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Extending Life of Buildings (and the Planet) with Retro-Commissioning

April 21, 2023
There are strategies that are cost effective, quick to implement, and result in an immediate reduction in a building’s impact on climate change.

By Matthew Zweibruck, CEM

Sustainability in the built environment is an expansive industry and currently enjoying its time in the spotlight due to increased pressures from communities and government bodies to combat climate change. This growing focus on green buildings need not be limited to new construction or other large expenditures. Aging facilities have the potential to extend their years of service while also combating greenhouse gas emissions. But what is the best course of action? From building design initiatives such as net zero and electrification to renewables and green building certifications, it can be a complicated and overwhelming field to navigate.

Building owners, contractors, designers, and property managers may question if they are pursuing the correct programs to minimize their facility’s negative impacts on the environment. With all the initiatives, buzzwords, and fancy awards surrounding these initiatives, there are energy efficiency strategies available to buildings that cut through this noise. Strategies that are cost effective, quick to implement, widely abundant, and result in an immediate reduction in a building’s impact on climate change.

Why focus on buildings?

Existing buildings account for approximately 28 percent of global carbon-dioxide (CO2) making the sector a prime target for improvement strategies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report to highlight the consequences increasing global temperature increase from 1.5 degrees C to 2.0 degrees C. They include:

  • Impacts associated with forest fires and the spread of invasive species (high confidence)
  • Risks associated with saltwater intrusion, flooding, and damage to infrastructure (high confidence)
  • Risk of sea ice-free Arctic Ocean during summer and the irreversible loss of many marine and coastal ecosystems (high confidence)
  • Risks to marine biodiversity, fisheries, and ecosystems, and their functions and services to humans (high confidence)
  • Risks from droughts, precipitation deficits, and heavy precipitation (medium confidence)

The climate change saga is at a point where we are working just to limit global warming to a surface global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees C. The goal is no longer to avoid the negative impacts of climate change because that opportunity has already come and gone. What we can do as an industry is to help avoid the potentially more catastrophic consequences of climate change that appear inevitable if global temperatures increase above and beyond 2.0 degrees C.

Better Buildings/Better Environment

To combat climate change, there has been a notable increase in green building program participation as organizations attempt to mitigate their facility greenhouse gas emissions and gain recognition 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, 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 EPA.

There are also financial consequences for organizations choosing to ignore this global crisis. Many companies face pressure in the boardroom and from shareholders to be more accountable for the impact business decisions have on society and the world. Active involvement with emerging standards, such as ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) is a necessity as organizations may encounter financial consequences for not participating. Public concern over the worsening effects of climate change will continue to drive environmental policy in a direction that brings awareness to these programs.

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 among peer organizations and the public. 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.

Participation Trophies are Not Enough

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 been in pursuit of appearing green rather than being green. If it is the former, what insights can we provide to those organizations that might have fallen into the green washing trap? How can we help ensure an organization’s sustainability efforts are not smoke and mirrors and that all avenues for building efficiency are being pursued?

How Retro-Commissioning Fights Climate Change

A commercial building with LEED, ENERGY STAR, and WELL certification is not guaranteed to be operating efficiently. That can be a big problem for building owners looking to reduce 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 good metrics for determining the need for energy efficiency improvements but does not provide insight into specific low-hanging 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 (RCx) 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.

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. RCx also avoids the rigidity of capital grade energy efficiency improvements, which are often dictated through long-term budget planning.

The retro-commissioning services umbrella also includes monitoring-based commissioning (MBCx), a more advanced form of RCx 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 so essential to building operations and energy efficiency 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, it is crucial that RCx be promoted and implemented wherever possible. These overall efforts can only succeed when high-level sustainable design a management initiates and practices are paired with direct quantitative action to improve building performance.

Matt Zweibruck is an energy engineer with the Energy + Eco group at ESD, a leading global engineering firm specializing in mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, life safety, structural, and technology engineering. He possesses expertise in the demand-side energy services industry and is passionate about identifying and investigating the feasibility of energy conservation measures for large commercial, educational, and medical facilities. Matt has worked with clients and completed projects in retro-commissioning, energy auditing, project management and building data analysis.

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