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The future of regenerative building is performance-based


The future of regenerative building is performance-based

Why measuring performance results is so critical, but also easier said than done.

By Nash Emrich | November 9, 2021
Paladino blog
Courtesy Paladino

Earlier this year, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) released its Energy Policy Simulator, or EPS. Per RMI, “EPS is an open-source, peer-reviewed model for estimating the environmental, economic, and human health impacts of hundreds of climate and energy policies.” The tool provides a mechanism for policymakers and advocates to identify the most impactful policies when it comes to decarbonization and climate change. The idea is to work backward from the 1.5 degree Celsius global warming target established by the UN and identify the most effective ways to achieve these results across all sectors of the economy: Land & Agriculture, Buildings, Transportation, Electricity, and Industry.

When taking in the full context, the tool shows that the built environment is just one factor. Even when applying some of the most ambitious green building policies, like net-zero energy or net-zero carbon buildings, there is still a lot more work to do to address the climate crisis. And I think we can all agree that we’re not on the verge of adopting these ambitious policies in all of our cities.

That means that the incremental approach currently taken by the building industry is no longer effective. This approach, it should be noted, often focuses on prescriptive improvements – i.e. install roofing materials with a high solar reflective index or an ENERGY STAR dishwasher and you get to check the box. Initially, a prescriptive approach was helpful in many ways: to identify best practices, develop common language and education among professionals, and transform the market by thinking beyond financial outcomes. But now the market has caught up. What were previously best practices for green building, represented in rating systems like LEED, are now outdated and clearly not generating sufficient results. Each checkbox on the scorecard takes a tiny step in the right direction; however, it’s clear that we now need to be leaping higher and faster.

Our building industry must adopt an approach based on actual performance. There are many good examples of this type of performance-based approach already being utilized. This includes, but is not limited to, the LEED v4.1 O&M rating system via Arc to measure real building data and generate a LEED score, as well as the WELL Building Standard and Living Building Challenge, leveraging on-site building testing for health parameters and requiring actual zero energy and water data for a building, respectively.

As we continue to move towards a performance-based approach as the standard, it is important to ensure we are measuring all the right indicators. Combating the climate crisis requires integrated strategies and policies, as demonstrated by RMI’s Energy Policy Simulator, among others. Right now, it is easy to measure energy, carbon, water, and waste performance. All have important impacts on the health of our environment. So, it would seem that making a transition is relatively simple if we gauge success based on measured outcomes.

However, there are other key factors that play a critical role in realizing regenerative communities, such as local ecosystem health, social equity, biophilic design, and human wellness. For many indicators like these, it can be challenging to measure the impact made by an individual building project. It’s important that the next frontier for sustainability in the built environment involve developing methods for tracking performance for those hard-to-measure indicators.

Paladino often leads with a performance-based approach and has worked to develop tools or methods for measuring success, even for some of these hard-to-measure key performance indicators (KPIs). One example includes developing a human capital return on investment calculation methodology to demonstrate the benefits of complex natural ventilation systems on the Tower at PNC, the greenest high-rise in the world. We did this by looking at the client’s average salary and revenue produced per employee across the organization, total headcount, and a discounted productivity gain per design feature investigated. The percent gain is derived from the best and most recent research available, using the most conservative gain. We’ve also created a solution called Upshot to roll up these analyses in a dashboard showing how a design will perform in relation to a variety of performance criteria (among other factors) and identify where there’s room for improvement.

Moving forward, our collective industry will need to collaborate on similar ideas. We’ll need to both develop methodologies for measurement of all KPIs and, perhaps more importantly, build consensus around the methods so they can be implemented consistently across the globe.

We’d love to hear from our extended network to keep the conversation rolling. What methodologies are you using to measure success for subjective sustainability indicators? What creative ideas do you have for shifting the market to prioritize performance?

We have transformed the industry in the past, so we know it is possible again. Now is the time to adapt our approach, including our standards and rating systems structures, to focus on what we must do, not just on what we can do.

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