DPR Construction's San Francisco office
Drew Kelly DPR Construction's San Francisco office

The first thing that you notice about the San Francisco regional office for DPR Construction, a national builder known for highly technical and sustainable projects, is that from the outside, the building in no way resembles the typical headquarters of a construction firm. Located on a quiet street near the city’s famed Embarcadero district, the glass façade frames an interior that looks like a boutique hotel married an Apple Store. Bikes hang from interior racks. An open floor plan reveals a well-stocked kitchen with a mosaic of plants climbing the wall. Look closely and you can just make out the lobby cocktail bar, a custom-designed length of reclaimed wood containing a garden of live succulents capped in glass. Not a bad place for an office happy hour. “People walking by wonder whether we are a bike shop or a café, because it doesn’t scream construction,” says director of sustainability Ted van der Linden.

The open façade purposefully emulates DPR’s broader goal of transparency in building design and performance. Completed last May, the company’s San Francisco digs could become the city’s first net-zero office space (DPR is pursuing certification for the project with the International Living Future Institute). Designed by FME Architecture + Design, this is the third net-zero regional office that the company has completed—the others are in Phoenix and San Diego.

In the San Francisco office, sophisticated controls track, among other things, energy use. A Honeywell Enterprise Buildings Integrator, a cloud-based platform that automates facilities, harnesses data from the infrastructure. More than 42 points of connection are also fed into a Lucid Display operating system that translates these numbers for display on interactive dashboards. Mounted across from the reception desk, they look like oversized television screens. 

When I visited one morning last fall, I stood next to van der Linden and scrolled between charts and graphs showing kilowatt-hours used versus photovoltaic power generated. It’s easy to understand how much energy the solar array has produced since the building opened, or how much electricity is being used right at the moment. On one screen, a bar chart analyzes the energy consumption of various devices in the building. One appliance in particular stood out because of a red bar indicating elevated energy use. 

“Is that your ice-maker?” I asked.

“Yep,” van der Linden said. “When you look at it in the context of the total energy consumption in the building, the ice machine is on par with all of the AV rack. Right now it’s using more than three times the energy of our [ceiling] fans.” 

So why not just ditch the machine? 

“People really love that ice,” he replied.

Of all of the things that DPR considered in designing and building a net-zero interior, crushed ice didn’t exactly top the list of potential energy drains.

DPR isn’t alone in discovering surprising truths about how energy-efficient buildings perform once people move in. I asked architects, building owners and engineers, government and certification agencies, and others around the country about their experiences, and most pointed to unanticipated behaviors and unforeseen design glitches. “People move into a space and it does not always perform as expected,” says Lance Davis, AIA, who specializes in sustainable design with the General Services Administration (GSA). The agency provides workspace for more than one million federal civilian workers and has some 480 historic buildings. Davis says post-occupancy data on the agency’s buildings shows that investments such as geoexchange heating and cooling systems are worth it. “If we can afford to get it into the budget, this has been our most successful system to get energy use down,” Davis says.

But, he adds, it’s often the small, unexpected things that can add up. Data shows that most of GSA’s renovated buildings perform better than their 2003 baseline, but in many cases, not as well as the design team’s model. Davis points to his own office, the GSA headquarters in Washington, D.C. When the building was modernized recently, the designers put motion-sensor LED task lights at each desk. When you sit down at your cubicle, the light turns on. When you leave, it turns off. No more wasted energy from bulbs illuminating empty desks. At least, that’s how it was supposed to work. “The problem is the motion sensors are too sensitive,” Davis says, “so if you’re the first one in, you walk through the office and hundreds of lights turn on. It’s not what we meant to do.”

Nearby, at the headquarters for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which oversees LEED, the problem was the garbage. The agency learned that its own LEED Platinum office space, located in a multitenant building, wasn’t truly operating at that level once its staff moved in. “Our original Platinum score was 94,” says Scot Horst, USGBC’s chief product officer. But as the council monitored performance post-occupancy, “our score dropped down to 78,” he says. After some investigation, it turned out that signs on the waste bins were partly to blame. “The staff was confused and putting their compost into the wrong bin,” Horst says. 

