Steven Winter, FAIA, is founder and president of Steven Winter Associates. As part of the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council for 2014, he will co-lead the Vision 2020 initiative in Energy Efficiency + Building Science.
How would you define a green home or building today and with that in mind, how do you think that definition needs to change going forward?
More stuff is creeping into the definition of what is a green building, Alex Wilson has included resilience as a part of sustainability and I think that’s definitely going to be an issue going forward. A sustainable building is one that is prepared for, or can recover from, a disaster and that will increasingly become part of the definition of a green building.
Another element is accessibility for the elderly and the disabled. This will be a requirement and perhaps part of green standards in building codes.
A third element is proving what you predict. There have been articles about the world’s greenest building, the Bank of America Tower, and how it is one of the worst performing buildings. There are a lot of red faces, asterisks, and explanations about why it’s not performing as projected. The definition of a green building is going to have to include the ways in which the performance is verified, how you circle back and inform the owners and designers. In order to maintain a green designation, a building will have to prove [its performance] on an ongoing basis. Measurement and verification (M&V) will increasingly be a part of the definition and what it takes to get certification and approval.
You mentioned the importance of M&V when we spoke to you under our Vision 2020 program in 2012. At that time, you also mentioned the need for government bodies to offer more carrots and sticks in the form of incentives and codes, and the need to change the way homeowners operate in their buildings. Do you think any progress has been made on those objectives? If not, why are some of the challenges that are standing in the way?
The hurdle is budgets. New York State is unique in that NYSERDA provides amazing incentives for building green (a carrot) and New York City requires certain energy performance (a stick). The attempts at benchmarking in Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, and the like are first steps in this whole process. They also need requirements or incentives for going beyond benchmarking. After all, a benchmark is simply a measurement to see how you are doing against your peers.
So would the next step be attaching required targets to the benchmarks?
You’d hope so, but it’s a huge step to go from looking at utility bills to requiring an upgrade—because there are major costs involved. We can wish for it, but so far, I haven’t seen the evidence of this happening yet.
Do you think this is because of the current economy?
It’s all money related, so the economy doesn’t help that. But there are some strong economies out there, so I don’t know. The overall economy is improving, the stock market’s at an all-time high, but cities haven’t moved. The voters are still voting with their pocketbooks and there are people still out of work so it’s tough.
Your firm works on a wide range of energy efficiency projects. How do you determine how far you can push each project in terms of its efficiency? What’s that decision-making process?
It depends on the program. We do a lot of work in affordable, multifamily housing where it’s not a voluntary thing. If an affordable housing developer wants to get financing from an agency, they are required to make it energy efficient—it’s a precondition to getting the financing—and that has a lot of teeth. That makes the decision for us as to how far we can push it.
Enterprise Green Communities financing guidelines have an energy efficiency requirement. New York City agencies have their own goals that are somewhat similar. Anything that’s going to comply with LEED has an implicit set of guidelines, and it’s the same with Energy Star. So, in our work, we are guided by what the funding entity is requiring. Very rarely do you come across a client that voluntarily wants to shoot for the stars. When it happens, it’s very often a high-profile project or one with deep pockets.
A few years ago, you forecast that we’d see a rise in net-zero homes within 15 years and energy-positive homes within 25 years. Is this still the pace you’d predict? Do you think it’s possible to accelerate a larger-scale adoption?
Well, I have seen it expand from homes to multifamily buildings, office buildings and others, and pretty soon, I’m sure that there will be incentives to achieve those targets. I still think that those are not unreasonable targets for 15 and 25 years.
Who is initiating those projects right now? It is for the marketing aspect of doing so?
That’s exactly what it is, for the bragging rights or because they are a do-good organization that wants to do it because it’s the right thing.
In pitting residential versus commercial, do you think one field is more ripe for net-zero-energy buildings than another?
Residential because it’s easier to achieve. Think of a zero-energy office building—that’s really difficult—whereas in a house you have control over the occupancy and the systems. You don’t have to herd cats; you just have to teach one cat.
That brings us to the need to change how homeowners operate, which you’ve raised in the past. Are people open to that?
I think they are. There are more programs where training is an inherent part of the energy efficiency picture. LEED gives you points for training of managers or occupants. We frequently include that in our proposals to clients when we do a retrofit job on a building. For multifamily housing we incorporate training of the custodial staff. The owners welcome the idea of training those people to produce significant energy savings.
What about multifamily tenants?
We’ve done the tenant training, but it’s not very effective. In a rental project, it’s virtually ineffective. If they’re not paying for utilities, they don’t care. In condominiums where they do pay utilities, there’s a little more attention. But, overall, they want to be comfortable.
Back on the custodian side, the issue is often that facility managers neglect the day-to-day upkeep of equipment. It turns out that the fix is often something really simple: tuning something, cleaning something, turning things on or off, closing vents. Those simple things yield huge results.
That taps back into that need for more M&V. Do you check back on multiple intervals?
We usually fix a building and train the staff on how to run it, but I haven’t seen a lot of calls back. That’s a good point because staff turns over and we often don’t get the chance to come back. We’d like to provide continuous commissioning, coming back every year or two.
What are the biggest challenges facing building professionals when it comes to advancing energy efficiency and building science in the next few years?
Many builders already include fairly advanced techniques for energy efficiency, so the concept is no longer a hard sell. The challenge is the level to which they take it. Many will boast about it, but they still aren’t taking it to a highly advanced degree.
We have started seeing the figures stabilizing and picking back up again in terms of new home construction. Do you think these investments of energy efficiency and using them as marketing tactics will continue or do you think it will fall to the wayside?
Oil prices have sort of softened, but we still pay a lot for electricity, and that cost hasn’t included the cost of replacement and maintenance that’s going to be required for aging power plants. Energy and utility prices are going to continue to go up and they are going to be a major factor. Just like with an automobile, people will gravitate towards something that’s more energy efficient. Prices at the pump have not risen dramatically in the last few years, but people are still buying more energy-efficient cars, and so houses should be in the same boat.
Since 2012, Hanley Wood has conferred with building industry experts to establish a timeline of critical goals and metrics that building professionals must establish and meet by the year 2020 in order to preserve our environment and meet large-scale goals such as those of the 2030 Challenge. Scroll over points in our on-going timeline to learn more about the path ahead in green building. Track our progress all year as the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council shares their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward these sustainable priorities and goals. This year's program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in conjunction with Greenbuild in New Orleans, and with a special Fall edition of ECOBUILDING REVIEW.