Buildings are part of the solution, they are not the enemy! Stampa E-mail
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di Carolina Gambino

Brendan OwensA luglio Brendan Owens - Chief of Engineering del Green Building Council negli Stati Uniti - è venuto in Italia per far conoscere le politiche verdi a stelle e strisce.
Il Consolato Americano di Milano ha promosso un incontro presso la redazione di Nuova Energia per approfondire il tema.
Ne è uscito qualcosa in più di una semplice intervista, grazie anche alla presenza e al punto di vista di RSE. L’efficientamento degli edifici ha rappresentato il focus del confronto.
Il messaggio di fondo? Buildings are part of the solution, they are not the enemy!
Naturalmente non serve tradurre.

Historically the USA has always been seen as a very energy-hungry country. Do you think something has changed over the past few years and do you see more changes coming in the future in that regard?

**I think that a lot has changed in the last decade. There’s an awareness that was born out of a variety of different factors: climate awareness, sensitivity around utility price, technical changes that have entered the market, the availability of products that didn’t exist before. And the green building industry has been at the forefront of that in many ways. The other thing that I find the most interesting today is the blurring of the line between the supply side and the demand side of energy generation. Now it is possible for buildings to be a signifi cant part of solutions to challenges that the utility and the grid has.

Which resulted in?
**Over the last 3 years we have seen 10, 12, 14% reductions in the projected use of energy in buildings; and that is being driven by an understanding that the technical hurdles that used to exist don’t exist anymore and by the availability of very effi cient technology disrupting the market in a very positive way.

Is energy efficiency a widespread concept in American culture and to which extent do you think the man in the street is familiar with it?
**It depends on where that man lives… or where that street is! I mean we see a lot of really cutting edge, very aggressive success stories in states like California or New York, where they are using energy effi ciency as a strategic factor. Where there’s a signifi cant population density there’s much more awareness, much more activity, there’s more personal investment in things like energy efficiency. When you get outside the population centers there’s different issues that people are coping with…

Do you think energy efficiency has gained more attention for economic reasons or because of an increased environmental awareness?
** It’s hard to split apart motivations and why people are paying more attention to it is an open question... I would say that most of it is being driven by economic factors, for the most part… What I have been encouraged by recently is a better understanding around the consequences related to energy decisions and energy use that are linked to public health outcomes.
When we burn coal or gas or whatever it is in order to make energy there are direct consequences from an air quality perspective, and such consequences are strongly linked to direct health outcomes in the short term. I think that people are beginning to be aware of that and many of the strategies that have been used to successfully close down coal plants have been linked to the public health challenges.
Anyway, I think it’s easier to motivate change when people are interested in the benefi t to them rather than in the reduction in a cost. So the model that we promote with LEED is: these are the benefi ts that you are going to get rather than it is going to cost you less.

Efficiency should mean using resources more rationally without compromising comfort or quality of life, but often it is still viewed as the need to save, to renounce to something, to be deprived of something, so it is not very popular!
**Yes, austerity… in the US there was a period of time when effi ciency was viewed as exactly that, particularly in the 1970s with the energy crisis, “cold and dark” was a pretty typical energy efficiency plan. Technology transformation, whether it is thermostats or web enabled systems, is giving people the ability to view optimization of energy use in a very different way. I think we are still in very early days of technology and there’s a lot more benefi t that will come.
When you look at the way that the technology we are leveraging has completely changed the lives of the people who are now utterly dependent on it, I think there are reasons to believe that the same type of benefi t that comes with having a smart phone and a web-enabled lifestyle can be realized in the same way with energy effi ciency. So I think that there’s pretty much signifi cant potential to leverage that type of transformation and positive market disruption.

Technology or good practices, what is the role and importance of these two factors?
**I think technology and good practices are equally important. The idea of driving down the energy use of a built environment over time with a combination of regulations and technology and voluntary market forces is widely debated. But the reality is that buildings are as effi cient as people operate them. If we look at a Prius automobile as a benchmark, you can drive a Prius to get a really good fuel effi ciency, and you can drive it in a way that gives you really bad fuel effi ciency.
Buildings are no different! The role of inhabitant behavior in buildings is of critical importance. So there are two options that we can consider. One is automation, just taking the decisions out of the hands of the people who can make bad ones; the other is to really educate people, to help them understand the implications of the decisions that they are making…

Which is the right direction, then?
**I don’t know, but I do think that there’s a fundamental human interface that’s necessary because we don’t build buildings to house people, we build buildings because people need to live in them and work in them… and ensuring that the productivity that’s possible as a result of good air quality or good lighting or good acoustics in their space is realized is going to enhance human performance in building spaces. There is a number of studies that have been done that say we can enhance the productivity of people by 10% just by giving them control over their thermostats, over the air fl ow, over their spaces.