This year—as LEED turns 15—a stock of highly sustainable green buildings around the U.S. is starting to mature. Many were designed using cutting-edge building science principles and were touted for their energy-savings potential. But how are those structures actually performing? What have we learned from this first major boom in green building? 

For starters, although we seem awash in data, post-occupancy numbers on the country’s green commercial buildings aren’t readily legible. Yes, private companies like DPR, government agencies like the GSA and the Department of Energy, and a handful of diligent architecture firms and academic researchers are gathering information. But ask: How are these green buildings doing? And one might counter: Compared to what? Roger Chang, the director of engineering for Westlake Reed Leskowsy, says, “Benchmark data in the U.S. is non-existent.” Despite our advances in high performance infrastructure, data-driven insight is still the exception, Chang says.

Moreover, when we do have the data, there is disagreement about how to use it. The industry has not settled on baselines regarding success. If, for example, you base strong performance on energy use alone, then you could merely be rewarding the least occupied buildings, or the least energy-intensive industries. 

There is one thing, though, that everyone agrees on. Perhaps the single most significant issue with the performance of green buildings in the U.S. is people. For all of our advancements in building science, we seem to have forgotten a most valuable link to success: Marrying the ongoing maintenance of complex buildings with the even more complex psychology of human beings. People, it turns out, have an incredible knack for offsetting energy modeling predictions and design strategies. Whether it’s thermal comfort, noise, light, or crushed ice, human needs and desires—coupled with the myriad functions of different industry types occupying a building—often dictate whether a space functions at it was predicted and designed. Even the “smartest” buildings can’t outsmart human beings who are cold or improperly oriented about how to use their new space.

Which is why the next phase of green building will be as much about people as technology. Success in sustainable design hinges on our ability to create the software and hardware needed to not only collect and parse building data, but also to communicate findings in such a way that informs occupant behavior. “You can have all the data in the world, but unless you can transform it into something that’s meaningful, it doesn’t really do much for you,” says Debra Gondeck-Becker, AIA, the Americas Construction Industry Leader for Honeywell Building Solutions. The future of green building, she says, is about “taking the data and making it consumable by the building owner, operators, and occupants so that they can take action and optimize their facilities.”

This shift has implications for all architects, not just those specializing in deep green buildings. Increasingly, commercial owners will be held accountable for energy use and outcomes. Consider the GSA. “By 2020, our buildings have to be designed for net-zero energy,” Davis says. It will no longer be about getting a building to opening day; it will be about ongoing performance. Currently, Davis says that design teams are still largely flummoxed by this shift, and are surprised when they are told that a building is not performing as well as predicted. Architects are not yet accustomed to being held accountable for designed performance. “You have to start finding very talented architects and engineers, and really working with a great internal and external team, to make that [net-zero goal] happen,” Davis says. “We’ve been figuring out what we need to do from a contracting perspective to achieve that.” In fact, the GSA is currently exploring changes to its contracting process to ensure better building performance. In the Federal Center South Building in Seattle, Davis says, ZGF Architects was given a performance-based contract with a portion of the fee withheld until energy data was confirmed one year into occupancy. (Read more about these contracts in “Best Practices: Energy Performance–Based Contracts.”)

Meanwhile, more and more cities and districts, like New York and Washington, D.C., have instituted energy benchmarking goals for commercial buildings above a certain size. D.C.’s Clean and Affordable Energy Act, for example, requires all private buildings over 50,000 gross square feet to measure and disclose energy and water consumption. As this information becomes public, scrutiny over a building’s performance will inevitably follow.

