The Shifting Dialogue on Buildings, Energy, & Resilience

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The dialogue on buildings and energy is quickly shifting. Not that many years ago the focus was on the push for more efficient equipment—an HVAC unit with a higher SEER. Then came the recognition that such progress had both practical limits and limits written into the laws of physics. Attention began to shift to systems thinking—how to leverage efficiency from the purposeful integration of systems and subsystems, which soon meant all the systems and subsystems of the building. Not everywhere, but certainly on the frontier, thinking about energy and buildings became increasingly holistic.

Holistically conceived buildings opened the prospect of integrated communities of buildings, and then of such communities integrated with the grid—and with microgrids opened new ways to imagine power generation, the building-grid interface, and grid load management. Holistic buildings also pointed to new ideas about the role of design, the importance of the building envelope, and new roles for controls in overall building-energy strategy.

However, a remaining gap in the marketplace existed—between what was possible and what was likely to be done, between life-cycle costing and the first-cost buying that predominated, between the science of buildings and the practice of energy efficiency. The national and international dialogues had their ups and downs, and some remarkable buildings appeared. But market transformation still seemed well over the horizon.

That is changing. We saw it at our EnVisioneering Symposium on resilience last year. Cities are starting to act on both resilience and energy efficiency. And even more is happening now.

One item especially stands out. At the heart of the shift that is needed is a shift in focus from prescription to performance. We need not to tell builders what to build, but rather how what they build needs to perform. And that means we need to know how buildings are performing. But with a few pretty limited exceptions, we did not know. And we could not expect to know. Because building performance was not transparent. The key data was confidential, and not all that much data was being gathered. Generally speaking, buildings were a black box.

That box now appears to be opening. It is being opened by cities that are making, or moving to make, firm commitments to cutting carbon emissions and to providing a genuinely resilience infrastructure. Their determination to make a basic change in the way buildings perform—to be dramatically more efficient and resilient—is creating the conditions for transformation. Opportunities are becoming actionable. We can make what is possible a reality.

But that action will come through building retrofits. The American building stock as a whole turns over at a rate of 1% per year. Transformation that takes a century to complete is not transformation. Its evolution—and it’s not what we need. That means the existing building stock needs to be retrofitted for efficiency and resilience, and those retrofits need to be deep. There are many obstacles to deep retrofits. They may well add up to the last hard nut to crack. But it has to be cracked.

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