Editor's Letter

12/30/2013 | By Chris Olson

Benchmarking, Blind Men and Buildings

Chris Olson
Chief Content Director

In 2013, energy benchmarking and disclosure ordinances continued their march across the country. Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago implemented regulations. Minneapolis issued its first benchmarking report. In 2014, California’s statewide initiative begins its rollout. Eventually the program will affect nonresidential buildings as small as 5,000 square feet. New York, San Francisco and Seattle have had their laws on the books for several years.

Needless to say, some building owners (and BUILDINGS subscribers) have voiced concerns. Filing the energy data is an expense. Benchmarking data may not completely capture the impact of different uses and occupants in similar buildings. For example, high-tech tenants in a given office building may have far higher energy demands per square foot than low-tech tenants in another office building, making comparisons between the two buildings an apples-to-oranges exercise. The average square feet per occupant may vary greatly from building to building. The energy demands of building systems are one thing, and those of tenants are another thing over which owners have little control. Depending on how one interprets the data, older buildings and historic buildings may get an unfair rap. Another limitation is that energy consumption may not reflect the sources of electricity. A building with onsite generation through renewables or cogeneration would not likely be distinguishable in the data from one without.

As a metric of energy efficiency or environmental efficacy, benchmarking data is very limited, and the public disclosure element only seems to aggravate the situation. Like the blind men of the parable who touched different parts of the elephant (tusk, ear, tail) yet each insisted on his description of what an elephant is, the public and legislators will be misled if they draw conclusions about “top 10” or “best and worst” buildings. This turns the data into a kind of ratings game that is not a good basis for policy or public perceptions.

The data is a means, not an end; it’s the measurement part, not the management part, of the adage about “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Considered in that context, the data has enormous potential for increasing our understanding of building performance. And as the benchmark requirement spreads, it will allow comparisons not only within metro areas but also across them.

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