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Retro-Commissioning Buildings Is a Path to a Greener Future

The climate change saga is at a point where the goal is no longer to avoid climate change. That opportunity has already come and gone. Now we need to do whatever we can to prevent the negative impacts of our changing climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report to highlight the consequences of a global temperature increase from 1.5 degrees Celsius to 2.0 degrees Celsius. The group has a high confidence level that the result will be increased forest fires and the spread of invasive species. There is also an increased risk of droughts, precipitation deficits, and heavy precipitation.

The push to avoid a climate catastrophe has increased the pressure to combat climate change and much of this pressure is now bearing down on the property industry. Approximately 28 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are generated from existing buildings, making the sector a prime target for improvement strategies. Cities, states, and countries are starting to impose fines on unsustainable buildings. Luckily, there are many options for buildings that need to reduce their carbon footprint. The problem is that there are almost too many options, too many variables to consider all at once. From building design changes to electrification to on-site generation, energy management can be a complicated and overwhelming field to navigate.

How do building owners and property managers know if they are pursuing the correct programs to minimize their organization’s negative impacts on the environment? With all the initiatives, buzzwords, and fancy awards surrounding this stuff, it can be hard to cut through this noise. The key is to focus on strategies that are cost-effective, quick to implement, and result in an immediate reduction in building greenhouse gas emissions.

Standards and ratings

A number of organizations exist that can help buildings know where they stand and how they can improve. There has been a notable increase in green building program participation as organizations attempt to mitigate their facility’s greenhouse gas emissions and gain notoriety for their sustainability practices. While each program has its own specific objectives, they have the common goal of promoting and recognizing efficient, healthy, and sustainable buildings. The most prominent programs include:

LEED: Administered by the USGBC, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. Available to virtually all building types, LEED provides a framework for healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings. LEED certification is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement and leadership.

WELL: The WELL Building Standard is a vehicle for buildings and organizations to deliver more thoughtful and intentional spaces that enhance human health and well-being.

ENERGY STAR: ENERGY STAR-certified buildings save energy, save money, and help protect the environment by generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions than typical buildings. To be certified as ENERGY STAR, a building must meet strict energy performance standards set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

The growing demand for companies to adopt ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) initiatives is creating financial consequences for not participating. Unfortunately, there is no uniform set of accounting standards for gauging an organization’s level of sustainability. In November 2021, the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation formed the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) to develop a comprehensive global baseline of sustainability disclosures to address this public call for clear reporting. Work on those guidelines continues. 

In the meantime, public concern over the worsening effects of climate change continues to drive environmental policy in a direction that brings awareness to these programs. Institutional investors are particularly interested in holding companies accountable with accurate ESG reporting. For example, BlackRock attempts to manage portfolio risk by asking companies they invest in to publicly disclose ESG reports based on industry-specific SASB and TCFD frameworks.

The current suite of popular green building programs delivers a wide range of benefits to participating organizations. These include sustainable and efficient designs for buildings, healthy and comfortable tenants, recognition, and accountability. These programs are here to stay and will only become more integral to the building design, construction, and management processes in the future. Building owners and operators are highly encouraged to review these programs and take inventory of existing and proposed building stock to identify opportunities to pursue green building certifications.

There are various factors that should be taken into consideration when sustainability decisions are made. For example, current or prospective tenants might request certain standards/certifications. Among other tenant benefits, these standards validate and support occupant comfort and increase employee retention. These programs can also support the ability for organizations to meet their corporate ESG goals and mandates. Green building programs can provide a solid framework to measure and manage building portfolio performance. Finally, depending on the location, tax benefits may be available for achieving certain certifications. These program benefits need to be weighed against the financial and personnel resources required to achieve and maintain them.

Goals are good, but what are your intentions?

The importance of green building programs cannot be understated. However, when it comes to combating climate change, it is but one of many tools organizations need to use to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In relying too heavily on these programs, companies may be overstating their commitment to sustainability and the positive impacts they are having on the environment. This is usually not intentional, but simply the result of pursuing awards and accolades over taking less-recognized direct action to implement energy-efficient solutions. 

