July 31, 2009

Data Driven: USGBC Will Begin Collecting LEED Performance Data
LEED v.3 aims to close the gap between design and operations

by Layla Bellows

How do you . . . ensure that anticipated sustainable-design benefits actually accrue.

Summary: There’s sustainable design, and there’s sustainable operations and practice. When it comes to sustainable buildings, they both fulfill an important role in the net-zero equation. To help bridge the gap in knowledge between design and performance, LEED™ v.3 has introduced ongoing reporting of building performance to its preconditions of certification. This performance-based analysis of energy reduction is a key component supporting the AIA’s policy on sustainability rating systems.

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Just as today’s best cars are precision engineered for high gas mileage, today’s best buildings are precision designed to incorporate best practices in energy and water efficiency. Maintaining that MPG rating over the life of the car is dependent on the driver following its maintenance schedule. Likewise, the ongoing performance of a sustainable building has as much to do with occupant behavior as it does with the initial design.

The trouble is, all the energy modeling in the world can’t predict exactly how people will behave once they get into an office, and it potentially creates a disconnect between the intentions of the design team and the actual performance of the building. To help narrow the gap, the USGBC has incorporated the regular reporting of operational performance measurements as a precondition for those applying for LEED 2009.

Ongoing education
Scot Horst, vice president of LEED, explains the data will be confidential and used to inform building owners about how their own LEED building is performing in comparison to similar LEED buildings. Think of it as a progress report more than a report card—the energy and water use data will help provide performance feedback for LEED building owners where it hadn’t before. It will also help inform future versions of LEED.

“Collecting this information is really just a starting point for a broad vision of how we see performance fitting into the LEED program in general,” Horst says. For now, though, the data will be used in aggregate to educate building owners. Moreover, buildings for which the ongoing performance isn’t particularly high won’t be given a failing grade and have their certification yanked away.

“We can come back to the owner and say: ‘Here’s what you predicted; here’s where other, similar LEED buildings are performing; and here’s how you’re performing,’” Horst says. Oftentimes performance problems might have nothing to do with the design itself.

Building owners will be able to choose from one of three methods for reporting data, and ease of use is key as the USGBC moves forward. Signing a release for the USGBC to tap directly into utility data is one reporting method. “We’re hoping we’ll be able to get information automatically from your utility. We want to be able to make this as automated as possible,” Horst says.

Owners can also choose to prepare their own regular data reports and submit them to the USGBC. Another reporting option is for owners and operators to recertify their building on a two-year cycle with LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance. In circumstances where adding meters to buildings could prove an onerous expense (a college campus is one example), the requirement can be waived on a case-by-case basis when appropriate.

“Sometimes you can design something very well, but if somebody doesn’t know the right way to operate it, it can’t perform at the level it was designed to,” says Tom DeAngelo, FAIA, a principal at Architectural Alliance in Minneapolis. This is one example of the benefits to having data available to LEED building owners. It provides a tool for discovering where problems might exist, so building owners can take corrective measures.

The use of the data, of course, extends far beyond diagnostics. Not only could it impact future versions of LEED, but also sustainable design and construction practices as a whole.

A good step
This database will likely be a boon to architects as much as building owners.

“I think there is a growing theme of more evidence-based design,” DeAngelo says, “and the natural complement to that is finding out how these buildings are really performing.”

Filo Castore, AIA, director of architecture and sustainability at Abel Design Group in Houston and a member of the AIA Committee on the Environment, says performance data are missing overall in the industry.

“When I present a project to a client, they are always asking for proof and data,” he says, noting that past examples of successful buildings may not be relevant to the client’s needs. “There is no really true critical amount of data.”

The development of a performance database excites both architects. DeAngelo notes it could broaden the understanding of not just what the issues in LEED buildings might be, but also which solutions have proven most successful. Horst says that the USGBC is in the process of determining how their own data would be shared with other agencies such as the Department of Energy and interface with other energy use databases. Similarly, the AIA is currently collecting data on the performance of past Committee on the Environment Top Ten winners.

On a more fundamental level, however, the new requirement brings an element of performance authentication that has been absent in prior versions of LEED.

Wagdy Anis, FAIA, a principal at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., thinks this is a step in the right direction.

“The LEED application itself is one that is done during design and during construction,” he says. “The verification piece is not there.” With performance data one day becoming available to owners and operators, there is a level of accountability that could otherwise have been missing in some cases. Anis says he would one day like to see the verification of performance after construction become integral to the LEED certification process.

If that day does happen, it is still a long way off. In the meantime, it seems that most people’s reaction is that the addition of performance measurement is long overdue. Perhaps DeAngelo put it most clearly: “It doesn’t seem right that a project that gets LEED status wouldn’t know how their performance is matching up with the projections.”


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