A New Building Energy Label in the Works, Alternative to Energy Star

ASHRAElogoThe miles-per-gallon metric has gone a long way toward marketing the Prius and other fuel-efficient cars, and some are hoping a new, more detailed energy label than is currently available could do the same for buildings. That’s the idea behind a program set to be unveiled this fall by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, or ASHRAE, that would provide buildings with a sort of report card, or label, of their energy use.

The program would give buildings a rating from A+ to F, with the former reserved for facilities that are net zero –- meaning they produce as much energy on site as they consume –- and the latter meant for those that are “unsatisfactory.” The labels would provide an easy-to-understand metric for owners and tenants to compare with other, similar buildings, such as office buildings in downtown San Francisco, for example. ASHRAE hopes the labels will help spur more energy-efficient design by making energy use a more visible characteristic of buildings, said Bruce Hunn, director of strategic technical programs for ASHRAE, a research and standards writing organization.

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The program, called Building Energy Quotient, or Building EQ, will include ratings for all building types except residential and will roll out first as a prototype this fall, with a widespread launch scheduled for next year. Under the program, each building would be given two ratings based on energy use per square foot, per year: one related to how it’s designed, and one based on energy-use data from its operation. The two could differ as a result of poor workmanship or the use of less energy-efficient lighting or other equipment than was specified by the designers.

Building EQ wouldn’t be the first energy label for buildings. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program is already available for structures, and it’s widely used for identifying top energy-performing buildings. ASHRAE has made a point of saying that the organization doesn’t intend to “re-invent the success” of the EPA’s program and that Building EQ will “expand on the type and amount of information the Energy Star program provides.” But if successful, it’s hard not to see Building EQ as having significant overlap with Energy Star, and Hunn acknowledged that the new program is an “alternative.”

Building EQ is planned to be available for more building types than those currently under Energy Star (it currently omits laboratories, for example), and ASHRAE’s program would provide a more detailed label (A+ to F as opposed to Energy Star’s pass/fail). But Building EQ is also more aggressive and, according to Hunn, meant to push the building industry toward net zero. A typical commercial building today would get about a C rating under Building EQ, and an Energy Star-rated building would land around B.

The Green Building Council’s LEED rating system takes a broader approach to assessing the environmental character of a building than both Energy Star and Building EQ. LEED includes other measures besides energy, including water use, the materials used, location and indoor air quality. Under its energy category, LEED currently references Energy Star as a way to measure energy efficiency and in the future it could do the same with Building EQ.

Like LEED and Energy Star, Building EQ is meant to be voluntary. The intention with these programs is that by providing more information about the environmental impact of a building, the market will provide a premium for those structures that are cleaner and in so doing, incentivize owners and developers to seek out the rating. Matthew Macko, a principal with San Francisco-based Environmental Building Strategies, said ASHRAE has a well-established name in the building industry and a wealth of resources and that its new rating label will likely be embraced. In that regard, ASHRAE is reaching out to real estate developers to help implement the prototype program this fall. But Macko said the Web-based Energy Star program does have its benefits — it’ quick, often taking less than an hour to crank out a pass/fail, and it’s backed by the EPA, a federal agency that is widely known outside the building industry.

Building EQ’s launch does seem well timed. There are efforts afoot to make building energy labels mandatory, in which case ASHRAE’s program or an alternative could serve as a model. California and the District of Columbia are in the process of requiring labels on buildings that change ownership, and the Waxman-Markey climate bill has a labeling provision on a nationwide level.