A lot has been made about the need for architects to embrace energy modeling and other best practices to help lessen the impact of the built environment on the planet. As we enter the next phase of the green building boom, there is another, much more pragmatic reason for firms to embrace this shift: their commissions may depend on it. Building performance may well become the key to a firm’s bottom line. 

For a glimpse into where things are headed, consider a July 2013 article in The New Republic about the LEED Platinum Bank of America Tower in New York, designed by CookFox Architects. The article, titled “Bank of America’s Toxic Tower,” examined energy data for commercial buildings released by the city of New York and found that the tower, which opened in 2010, produced more greenhouse gases and used more energy per square foot than similarly sized office buildings in Manhattan. “New York’s ‘greenest’ skyscraper is actually its biggest energy hog,” the story argued.

This was just the latest in a series of critiques on LEED’s efficacy. In 2012, John Scofield, a professor of physics at Oberlin College, testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives that his research on LEED certified buildings found they “consume about the same amount of primary energy as to comparable, non-LEED buildings. LEED buildings are statistically no better and no worse.”

The LEED certification checklist knights a building as green before the doors so much as open, critics point out, but once occupied, actual performance doesn’t always merit the status. LEED conducted its first post-occupancy study of certified buildings in 2008. That report, issued by the New Buildings Institute, came under serious scrutiny from professionals like Scofield for inaccurately suggesting that LEED buildings outperformed those without the certification. The New Republic article noted that the Bank of America Tower “uses more than twice as much energy per square foot as the 80-year-old Empire State Building.”

The USGBC’s Horst cried foul on the reporting in a letter to the editor. As he recently told me, “Right now, the whole debate centers on energy use intensity. What that means is that the least amount of energy used is the best performer.” Because the Bank of America Tower houses trading floors that operate long hours and high-energy machines, Horst says, the energy use reflects that. “So what do you do here? Do you make the financial industry go away?”

Nonetheless, Horst takes the criticisms of LEED seriously. He has long advocated for a living building approach, where certified spaces must continue to track performance and get recertified. Currently, that isn’t happening. There are 23,000 certified LEED projects. Only 55 have transitioned from the new construction rating system to the LEED for existing buildings system. It’s too expensive and time consuming for most building owners to consider, and there is little incentive to recertify, according to Horst. “We have to change how people think about and connect with their buildings,” he says. 

This is why Horst created a new LEED product called the Dynamic Plaque. Designed with IDEO and a team of algorithm specialists and software engineers, the plaque attempts to monitor and visualize not only the infrastructure of a building, but also how occupants feel within the space. The software tracks five categories—energy, water, waste, transportation, and the human experience—with those last two categories informed, in part, by regular occupant surveys. The results are automatically tabulated when data is entered and the building gets an updated score based on a 12-month rolling average that is then compared against a database of about 1,000 LEED buildings. The idea is that you can see how other buildings, with similar square footage and occupancy, compare to your building. The score and the individual results in the five categories are then displayed through a circular plaque placed in a building’s lobby. Beta phase prototypes of the plaque were built last year. As of December 2014, there were about 40 in different facilities, including the lobby of the DPR Construction office in San Francisco. The Dynamic Plaque version 1.0 is now available to anyone.

On a warm day this past fall, I visited Horst at the USGBC headquarters in D.C., to see the council’s own prototype in action. Horst had mounted it in the lobby next to the reception desk. He explained that the looping colored bars show how the space ranks in the five measurable categories. It was by using the plaque, Horst says, that the USGBC realized its space was underperforming against its original Platinum score. Because the system also illuminates occupant behavior and feelings through those user surveys, Horst was able to troubleshoot problems and make changes, including the improved signs on the compost bins. “The idea with [the plaque] is to make it simple and beautiful, and to make it have a score so that people can immediately see how they are doing,” Horst says. “We’re making the invisible actionable.” The goal, he says, “is bringing the score to life in such a way that doesn’t punish bad performance, but incentivizes people to make changes.”