You mentioned behaviors and how they affect building performance. Is there any research project in the US on that?
**I have read a lot of publications on human behavior in buildings that are written by Ray Cole, he is a Professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. For the last ten years he has almost exclusively focused on human behaviors in buildings. Studies show that 30% of the energy used in a building is dependent on behavior, maybe even more depending on the type of building. And that is not surprising.

Do utility companies in the US offer consultancy services or programs to improve energy effi ciency and with what results?
**Yes almost all of them do actually. I can’t think of one that doesn’t… with what results, that’s a good question. When I look out at the sort of diversity of policies and programs that have been put in place to effect energy effi ciency in buildings I think the challenge is fi nding ones that are truly transformational, that are truly producing scalable results that can be measured and replicated.
The challenge is that our regulatory environment in the United States around utilities – even though I think it is getting better now - still tends to pit consumers against producers in some unproductive ways, well in many unproductive ways… I don’t think it’s intentional, I just think it’s an outcome of the way that we have regulated our utility markets historically.
So I think that we’ve got some interesting things that are happening now from a regulatory standpoint, particularly on topics like demand response that are forcing utilities to rethink whether or not they want to be in the energy services business or whether or not they want to be in the kWh sales business, and that’s an interesting conversation.

Can grid defection be a solution?
**I don’t think that building owners necessarily understand that grid defection is an effi cient option, or even an optimal option for a very very small fraction of all buildings on the grid. The grid is a tremendous resource that needs to be preserved.

In Italy demolition is not an option: new buildings are less than 1%. So, for us building renovation is the only option to reduce energy consumption. I think things are very different in the US.
**No, not so much. In our case it’s not 1%, but the real opportunities for a drastic reduction in the energy consumption of a built environment are in the existing buildings. It’s not that way in China or India, but US is kind of in the middle of where I consider to be Europe in general and Western Europe in particular… not seeing big construction booms any time soon. Similarly we are not building as much in the US. We really need to focus on the existing buildings much more.

So, how many renovated buildings have you rated versus new constructions?
**The fi gure changes so rapidly but we have rated more existing buildings than new constructions. I guess it is 60:40. In 2009 we crossed the line where existing buildings was predominant… and that’s globally.

If you were asked to rate US buildings’ level of effi ciency on a scale from 1 to 10, what would your score be?
**I think the best buildings in the US are among the best buildings in the world… but I also think the average building in the US is not nearly as good as it needs to be, so I would say for our average construction, average operations: 3. If 1 is bad and 10 is good, I’d say 3, maybe 2 and a half, anyway I don’ think we’re the worst.

But 3 is really bad!
**Before working at the Green Building Council I worked for an energy services company and what we did was performance contract-based energy retrofi ts for building owners: we would identify energy conservation measures, we would install them in front of the capital and then we would amortize our investment by taking a portion of the savings that we generated; a performance contract model which is pretty typical. Well, we must have done 500 buildings and we didn’t walk into a building that you couldn’t get 20% energy savings out of without really even trying... it was just easy to fi nd that savings and when we really tried we could get 40%.
If you look at the successful building case studies where deep energy retrofi ts have occurred you get 80% savings! That’s why I am saying we’re not doing anywhere near as much. Look at the Empire State Building for example, a 70% energy reduction on an iconic existing building, it was a big investment but a fi nancially viable investment and I think that that’s the type of opportunity that a built environment presents for people who are interested in really drastically reducing energy use in buildings.

America is characterized by huge climatic, environmental, cultural and social differences. I guess this makes your work really hard!
**I don’t know if it’s much more diffi cult in the US than it is in Italy, we have more climate zones of course, because we have Alaska and Hawaii, but the reality is that we are lucky, we have a lot of really good professionals geographically dispersed part of the challenge is that there hasn’t been as much of a sense of ownership and a sense of place as there could be, there are some challenging developing paradigms, I think that they tend to make people want to build the same building in every place and building the same building in San Diego that you built in Boston, Massachusetts, is not a good idea.
But technologically we can certainly do it, we can overcome the climatic challenges and do that; but there are places in the US where you can go to one city and feel like you are in the same city that is 600 miles away. In Italy I don’t feel like I am in Rome when I am in Milan and that’s a good thing in my opinion!

Could you describe USGBC in just a few words?
**We are a US based not for profi t organization, I guess that would make us an environmental NGO in the rest of the world. We were founded about 23 years ago and since 2000 we have been responsible for the development and administration of the LEED green building rating system.

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