Berkeley Lab Science Beat Magazine banner Berkeley Lab logo
Tuning-up Commercial Buildings for High Performance with Information Technology

Commercial buildings in California are
beginning to use less energy, thanks to
a major energy-efficiency research
program based at Lawrence Berkeley
National Laboratory, recently completed. In this and the next two issues of
Berkeley Lab's online Science Beat we will look at some of this three-year,
multimillion-dollar project's many accomplishments.

The High-Performance Commercial Buildings Project (HPCBS), funded by the California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research program (PIER), was launched in 2000 in an effort to reduce commercial-building energy use, which currently costs about $10 billion a year -- a third of all the electricity consumed in California.

The goal for commercial buildings was long-term energy savings of 70 percent in new construction and 50 percent in major retrofits. It's an aggressive, cost-effective approach compared to current practice; most firms believe the savings potential with existing technologies and practices is much smaller, from 10 to 30 percent.

The HPCBS involved dozens of researchers at Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD) and at 13 partner organizations, including Texas A&M, MIT, the Berkeley and San Diego campuses of the University of California, and several private-sector firms.

In this issue of Science Beat, we'll look at information technology for the efficient design and energy management of commercial buildings.

Information Technology the Key

The HPCBS's 14 linked projects and 41 distinct tasks covered a large number of research areas, but a significant unifying theme was the application of information technology.

A major goal of the HPCBS project had been to develop a broad set of information-processing tools to help architects, contractors, managers, and occupants design and operate buildings more efficiently.

"There are a lot of individual energy-efficient technologies out in the marketplace, but what's been missing is an integrated set of solutions to help these technologies work together to maximize the energy savings and minimize costs," says Stephen Selkowitz, the HPCBS program director and head of EETD's Building Technologies Department. "One of the program's goals was to develop a broad set of tools to design and operate buildings efficiently using information technology."

Technologies that can meet this goal include the internet; common open software specifications for building design; automatic controls for energy-saving devices; and monitoring and diagnostic software that can tell building operators what's really going on in complex equipment like ventilation systems, chillers, boilers, and lighting.

"Providing 'interoperable' software gives building designers a way of seamlessly exchanging information across different platforms and between design, construction and occupancy," Selkowitz says. "The software must also give owners a way of making sure their building has met design expectations, and operators the technologies to monitor and control buildings, so that systems are operating within design specifications."

The Road to Life-Cycle Integration

The HPCBS created a number of building design and operation tools to help the building industry. One helped advance a common, industry-developed building-data model that could be used by designers, builders, and facilities managers throughout a building's life cycle.

Called Industry Foundation Classes (IFCs), the model was under development, with the participation of Berkeley Lab researchers, since before the HPCBS program began. IFCs help solve a major problem in the architectural and engineering design community -- the inability of different software programs to talk to one another. It allows users of different kinds of buildings to design software, both proprietary and open-source, for exchanging models of building components.

This sample result from the Cal-Arch website compares one building's energy-use intensity to selected buildings in the same area code.

Another example is a web-based software program called Cal-Arch, created by EETD researcher Mary Ann Piette. This program helps building owners compare the energy use of their own buildings to other California buildings in the same zip code. Cal-Arch asks for building type, zip code, floor area and annual energy consumption; in return, using existing state datasets, it generates graphics of the energy and electricity use of buildings within the zip code, including the target building. By knowing where a building fits in relation to others in terms of energy use, the owner can judge whether it is operating relatively efficiently or whether there's room for energy-efficient retrofits or improvements to operations and maintenance.

Other Berkeley Lab researchers, led by Rob Hitchcock, created a prototype software tool called Metracker, which helps a designer set goals for the energy performance of a building, determine which types of data need to be collected to measure the building's performance, and create graphs of energy use and cost to help visualize how well the building is measuring up against the goals.

Sample output from Metracker shows comparative data sets of whole building energy use.

Together, Cal-Arch and Metracker help building owners and operators decide whether an energy retrofit is worthwhile, and if so to create energy efficiency goals for the retrofit and afterwards determine whether the building is meeting those goals.

Commissioning Buildings for Better Operation

Another set of HPCBS projects developed computer tools to improve the operation of buildings and the diagnosis of problems, for example by "commissioning," a new practice in the building industry.

Commissioning means working through procedures when a building is new to ensure that all systems -- including lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning -- are operating according to design specifications. Previous Berkeley Lab research has found that a many buildings have equipment problems from the start.

One EETD study found that half the building owners surveyed were experiencing control problems, 40 percent had heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) problems, 25 percent had energy management systems, economizers, and variable-speed drives not functioning properly -- and 15 percent were missing equipment! But the research also found that commissioning helps reduce the number of problems and saves energy over the building's life -- by up to 20 percent compared to noncommissioned buildings.

Nine HPCBS projects, conducted by researchers at Berkeley Lab, Texas A&M, UC Berkeley, MIT, and private firms, addressed the technical issues of building diagnostics and commissioning. Among the research outcomes were manuals, design guides, and better software tools for diagnosing problems and detecting faults in buildings systems.

"Economizers" help save energy by using outside air to help maintain a set temperature, reducing air conditioning use. Most economizers in California do not perform at their best; understanding their operation can lead to energy savings. The Functional Test Guide helps teach a user how to operate HVAC components efficiently. As this graphic from the Guide shows, typical office environments do not require air to be preheated until the outside temperature hits a certain level (circle 3).

One set of tools resulting from this work was developed by Tudi Haasl of Portland Energy Conservation, Inc. and Berkeley Lab's Mary Ann Piette. It consists of manuals, test procedures, and a guide, the Functional Test Guide, for commissioning HVAC systems. Equipment manufacturers, California utilities, and commissioning providers have begun using the guide in their training programs; it is freely available on the HPCBS web site (see Additional information, below).

Occupants Help Manage Buildings

A project led by Cliff Federspiel of UC Berkeley, developed a web-based interface to allow a building's occupants to send complaints directly to the management staff. The Tenant Interface for Energy and Maintenance Systems (TIEMS) provides tenants with direct access to information about the status of the building and a complaint page for reporting problems.

Building occupants can check indoor temperature and indicate their preferences at the TIEMS temperature web page.

Developed in conjunction with the General Services Administration, TIEMS was tested at two GSA buildings in Tucson. TIEMS improved the quality of data about building conditions and reduced the workload of maintenance personnel, who spent less time on the phone answering complaint calls. Most important, the researchers found that both the maintenance staff and occupants liked the system.

And more to come

They address many different areas of a building's life, but collectively the technologies developed by the High-Performance Buildings Systems Project are beginning to apply the best of the information revolution to the management of buildings for energy efficiency and comfort.

In the next issue of Science Beat, the second in this series of articles will explore new internet-based software and hardware for controlling lighting, daylighting, and "envelope" systems in commercial buildings.

Additional information