Building a more energy efficient world

Energy monitoring deviceThe first thing you notice when you walk into New Buildings Institute (NBI) for an afternoon interview is that their building is missing lights. Despite what you might think, it’s not dark inside. Instead of flicking on incandescent or even fluorescent lights, daylight streams into the building through a bank of windows in brickwork, just below ceiling level.

The natural light is one of the first things that Dave Hewitt, executive director for the 12-year-old nonprofit, points out as we settle into his Vancouver office, which is floored with bamboo and sleek, modern designs. His office does have lights, but we don’t need it on this sunny afternoon, when sunlight does the lighting work and the office feels cool and comfortable with no air conditioning on an 80-something-degree day.

“The first thing I usually tell people is we’re a think tank,” Hewitt said.

That thinking keeps the nonprofit busy researching energy efficiency in new and existing commercial buildings, offering design guidance for what Hewitt dubs “advanced energy performance,” and working with government and utility companies on energy policy work and energy code.

Studying beyond LEED

With offices in Vancouver and in the small community White Salmon, NBI can be thought of as a sort of consumer reports for large-scale buildings. LEED building, an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a hot buzz word in our growing sustainability consciousness. But while the goal of a LEED-designated building is sustainability in construction and energy efficiency, it can be hard to quantify the end results, according to the nonprofit.

To illustrate, Hewitt offers an example: “If someone tells you your car gets 10 miles per gallon without other information, you wouldn’t know if that’s good or bad.”

This reasoning, according to Hewitt, is why NBI studies not only LEED-designated buildings, but other existing large-scale commercial buildings. So far, the nonprofit has collected data on 1,500 U.S. buildings and looked at the energy needed to run them and offered comparisons – for both implementing changings and future design work.

LEED buildings perform, on average, about 25 percent better than average buildings, Hewitt said. But even with the improved performance in comparison, there’s a huge variability in the performance and energy use.

“Most buildings (LEED included) could improve their energy efficiency by 10, 15, even 20 percent,” Hewitt said.

With studies, NBI is able to offer suggestions to improve building performance, which cuts down on electricity usage, CO2 output and saves money. Based on those studies, Hewitt explained, the information can be applied and simplified for other building operators, without the use of custom solutions.

To illustrate, Hewitt explained that when NBI operated in one of the Hidden Houses in downtown Vancouver, they were able to improve energy efficiency by 25 percent with a few modifications to building operations.

Today, according to NBI, heat sources rank as one of the top competing issues in a building. Elevator banks, for instance, heat up a space while air conditioning units work to cool it.

“A lot of these really old buildings can be set up to be efficient and cheap,” Hewitt said. “It was when energy got so cheap and commonplace that everyone decided to build with concrete and glass (which can heat up and require more energy to cool).”

The “next big thing” in construction

On the up-and-coming front, Hewitt said net-zero designs are the buzz in new building construction. The concept of a net-zero building is to generate as much energy as it uses, so that in net, zero energy is ultimately used to operate a building. That’s not to say a building is always in balance, Hewitt explained. However, he said, over the course of a year it balances out to a net zero.

For example, during the winter months in Southwest Washington, more power might be used for the lighting and heating of buildings. But come summertime, buildings are bathed in sunlight and solar energy can be harvested to become part of the overall energy equation, balancing things out over the course of
a year.

Monitoring systems also play a part, according to Stacey Hobart, communications director for NBI. The systems can provide a snapshot of a building’s energy usage and help operators shift operations to improve efficiency.

Future concerns

Besides cost and sustainability reasons, Hewitt sees energy security as part of the drive to lesson energy use domestically. He also foresees an emphasis on more electric-grid public transit systems in the U.S., powered, in part, with electricity saved from efficiency improvements. The cost of power will continue to rise with the issue of climate change, he said, adding that it’s no longer just a domestic concern with the emerging middle classes in India and China.

“As those economies change and they start to enjoy a more Americanized lifestyle, we’re going to see rising oil prices,” Hewitt said. “The [increased power cost] drivers are unstoppable.”

For more information about New Buildings Institute, visit