Organizations need to ask themselves if their efforts have actually created a more sustainable building, rather than just appearing to do so. Organizations need to untangle the stated benefits of green building programs and ESG frameworks to truly understand what “green” is. For example, a building may participate in a program resulting in improved occupant health, enabled ESG reporting through benchmarking, improved waste disposal, and a passable energy rating based on building performance. Each of these actions is objectively good for the building and its tenants, however, we have not yet reduced the building’s energy consumption. This is not to say benefits like occupant wellness and environmental transparency are not important, but it does represent a missed opportunity by losing sight of one of the primary goals. Simply put, when you bundle water, waste, and energy consumption metrics, along with tenant and community-wide health/wellness initiatives, and package it all together with an advanced reporting framework, it becomes overwhelming to understand and manage all opportunities effectively.

Retro-commissioning and its place in finding solutions

A commercial building with green building certifications is not guaranteed to be operating efficiently. That can be a big problem for building owners looking to reduce their organization’s greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs. Many green building programs are inherently passive, meaning there is no active monitoring of existing building stock beyond benchmarking. The energy use intensity of a building can provide a good metric for determining the need for energy efficiency improvements but does not provide insight into specific opportunities for implementing energy efficiency measures.

One solution is to pair participation in green building programs with direct action through building optimization and retro-commissioning programs. Retro-commissioning is a process that optimizes building energy performance through the identification and implementation of low- to no-cost energy efficiency measures, which can often be implemented without the installation of any new equipment.

The first step in the process is to understand how the building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment is being operated and controlled. Depending on the extent of the control system, this may also include other large power consuming systems such as interior and exterior lighting. Understanding these operations often involves the analysis of data taken directly from the building’s automation system. These trend logs are then reviewed to determine when equipment is operating with potential deficiencies. Some examples of these deficiencies include broken mechanical components, incorrect building automation system (BAS) control set points, manual BAS overrides, and outdated or inefficient control sequences. This analysis should also include interviews and surveys with the building engineering team to determine additional pain points and control issues.

Once a list of deficiencies is identified, the retro-commissioning engineer will calculate the energy savings associated with correcting the identified operational issues. The engineer will also normally identify other maintenance or control issues that do not necessarily result in energy savings but could be leading to poor occupant comfort or building control. These measures are presented to the building stakeholders allowing them to make an informed decision on if and how to implement each of the proposed measures. The scope of retro-commissioning is focused on building controls, and the recommended energy efficiency improvements can often be implemented inhouse with low to no cost associated with implementation. However, more advanced sequencing adjustment may require the building team to use a BAS controls contractor for implementation.

Finally, after implementation is completed, and depending on the type of program, the engineer in charge of retro-commissioning will reengage with the building engineering team to collect verification trend data as it was done during the initial investigation process. This involves additional analysis of trend point data taken from the building’s automation system to assess the building’s updated operations. The engineering team will confirm that the originally identified measures have been implemented successfully and that the building is realizing the energy savings that were outlined in the initial recommendations.

This process can take less than a few months, is extremely cost-effective, and can be initiated and occasionally revisited without any administratively intensive processes. Retro-commissioning also avoids the rigidity of capital-grade energy efficiency improvements, which are often dictated through long-term budget planning. 

Retro-commissioning can also give way to monitoring-based commissioning, a more advanced form of performance monitoring involving the installation of analytical software to constantly monitor building performance and provide automatic alerts on opportunities for energy efficiency improvements and maintenance requirements. This technology gives buildings the confidence that all avenues for performance improvements are being pursued.

The retro-commissioning process is becoming critical enough to building operations that some states are beginning to require larger commercial buildings to participate in retro-commissioning studies every so often. Until it is a requirement in every state, property managers should work hand-in-hand with building engineering teams to review opportunities to conduct retro-commissioning studies. Opportunities may present themselves in the form of increasing year-over-year energy consumption, a lack of previously completed building optimization studies, or buildings with limited resources to monitor and address facility operation issues. These overall efforts can only succeed when high-level sustainable design and management initiatives and practices are paired with direct quantitative action to improve building performance.

Climate change is real. The built environment’s contribution to the creation of greenhouse gases is significant. While current projections are troubling, there are steps responsible building owners and property managers can take to minimize their organization’s negative impact on the environment. Retro-commissioning can help uncover hidden opportunities to adopt strategies that are cost-effective, quick to implement, and have a quantifiable impact on making buildings more sustainable.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the official position of Propmodo or its editorial team. We value diverse perspectives and aim to encourage open discussions. The information presented here is the author’s own and does not reflect our stance on the subject.

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