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New York Academy of Sciences Examines Implications of Data-Driven Built Environment

The lobby of the New York Academy of Sciences, on the 40th floor of 7 WTC.

On May 30, 2012, at its headquarters in the LEED Gold 7 World Trade Center, the New York Academy of Sciences hosted a day-long seminar titled “Implications of a Data-Driven Built Environment.” Speakers from a variety of companies, industries, and backgrounds agreed that building performance data is everywhere. Although we live in a data-driven world, people – and tenants – are generally isolated from this information; they may not know it exists or, if they do, they don’t know what to make of it. Part of the speakers’ charge to attendees was the following key to change: making the industry aware of the sea of available data. Only after it’s presented and explained to real estate users can changes can be made to reduce energy consumption. Encouragingly, the speakers also stressed that awareness – along with incentives and rebates – has caused an increase in energy management in recent years.

All of the speakers and panels from a Natural Resource Management Organisation were excellent. But several items in particular are worth noting here at gbNYC. Fundamentally, building performance data is changing tenant engagement and interaction with commercial office buildings. Knowledge, of course, is power: providing the industry with increased control of its consumption habits will further the incentive to waste less energy. Once landlords and tenants receive and review performance data and become informed in areas that may be unfamiliar to them, they can communicate with energy management companies (like Building IQ, for example) to increase their awareness of – and sensitivity to – energy consumption. And if data is communicated in a manner that informs the industry how much it will save once simple changes are made it is more likely to begin instituting those changes.

In terms of the nuts and bolts of how firms are starting to use an ever-increasing body of data, Sukanya Paciorek from Vornado Realty Trust spoke about the firm’s energy information portal, which submeters every Vornado building’s energy use. Tenants are given a login name and password for quick access to view how much energy they are using. Tenants can use this data to compare their energy consumption with other tenants in their building, or in similar buildings across the country. Capitalizing on the fact that people are naturally competitive and “what gets measured gets improved,” Vornado’s portal forces tenants to try and beat their neighbors and become the “biggest loser” of energy consumption.

Acquiring this data is also helping Vornado plan for more efficient and sustainable buildings in the future. In fact, once Vornado began obtaining information on its tenants’ consumption habits, changes, such as phasing out of incandescent light bulbs with more efficient fluorescent ones, were almost immediately put into effect, decreasing the company’s overall energy load by 15 percent. In 2009, a staggering 70 percent of all commercial energy use in the United States occurred in tenant spaces. This number continues to rise and emphasizes the need for continued data monitoring and environmental improvement programs like Vornado’s across the commercial real estate industry.

The conference also underscored how new technologies are helping commercial buildings behave more dynamically. “Buildings are dumb,” said IBM’s Jim Fletcher. “They can’t speak to us and tell us how to reduce energy. Rather than putting resources, time and money towards training employees to read and interpret data, we need to have buildings talk to us.” Mr. Fletcher offered the following example: our cars tell us we have 27 miles until we run out of gas. We may not understand how our car comes to this conclusion, but what we do understand is that we need to fill up before we are stuck on the side of the road. If a building can do the same thing – using sensors to tell us information such as what windows are open or what lights are on, say – we can properly monitor and save energy. These types of new smart technologies are simple enough that they will allow even those without technical knowledge of building performance to consume and apply data in a meaningful way.

In terms of LEED certification, speakers stressed that prospective tenants must pay close attention to what features are actually giving a building its LEED qualifications. Different features may give a building a higher LEED certification than its neighbor even though that neighbor may use slightly less energy. Still, all of the speakers at the conference emphasized that research continues to demonstrate that the market trend of environmental buildings is at a tipping point. The AEC industry is almost able to create fully sustainable buildings with no negative externalities. But it’s important to evaluate the integrated value of a building: taking into account all of the externalities can prove that sustainable buildings are on the right path, despite the fact that they can be more costly on paper.

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