Multiply Savings with the Better Buildings Challenge

Oct. 21, 2015

Commit your portfolio to a 20% energy reduction.

Need to put some fire back into your energy efficiency goals? Perhaps a public commitment can provide the motivation to shave some kilowatts off of your utility bill. Join the Better Buildings Challenge, a program that provides facility managers with the tools and support they need to improve their operations. The pledge is simple – achieve a 20% energy reduction across your entire portfolio within 10 years. Are you ready for a decade of savings?

A Call to Action The Better Buildings Challenge was birthed in President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, which cited a need to curtail commercial energy consumption. The challenge is just one of many campaigns under the Better Buildings Initiative that incentivize efficiency in order to reduce carbon emissions and conserve resources. There are over 250 organizations participating, which amounts to 3.5 billion square feet, notes Maria Vargas, Director of the Better Buildings Challenge. Another 650 manufacturing sites have joined the Better Plants Challenge, which is similarly structured for industrial users.

““What sets the Better Buildings Challenge program apart from other programs is that there’s no label or designation that you earn,” Vargas clarifies. “The goal is to promote organization-wide change for portfolios rather than just one building.”

In addition to the 20% energy reduction commitment, participants report on their progress every six months. According to the challenge overview, this includes “square feet of floor space, site energy use, source energy use, weather-normalized energy intensity, energy intensity adjusted for space attributes and operating characteristics, total energy cost and energy cost per square foot.”

Another requirement is to complete two case studies. The Showcase Project gives an inside look at improvements made to a specific property and the Implementation Model shares best practices and technologies in place to support the overall pledge goal. These elements encourage idea sharing so others can learn from proven efforts and replicate the same approaches in their own portfolio. They are available publically so all building professionals can access them. There is also a yearly summit so organizations can network, attend educational sessions and connect with solution providers.

Collaborate with Tenants to Secure Energy Success

Shorenstein Properties is one of over 250 organizations participating in the Better Buildings Challenge. See how this real estate firm uses competitions to engage tenants.

“Nothing sells like success. Organizations want to find examples like them, someone who they can relate to and follow their lead,” Vargas says. “The challenge has broad penetration into different markets and geographic regions. A school will be able to find a comparable educational facility to model. The same goes for hospitals, dorms, retail, offices, municipal buildings and so on.”

In its four years, the challenge has attracted a wide range of participants, including household names such as Whole Foods, Best Buy, Kohl’s, Wal-Mart, Arby’s, Walgreens, Staples, MGM Resorts International, Florida A&M, Penn State University, and University of California, Irvine.

“We found that the efficiency areas we were already working on and the goals of the Better Buildings Challenge were shared,” says Bill Latta, Assistant Vice President Operations, Administrative Services with Michigan State University (MSU). “We were also attracted to the opportunity to share best practices and network with private and public partners.”

Shorenstein Properties was one of the first real estate firms to join in 2011, with a portfolio that spans 24.8 million square feet.

“Every building program provides unique value proposition, but we selected the Better Buildings Challenge because it presents an opportunity to set an aggressive yet attainable long-term energy efficiency goal,” explains Jaxon Love, Sustainability Program Manager. “One of the hardest things for real estate is deciding which key performance indicators to use, particularly when there are so many variables that we don’t have control over, such as weather, occupancy and operating conditions. This challenge has helped us zero in on our performance at a technical level by normalizing these factors.”


Shorenstein’s leadership was also attracted to the opportunity to collaborate with other leaders. Says Stan Roualdes, Executive Vice President of Property Management and Construction: “Sustainability is not just a competitive edge or an optional business strategy – it’s a collective obligation.”

Lasting Energy Efficiency A key objective for the challenge is to help building owners and facility managers overcome organizational and financial obstacles.

“Despite the opportunities, there remain significant barriers to energy efficiency,” Vargas acknowledges. “Organizations may have historically neglected energy efficiency or haven’t integrated it into their business model or mission. They could also face a lack of senior buy-in, complications with financing or an untrained workforce. Even finding unbiased information about market offerings can be problematic.”

Keep in mind that most buildings in the challenge aren’t installing expensive equipment or using complicated technology to achieve the 20% goal. Many involve low- or no-cost modifications, the type of retrofits that are straightforward to implement. Projects commonly include lighting upgrades, occupancy sensors, plug load management, envelope improvements and HVAC retrofits.

“Energy efficiency doesn’t necessary require committing huge capital resources,” stresses Love. “There are frequently opportunities to tighten up the efficiency of a building in a significant way just through better operation. Low-hanging fruit tends to grow back.”