Last fall, the USGBC announced a deal with Honeywell to simplify the capture of building data. If your building has a Honeywell system, it can feed facility information right into the plaque’s software. “What I love about the LEED Dynamic Plaque,” says Honeywell’s Gondeck-Becker, “is that it’s a real performance score and it engages people to take action and keep that performance score where the facility owners have set the bar.”

Horst is now brokering similar deals with other companies that sell building management systems. “What’s exciting,” Horst says,  “is that the plaque could be the thing that aligns all of these different data systems.”

LEED isn’t the only entity trying to capture both data and occupant experience in order to improve building performance. Architecture firms like San Francisco’s EHDD have worked with some clients to collect post-occupancy data for the buildings that they design. “We’ve tried over the years to do both energy monitoring and tracking, as well as occupant satisfaction surveys,” says Scott Shell, FAIA, principal at EHDD. About 10 years ago, the firm began using the Center for the Built Environment (CBE) post-occupancy survey program. Located at the University of California at Berkeley, the CBE studies human physiology, indoor airflow, thermal performance of building systems, and occupant satisfaction, among other things. Participating buildings are placed into a database. “They have hundreds of buildings,” Shell says, “so we’re benchmarking ourselves against them.”

EHDD designed the net-zero David and Lucile Packard Foundation headquarters (built by DPR Construction), and because of the stringent net-zero certification, they brokered a different kind of contract with the client. “We negotiated with the owner back in 2007 to be around during the first year in order to help diagnose what was going on,” says Brad Jacobson, AIA, senior associate at EHDD.

In addition to rethinking the architect/client relationship, a performance-driven building also requires a rethinking of the maintenance staff. The Packard Foundation hired Juan Uribe to be the building’s full-time building engineer. If there’s a James Bond of building maintenance, Uribe fits the bill. He has built a career running the most complicated structures, from nuclear power plants to biotech facilities for companies like Genentech, where a slight change in interior temperature could compromise millions of dollars in research. Success with a deep green building like Packard, Uribe says, starts with realizing that you’re dealing with a different breed. “This isn’t just a regular office building,” he says, “and you can’t treat it as such.”

Uribe fine-tuned the systems that EHDD put in, and over the years, he has adjusted everything in the automated system to work in harmony. He maintains that the only way for a green building to perform as expected is to place occupant comfort first. “I believed that if I could get the systems tuned so that I had reliability and satisfaction with the comfort level, that was the number one goal,” Uribe says. “The energy efficiency would follow. And that’s exactly what’s occurred.”

Ideally, Uribe says, the building engineer should be included in the design phase of a net-zero building. That didn’t happen at Packard (Uribe was hired during construction), and he suspects that the first year could have gone more smoothly otherwise. “For this type of building you need big involvement from automation and controls specialists,” Uribe says. “I replaced inaccurate instruments after we opened and adjusted things where I could. But being a part of the design decisions would have made a difference.” 

The foundation also did a good job of communicating with staff about the new building. “The owner was very good about having regular presentations all the way through the [design and construction] process,” Jacobson says. “They were moving from a building built in the 1980s, so there was a lot of change management around workplace issues. It was essential to bring people along so that they were not dissatisfied and shocked when they moved to the new building. That training is important. Most people don’t know how buildings work. They just come to the office and want to do their job.”

The foundation set goals with occupants at the outset, for things like interior temperature. Once the building opened, Uribe met with staff on a regular basis to get feedback. “It starts by establishing what your policies are and then getting everyone involved in the building,” Uribe says. “When it’s OK to go to natural ventilation, for example, we put icons on the desktops so that people can see immediately that it’s time to open the windows.”

