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Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the New Building Institute’s annual Getting to Zero National Forum in Denver, Colorado. This landmark event brought together leaders in the high-performance building community from around the world to discuss the opportunities and barriers on the road to “zero”.

This year I joined Kevin Kampschroer from the U.S. General Services Administration and Darlene Pope from Jones Lang LaSalle to discuss the cost and value of high-performance buildings. Traditionally, we would address this topic with a review of evidence for the incremental costs of energy efficiency and renewable energy against lifecycle savings in energy cost. We are certainly skilled in having this important conversation. However, it is not even close to the whole story, and it’s not the most important or relevant conversation.

getting to zero forum

We know that just about any building can be “net zero”: just shut off the power and kick back. This is clearly ridiculous since the lack of grid-supplied energy would quickly render most buildings useless and uninhabitable. We spend energy to make our buildings safe, comfortable and productive. This simple observation leads to an important issue: We have become expert in understanding how buildings use energy, but we know very little about the quality and characteristics of the indoor environments we create with this energy.

Let’s compare typical approaches to monitoring energy and comfort: Almost every commercial building has an energy meter. These ubiquitous devices usually record energy consumption every few seconds, and, increasingly, many buildings have sub-meters capable of monitoring specific zones or systems (e.g., lighting, ventilation, heating, cooling, and more). In contrast, occupant comfort is typically measured through (at best) annual surveys and service calls (i.e., complaints). We rarely systematically monitor key determinants of human comfort, such as temperature, humidity, CO2, particulate matter, or indoor contaminants.

This is a problem and an opportunity. In the vast majority of cases, we do not know what we are getting for our investment of energy in a building. Are we using too much energy? Too little? Perhaps getting it just right? We don’t know. For me, this is the sound of one hand clapping — information about energy without corresponding information about health, well-being, and human experience.

Expectations are changing rapidly, and it is no longer sufficient to partition energy performance from human performance along disciplinary lines. The challenge is to use creativity and technology to provide new data on human experience and environmental conditions that match the spatial and temporal grain of information about energy use. This will ultimately help us create truly high-performing buildings that efficiently provide exceptional habitat for people while minimizing environmental impacts.

This kind of building is what people have wanted all along. Teams that can provide such buildings and back them up with real, measured operational performance will unlock real value and competitive advantage. At Aclima, we’re working with the green building community to deliver data-driven decisions and environmental intelligence about buildings and occupants to fulfill this new people-centered paradigm.