Michigan State, for example, has over 115 buildings on campus. The university has an existing building commissioning group that performs energy audits, system adjustments and ongoing monitoring. One recent success has been eliminating excess supply and exhaust air used, particularly in older buildings and labs.

“We are capping off fume hoods that are no longer being used. By taking these out of service, we are saving several thousands of dollars a year per hood,” notes Lynda Boomer, Director of Planning, Design and Construction for MSU Infrastructure Planning and Facilities. “We also have a number of buildings with concrete plenums that we have sealed to eliminate leaks.”

“We’re a heavy research campus with wet bench labs that are ventilation intensive, consuming significant energy to supply fresh air and expel chemical fumes,” Latta adds. “We recently made a switch from fixed ventilation with 10 to 12 exchanges an hour to a lower rate of 4 to 6 exchanges in a number of our labs. We added IAQ sensors in addition to a purge button if an immediate flush is required.”

“Even with fewer air exchanges, we now know when there’s a problem and can respond accordingly,” explains Bill Lakos, Energy Analyst for MSU. “This helps our labs to stay safer while conserving energy.”


Vargas also notes that effective solutions aren’t always technical, they’re organizational. Many companies have to shift their mindset to make efficiency a consist part of their culture. She offers these three areas to create a framework that will take your efficiency target from paper to reality:

1) Look beyond technology and implement managerial changes. “For example, Kohl’s brought a member of their CFO team onto the energy team to bridge communications gaps, and the manufacturer Alcoa uses energy efficiency as a metric for compensation,” Vargas adds.

2) Find your energy champion and tap into their people power to move an organization.

3) Learn from others so you can stay on top of new strategies.

MSU stresses that you should partner with the people who use your facilities on a daily basis. Ask them about their likes and grievances with the building. You never know how their observations might help you uncover opportunities.

“Whenever we identify a building for an improvement project, we do a walkthrough with the occupants,” Latta explains. “One lab told us that they were having a problem with the cooling coming on a lot and couldn’t keep the temperature comfortable. One of our engineers went to see if the thermostat was working properly and instead found that a hot plate was positioned directly underneath it. This heat source was the inadvertent cause of the room reading as too warm. We wouldn’t have uncovered this issue without talking to employees. Not only were we able to reduce energy consumption, but it took no money to resolve.”

How to Achieve Long-Term Success
Does 10 years seem like abstract amount of time? The idea of 2025 could certainly seem remote. You probably won’t need to worry about where to park any flying cars, but how do you implement changes today that will still be relevant in a decade? No matter how you acquire it, data that you can trend will help you make smart decisions.

“Metering at the campus level simply doesn’t enough provide actionable information,” cautions Vargas. “You need to measure energy at individual buildings so you can isolate your highest consumers.”

“Because MSU operates its own cogeneration power plant, we also manage Utility Billing System. For the most part, we’ve only implemented building-level metering with real-time data. Any submetering in place has an underlying reason, such as billing to a specific department,” Lakos explains. “This still leaves some gaps so we hope to expand submetering. One of my projects, for example, is getting meters on our three major data centers as they’re currently embedded into other buildings rather than standalone facilities.”

“I recommend ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager because it’s a free benchmarking tool. It’s been the bread and butter of our sustainability and utility management program since 2008,” adds Love. “We also use a variety of building management systems and other real-time tracking measures.”

“Michigan State uses ongoing commissioning so we have a continuous look at buildings once we’ve implemented improvements,” Lakos says. “Leveraging both metered data and building automation, we have the systems set up to alert us when something is wrong or things are drifting. This approach ensures that we don’t slide back into old habits and conditions that waste energy.”

While small changes can have a quick payback, don’t exclude projects with a longer return on investment. You will likely need to make one or two significant upgrades to help reach your 20% reduction. MSU, for example, has a large solar project in the works that will offset 5% of campus energy requirements, notes Latta. The array will be distributed over five parking lots as car ports. As the university’s highest cooling load is in the late afternoon when the sun is beating down the most, the PV panels will be an ideal way to curtail peak demand.

Beyond technology, don’t forget the human factor. Everyone from the boardroom to the newest hire should have a part to play.

“It’s important that your leadership makes energy efficiency a priority. This gives staff permission to pay attention to it,” Latta says. “You should also have an ongoing monitoring group that adjusts goals and timetables.”

“Beyond what the DOE requires, have an internal reporting system that provides visibility into your performance,” Love recommends. “Use this to build site-specific programs that drive the corporate goals. This transparency also provides positive reinforcement when people can see the results of their efforts.”

Jennie Morton [email protected] is Senior Editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Jennie Morton

A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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