In buildings where performance is being monitored, such as net-zero certified spaces, owners are increasingly incentivizing tenants to take on the sustainability goals of the space. In Seattle, the six-story, 50,000-square-foot Bullitt Center is considered a first of its kind, a net-zero commercial office building with a range of different tenants. Unlike the Packard Foundation and DPR, which are owner-occupied, the Bullitt Center, designed by the Miller Hull Partnership, is a core and shell commercial building. Engaging the tenants in the building through things like an energy dashboard and post-occupancy surveys have been a pivotal part of the project. So, too, is rewarding good behavior. “Everyone, through their rental rates, is incentivized to perform well,” says Brian Court, a partner at Miller Hull. “Tenants get an annual energy budget and if they meet that target, then they get money back.” This creates a kind of self-regulation of the tenants who rent at the Bullitt. “We wouldn’t put a coffee shop in the building, for example, because of the high energy demands,” Court says.

But what happens when you can’t control the tenants? The GSA, for instance, must accommodate a variety of different industries with varying energy demands. Roger Chang of Westlake Reed Leskosky worked with Lance Davis and the GSA on renovating the Wayne N. Aspinall Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Grand Junction, Colo., a 1918 landmark that was converted into one of the most sustainable historic buildings in the country. Since its completion in February 2013, Chang has maintained rigorous post-occupancy data on the building’s performance. One thing he discovered was how much the machines inside affected energy predictions. The nighttime performance of equipment in “sleep” mode, for instance, was not nearly as good as manufacturer data suggested. Also, some of the Federal agencies in the building were required to use industry-specific machines that consumed a lot of energy.

The U.S. Marshals Service, for instance, had a 600-watt load from a single piece of equipment used to process prisoners. When Aspinall’s building manager presented energy data at a tenant meeting, the manager of that agency was told that he had to do better. “But he had really tried and couldn’t do anything about this equipment that he had no control over,” Chang says, “and so he just stopped trying.” Focusing only on energy use became a disincentive, Chang says, because you risk losing well-intentioned occupants from the higher goal: A livable, functioning, sustainable building where people thrive at their jobs.

The Rise of Nest And its Commercial Implications
The goal, then, is to create a system where users are given the information that they need to make informed choices about behavior and performance outcomes. Architects who I spoke with in the commercial sector often mentioned the research and development happening in the residential world, where architecture more readily merges with clever product design. “The IT world is so sophisticated, and more and more it is taking interest in building information,” says EHDD’s Jacobson. “We may be on the cusp of something when companies like Google buy Nest.”

Jacobson is referring to Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition last year of Nest Labs, a startup known for its smart home thermostats and alarms. Along with Quirky’s Wink, Apple’s HomeKit, and Honeywell’s Lyric, Nest is racing to create residential software platforms connecting users to Internet-driven devices, known as the Internet of Things. Here, homeowners can monitor and automate their homes. Nest’s Learning Thermostat, for example, harvests data and uses it to adjust your home’s temperature based on your habits. It can connect with your utility company and let you know, via a green leaf on your thermostat, if you’re operating at an energy-efficient level. 

Last year, Nest opened its operating platform to outside developers, allowing it to connect with other devices in the home. One of Nest’s new partners is Whirlpool. Now, your clothes dryer and your Nest thermostat will be able to work in tandem to conserve energy. When the thermostat detects your utility’s peak load times, it sends a signal to the dryer to run on a cooler, slower drying cycle, saving energy and money. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, the company has started moving into some commercial projects. “We have small hotels that are using our products because they are simple,” says Maxime Veron, head of product management at Nest Labs.

In fact, Horst took a page from product designers like Nest when he created the Dynamic Plaque with an open application program interface, or API. Developers can access the API and plug their products and services into the plaque, allowing owners to customize a kit of tools for building management and performance review. As Horst talks about the future of the plaque, he starts to sound a lot like the developers at Nest. Indeed, the USGBC will soon release a version of the plaque that’s not just for LEED, but for any commercial building. “We’re working on a version of this where you can put it in your building and score yourself relative to your peers,” Horst says.

