COVID-19 prompts fine-tune for effective benchmarking

A fine-tune for effective benchmarking

REALPAC adjusts normalization methodologies for lower occupant densities
Monday, July 19, 2021
By Barbara Carss

Effective benchmarking almost invariably entails an extra layer of analysis to account for variables — in climate, occupancy and/or function — that can skew building-to-building comparisons. Enhanced standardized methodologies for gauging energy-use and water-use intensity are now freely available for building owners/managers seeking a consistent, accurate and user-friendly tool to reckon key variables and assess performance across their office building portfolios.

Newly released updates to the REALPAC normalized energy-use intensity (NEUI) and normalized water-use intensity (NWUI) methodologies further refine formulas that were initially developed to support benchmarking efforts that the prominent Canadian commercial real estate organization sponsored last decade. Namely: the 20 by ’15 campaign, a national challenge to achieve an average annual energy-use intensity of 20 equivalent kilowatt-hours per square foot (ekWh/ft2/yr) by 2015; and REALPAC’s 2012 water benchmarking pilot, which analyzed at least 12 months of water-use data from 83 participating office buildings.

Those normalization methodologies have proved instrumental for pegging baseline performance and measuring energy and water-saving progress in a Canadian office inventory scattered across six climate zones, and exhibiting a range of operational pressures and functional constraints. However, the 2021 versions address some emerging needs.

“COVID-19 exposed that the original methodologies had reduced effectiveness in the evaluation of building performance in periods of very low occupant density,” reports Neal Bach, president of Energy Profiles Limited, which led the update project. “Years of analysis of hundreds of buildings also revealed other opportunities for improvement. Both methodologies have been rebuilt to provide renewed clarity on building performance in the present day, and to unleash the next wave of investment in energy, water and carbon reductions over the coming decades.”

Similar to the originals, the updated NEUI and NWUI methodologies begin with a calculation of actual energy-use or water-use intensity. They then apply a series of adjustments to achieve a normalized reading that accounts for asset-specific variables in energy and water demand due to local climate conditions, occupant density and operational timeframes, as well as anomalies such as exceptional energy and/or water demand in enclosed parking areas, data centres, call centres, fitness facilities and restaurants.

Along with Energy Profiles Limited, a 17-member subcommittee stacked with engineering, smart analytics and building performance expertise from REALPAC member companies and industry service providers reviewed and provided comments on the updated baseline model, adjustment factors and computation tool. The latter produces the normalized readings — in an ekWh/ft2 or litres per square foot (L/ft2) metric — after users input the required information.

Among changes to the 2021 version, the new NEUI differentiates vacant space, where landlords have flexibility to curtail heating and cooling, from unoccupied sublets, where they are obligated to condition the space. It also introduces new options to determine normalized energy-use intensity in leased space with lower than accustomed (versus pre-pandemic) occupant densities.

Consistent, transparent and verifiable metrics foster confidence

This all aligns with REALPAC’s goal to provide a transparent, simple and credible tool that can facilitate wider uptake of energy and water-use benchmarking and yield further insights and spinoff benefits from an expanded universe of participants. For example, normalization factors to recognize exceptional energy and water-use have proven fruitful for reaching and encouraging owners/managers who might otherwise be reluctant to divulge actual consumption or compare performance against a greater number of more conventional office buildings.

“Many landlords have concerns regarding their office buildings being ‘special’ or ‘different’ and thus not being eligible to participate due to factors such as tenant energy or water consumption,” REALPAC’s stated underpinning principles acknowledge. “The REALPAC NEUI and NWUI methodologies must therefore be broadly applicable and inclusive of most, if not all, types of office buildings and tenant mixes.”

The methodologies are offered as a tool to support building and portfolio owners/managers with internal benchmarking exercises, and are not currently part of any formal voluntary or mandated energy or water benchmarking and reporting program. However, given the profile of REALPAC’s membership, which includes many of Canada’s largest commercial real estate companies and investment asset managers, the normalization methodologies have been influential in generating a growing pool of consistent data that can inform a range of ESG (environmental, social, governance) initiatives.

“Creating solid and trusted metrics is critical for successful energy, water, carbon and waste reductions. REALPAC has been the leader in the field for commercial properties and this is great progress on the alignment of metrics so that different organizations can all talk the same language,” observes Andrew Pride, an engineer and energy management specialist who serves as chair of the National Research Council’s standing committee on energy efficiency in buildings. “The updated metrics are especially timely with so many partially occupied buildings due to COVID-19. It would be great to see the normalization methodologies extended to other property sectors and to include waste also.”

REALPAC hints that could be a possibility, and the computational tool may be augmented so that users will be able to calculate carbon emissions associated with their energy and water-use intensity.

“The REALPAC NEUI and REALPAC NWUI methodologies will be updated periodically over time through feedback and review from industry to ensure that they remain current and valuable to users,” affirms Kristopher Kolenc, REALPAC’s research and sustainability manager. “The methodologies are currently only designed for commercial office buildings, but may be expanded to other asset classes in the future.”

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.

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