that develops a building typically has little incentive to take on that extra upfront burden, since a different company
Inexpensive control systems now make it possible to monitor energy usage for the life of a building.
will often end up owning and operating the building. For new buildings, full commissioning typically adds $1.16 on top of construction costs of roughly $230 a square foot, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study. For existing buildings, it costs 30 cents a square foot. That’s not counting the cost of changes recommended as a result of commissioning. But the bottom line still looks good, the study reports: Energy savings from commissioning typically result in a payback time of 4.5 years for new buildings and 1.1 years for existing buildings.

Several new programs attempt to address the problem of one company getting stuck with the upfront costs while another company reaps the benefits from commissioning and other energy efficiency measures. Last year, the city of Berkeley, Calif., issued the nation’s first “property assessed clean energy,” or PACE bonds, which pay the initial costs of such improvements on both commercial and residential properties, then recoup the investment over 20 years through a property tax surcharge that stays with the building even as ownership changes. Sixteen states have already approved enabling legislation for PACE bonds, and at the federal level, the Waxman-Markey climate bill also contains supporting language. On a similar model, an ESCO, or energy service company, will provide efficiency improvements in a building and sometimes guarantee the energy savings that should result; the ESCO makes its money back by pocketing some of the difference between the building’s old energy bill and the new one. About 30 U.S. utility companies also provide rebates or other incentives for commercial customers to undergo building commissioning.

Commissioning of larger commercial properties could eventually be required by building codes. A push for such a requirement recently failed in Oregon. But commissioning is currently under discussion for the 2012 version of the International Energy Conservation Code, which serves as a model for building codes in many jurisdictions.


Pursuing the Elusive Goal
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Yale University’s recently opened Kroon Hall is a state-of-the-art model of where the green building movement is headed. Yet even this showcase for renewable energy, writes Richard Conniff, highlights the difficulties of creating a building that is 100 percent carbon neutral.
So-called “monitoring-based commissioning” could also make building owners and operators more comfortable with the idea that the process is actually yielding bottom-line results. Even in the most successful commissionings, says Glenn Hansen, equipment can eventually go out of whack again, or the operating staff can stop paying attention, allowing energy costs to creep back up. But relatively inexpensive control systems now make it possible to monitor usage throughout the life of a building, breaking it down by energy use per degree day, or per square foot, and sending alerts if the chillers, say, start operating inefficiently, or if the whole building misses certain benchmarks.

Given the complexity that makes it prudent for buildings to be commissioned like ships, those kind of monitoring systems can provide critical reassurance. Instead of steering blindly, operators of a building will know hour by hour whether they are in fact heading in the right direction.

POSTED ON 20 May 2010 IN Business & Innovation Energy Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics North America 


Monitoring-based commissioning really works because it pulls detailed data across a whole building every 5 minutes. In Morgan Stanley's case, they found $100,000 in extra savings in a building that had just gone through an extensive recommissioning project.

Posted by Richard Hart on 21 May 2010

This is excellent! We need schools to teach people building commissioning. We need to require annual or bi-annual commissioning on commercial and industrial buildings and tax incentive for residential commissioning. I would put in a big plug for existing home commissioning. We are, after all, not going to build our way into reducing energy, but we can retrofit our way into energy conservation.

Posted by Christopher Pratt on 21 May 2010

Thank you for publishing this excellent article. This is practical, informative and common sense.

Building commissioning would be far more prevalent if architects and engineers had more opportunities to hear from facilities managers and occupants - those who actually deal with buildings in service. Another vital form of feedback, called Post-Occupancy Evaluation, is nearly as important as commissioning. It's another form of "monitoring."

Posted by David Foley on 21 May 2010

At what size of building does commissioning typically become economical? For office commercial, retail, multi-unit residential? Does anyone have good rules of thumb or sources? thanks!

Posted by Brendan McEwen on 21 May 2010

Speaking as a commissioning provider (or Commissioning Authority), one of the main reasons people don't do more of this is the reluctance to fund it.

The article points out the pitfalls of inexperienced people being deployed by commissioning companies and/or utilities to assess operational problems and inefficiencies. That's true; unfortunately it did, and sometimes still does occur. But overall, the commissioning industry has far more "atta-boys" and documented success stories than black eyes.

Government standards and regulations, as well as the commissioning requirements imposed by LEED, seem to be the best wide-brush approach available, given the reluctance of so many building owner's to invest in retro-commissioning.

The prevailing attitude seems to be, "I'd be willing to spend the money if you could guarantee going in that I would get a positive and quick ROI."

But there are few commissioning providers willing to make those kinds of guarantees. How can we? We haven't even assessed the building yet. So, unless a more entrepreneurial spirit suddenly emerges out of facilities departments, we are are left with the driving forces of government and the USGBC to insist that building owners take action to save themselves money.

Sounds ridiculous. It's like saying to you, "I have a tax-free $10,000 to give you for your savings account, but you have to drive over to the bank to deposit it," and then you refuse to drive to the bank because there's no guarantee that you will arrive without having a car accident.

There are some non-profit organizations, including the California Commissioning Collaborative and PECI, who have been quietly and diligently working for years to educate state governments to put some muscle in the drive to save energy in our building inventory. California is clearly taking strides in that direction.

(More information about commissioning can be found at the largest Building Commissioning blog in the United States - http://www.virtualcx.com/blog/ )

Posted by Mark Walter on 24 May 2010

I'm a 39-year-old superintendent who has built homes,
retail buildings, started green building stores and
really loved this industry for the last 23+ years.

In 2004, I was in a green building presentation in
Montpellier, VT. When the presentation on
"commissioning" was finished, I was completely
blown away by the words these guys just said to

They told us that you just have to hire another
firm to come in and check the work that we just
got paid for. I actually leaned over to an
associate during the presentation and gave my

I always try to have an open mind on all projects,
but as a carpenter from the beginning of my
career, I can't expect someone to come in after I
did my work and CHARGE the customer $$$, just
so my work is even better.

The commissioning should be done within the
initial design and the install contractor should have
the proper steps in place.

but that's just me
Posted by Scott on 26 May 2010

It seems to me that commissioning is one more function that used to be handled by architects and engineers, but is now outsourced. As those professions have vigorously sought to limit liability (and owners have sought to reduce fees) over the past several decades, people who will fill those roles have stepped up - construction managers, inspectors of various sorts, and commissioning agents. There is certainly some value to building owners in having "independent" third parties go through buildings, but shouldn't the HVAC engineer have caught the fan installed backwards during construction? No, actually, because their role is now only to "observe" construction. The owner has to pay extra for the liability that comes with "inspecting," and no design or engineering firm could take on that responsibility even if they wanted to — their insurance doesn't permit it. Since this does not happen during construction, it now has to happen after.
Posted by Joe on 27 May 2010

Lots of right things will look waaaay more appealing when we got used to pay REAL price for the energy we burn.

Posted by Ross on 09 Jun 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
richard conniff ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Conniff is a 2007 Guggenheim Fellow and a National Magazine Award-winning writer, whose articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic. His latest book is Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff With Animals. He is the author of six other books, including The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide and Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales of the Invertebrate World. He blogs for the Web site www.strangebehaviors.com. Conniff has also written for Yale Environment 360 about the pursuit of the carbon-neutral building and a green scorecard for rating U.S. economic stimulus projects.



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