When I met with van der Linden in San Francisco last fall, the DPR Construction office had been open for several months and was on track to meet its net-zero goals. If the company has learned anything from building three net-zero offices, van der Linden says, it’s that a truly green space requires a new relationship between owners, architects, construction staff, engineers and more. “Integrated project delivery is where we’re heading,” van der Linden says. “We’re asking architects to leave their offices and we’re putting everyone in a big room—contractor, owner, engineer—to work together during a project.”

Van der Linden says the complexity of designing green buildings cannot overshadow the ultimate goal. The most important relationship, in the end, is with the people who will ultimately occupy the space. The real-time data capture displayed in the DPR office, coupled with ongoing conversations with staff, allows DPR to make decisions for the benefit of both its energy goals and its employees. That’s why the popular but energy-sucking ice machine can stay, for now anyway. “I’ve said this numerous times,” van der Linden says. “We can build the greenest building on the planet, but if our employees don’t want to be here, it’s not a green building.”

Where We Get Our Energy-Use Data
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) calculates that in 2012, there were 5.6 million commercial buildings in the United States containing some 87.4 billion square feet of floor space. So what do we know collectively about the way those commercial buildings are actually performing? Turns out, not a whole lot. Here’s a breakdown of some of the entities collecting post-occupancy data and how it gets used.

Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey
Data from 6,720 out of the 5.6 million total buildings in the United States. That’s what’s being used to help create the Energy Star ratings. The EIA, an independent statistics and analysis agency within the Department of Energy, collects what is arguably the most influential data on our commercial building stock. Its Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) is the backbone for Energy Star and influences how our government crafts public policy around buildings and energy use. CBECS began in 1979 as a national sample survey, and a total of 10 new surveys have been conducted since. 

The most current CBECS, which surveys buildings from 2012, will be fully released this year—the first time CBECS has released new data on buildings since 2003. “We did a survey in 2007, but there were flaws in the way that the sample was designed,” says Joelle Michaels, CBECS survey manager for the EIA. 

For the 2012 survey, 250 interviewers gathered energy use data directly from building owners or from public utilities. The final sample size was 6,720 buildings. The preliminary findings were posted in June of last year, but by the end of 2015, EIA will post all of the detailed data. 

Even still, it’s difficult to finesse the full results. “Our tables are designed to do two-way cross tabulation,” Michaels says. “You could go to the building size and then the building activity, for example. But the problem with having only 6,000-plus buildings is that your sample size then gets really small and you can’t extrapolate much from it.”

In 2008, LEED commissioned its first post-occupancy study of certified buildings. Conducted by a third party, the National Buildings Institute, the study analyzed and measured energy performance for 121 LEED New Construction buildings and found them to have better energy performance as compared to other structures. The methodology behind the report, however, was later questioned by building scientists as being misleading. “The NBI study was the very first attempt to look at what was happening,” the USGBC’s Scot Horst says.

LEED now has information from the benchmarking happening in cities as well as data collected since the LEED 2009 rating, which asks for five years of energy and water usage from certified buildings. “But we still haven’t had a good way to make sense of all of that data,” Horst says. “No one to date, in my opinion, has a comprehensive understanding of how to define building performance.” Horst hopes the LEED Dynamic Plaque will help change that. 

gBUILD from the General Services Administration
With the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the GSA was charged with overhauling its building stock to be more energy efficient, which is why the agency created gBUILD (Green Building Upgrade Information Lifecycle Database), a collection of post-occupancy data. Projects are required to log modeling and design performance data, and then once the building is operational, the energy usage is benchmarked against the performance data.

The Center for the Built Environment
The nonprofit CBE, based in Berkeley, Calif., has as its mission “to improve the environmental quality and energy efficiency of buildings by providing timely, unbiased information.” This includes information on building technologies, design, and operation techniques, as well as a Web-based post-occupancy survey that has been conducted in over 600 buildings. Architecture firms such as EHDD use the CBE database to help understand performance within their green buildings.