Why we should be diagnosing the environmental health of buildings

Buildings in New York are given an environmental energy rating. Less than 750 buildings in Australia have been similarly rated. L C Nottaasen/Flickr

Improving the health of our building operations is one of the most effective, current ways to reduce our impact on climate change. And just as in medicine, being able to diagnose and improve health requires research and access to information on actual performance.

So the recent initiatives in the American cities of New York, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and Boston to release their building energy performance data should be applauded.

This is particularly pertinent when internationally the built environment has been estimated to contribute to one-third of the energy emissions associated with anthropogenic climate change. Meanwhile, Australian buildings produce around 23% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions; 10% from commercial buildings and 13% from residential buildings.

The reporting of actual performance of existing stock is also important as countries start focusing on increasing the efficiency of existing buildings, rather than new builds.

For example, in the United Kingdom 87% of the buildings already built will still be there in 2050. In Australia many cities such as Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney have programs doing just that; what great benefit they would have from such a user-friendly source of information.

User-friendly data

The American data has been released in an easy to use fashion, unlike in Australia. Our building energy use data is hidden in each building’s Building Energy Efficiency Certificate under the Building Energy Efficiency Disclosure Act 2010 (BEED Act). Yet, this Commercial Building Disclosure Program, as in America, is only for commercial buildings leaving significant sectors of the built environment – industrial and residential – out of the picture.

In Australia the Act only comes into effect when a commercial space is leased or sold which is over 2000m2 . Currently, this means there is only data for just under 750 buildings across Australia. With our lease terms of five to seven years it means there is a fairly rapid turnover of stock that will get rated within a relatively short time frame. But this misses a large segment of the market that falls under the 2000m2 limit.

Apart from the increased ability to diagnose efficiency opportunities in the built environment, access to this type of information could benefit the thousands of students in universities around the world who could use actual building performance information in their research.

Effective reporting and presentation of the data can also support building retrofit programs such as the 1200 Buildings Program in Melbourne and Greening Sydney Plan. This would help them in identifying priority areas within their programs.

Energy data on its own is useful for limited trending analysis. But it is important to have other contextual information to really support its useful integration into research, management and policy development. The New York report does some limited analysis and reporting on the data they provide. The Australian data collection is not aggregated in any way and as far as we can see the information has not been used or reported on. As such we could learn from the initiatives of the US cities to report on their data in a useful format.

A good start

Both the Australian and American data collection and sharing initiatives are a good start. It would be more useful however to have more detailed information. The US data is still only looking at aggregated energy use. Connection of energy data details such as building function would help in the analysis. Having said that, resources spent on data collection should be spent wisely.

Though it is generally true you can’t manage what you can’t measure, manage is the operative word. As such a research program similar to that of those in medicine should be established to ensure the data is not only useful for the building owners and managers collecting the individual building information, but also to society as a whole. Particularly in light of the opportunities to reduce the built environment’s contribution to climate change.

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