concept of data pool an ocean of information, 3d illustration

Teaching Buildings to Swim in a Sea of Data

We have long used data to improve our buildings’ performance, and to inform building planning and operations. Building automation systems have replaced the manual operation of most large commercial buildings, and energy models utilizing data from existing buildings have been instrumental in informing energy codes and retrofit practices. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot to learn. Declining costs for metering systems, new automation capabilities, and the advent of cloud computing are creating enormous opportunities that we haven’t fully captured.

The potential for big data is palpable: Over the past decade, data analytics has seeped into every facet of our lives and formed the backbone of some of our most ubiquitous companies. Netflix relies on user preferences to craft original programming, linking compatible actors, directors, and stories to ensure a dedicated following. Waze and other smartphone apps use information sharing to allow drivers (and soon, cars) to react to traffic patterns in real time. Data-mining companies like Google will even use the fact that you’re reading this blog to influence how products are marketed to you and what information you’re exposed to.

The building industry has experienced a similar revolution, with declining hardware costs, new software capabilities, and reliable wireless technology precipitating an onslaught of available data and aggressively marketed products and business offerings that harness it. Yet this vast ocean of innovation has left building owners and managers with little idea of what the real value is, where it lies, and what they must do to capture it. In this new sea of data, we need to teach buildings how to swim.

At Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), we recognize that there’s work to be done to scale smart, high-performance buildings. This work is especially timely given the ambitious global commitments made in the Paris Climate Agreement, and the building sector’s central role in the transition to a low-carbon future. There are myriad questions to answer, and little time to answer them:
1) How far can we push “smart” building operation and performance?

RMI’s Superefficient+ Initiative is focused on advancing and scaling the cutting edge of energy performance, as exemplified in the RMI Innovation Center (IC)—our office and convening center in Basalt, CO. The design of the IC builds upon past work by combining integrative design principles, which have been the foundation of RMI’s approach for more than three decades, with the state-of-the-art metering and automation systems necessary to truly optimize energy performance. Both passive and active systems (including operable windows, exterior sunshades, and LED lights) respond to existing and predicted conditions, while the building’s four electric vehicle charging stations, 83 kW solar photovoltaic array, and 30 kW lithium-ion battery system interact with building systems on a second-to-second basis to control peak-load spikes. While the building’s design harnesses “passive” energy systems like daylighting and thermal storage to minimize energy use, the building’s operation is anything but passive.

You might think that the IC’s success and recognition prove that we’ve answered the question of data’s place in superefficient buildings. However, pushing the design boundary as far as we did yielded more data questions than answers. In a building so reliant on passive energy systems, the question of whether to raise the window blinds quickly becomes a metaphorical rabbit hole: Will the sunlight save more lighting energy than it costs in cooling energy? Would it be best to pre-cool the building to address these cooling needs, or might pre-cooling prevent us from utilizing natural ventilation later in the day? What if half the office calls in sick, and we can’t rely on occupants’ body heat to help warm the space—do our answers change? What if the weather changes? These questions may seem trivial to today’s building owners, who can rely on massively oversized heating and cooling systems to hedge against operating missteps, but the IC—which doesn’t have a mechanical cooling system to begin with—has no such luxury.

The building controls industry has never been forced to confront the implications that arise from this level of performance, and there remains much work to be done. It’s taken months to commission the IC’s automation systems to properly balance the countless questions and contingencies involved in the building’s operation, and we’re still learning. Our experience is yielding essential insight as the industry is forced to adapt to the landscape of next-generation building efficiency.

While the Innovation Center is helping to push the cutting edge of building design and performance, it’s only touching one part of the problem. Let’s ask a bigger question next:

2) Can we drastically simplify the commercial retrofit process to scale deployment?

While the IC raises the bar on new construction, we have to also address the performance of our existing building stock if we are going to meet climate targets. However, unlike the design and operation of superefficient buildings, the commercial retrofit industry isn’t suffering from a lack of analytical abilities. A standard investment grade audit (IGA) involves weeks (sometimes months) of on-site data collection, and energy modelers often spend hundreds of hours developing calibrated energy models. The idea is that only a detailed model capable of mimicking the intricacies of actual building performance can make us sufficiently confident in the financial value of a retrofit project. But does that idea hold water?

The thing this paradigm misses is that much of the information collected does little to improve a project’s potential, and that nonenergy factors often have a greater influence on financial returns than energy performance alone. Installation costs, rebates and incentives, financing and tax considerations, and maintenance considerations all significantly affect a project’s life-cycle cost, especially in the commercial sector where the realities of short-term holds and business uncertainty minimize the importance of ongoing performance. Yet these factors are frequently not considered until the later stages of a project’s development. In other words: most of the data we’re collecting doesn’t matter, and most of what matters isn’t being collected.

Fortunately, developments in cloud computing and batch-simulation platforms are allowing us to address this issue. In RMI’s Commercial Energy+ Initiative, we’re using these platforms to determine which parameters most influence modeling results—enabling auditors to avoid collecting unimportant information—and to develop prototypical energy models that can be rapidly manipulated to match key building characteristics. These new capabilities enable a radically simplified project development process by ensuring that we’re harnessing the right data and utilizing it in the right way. These simplified practices, in turn, allow more buildings to cost-effectively transition to advanced metering and automation systems—like those of the Innovation Center—ensuring that data provides ongoing value.

While the Commercial Energy+ Initiative is using data to redefine an industry, our last question may be even more important:
3) How can we enable decision makers to properly value efficiency?

We live in an age of misinformation, where baseless claims are the norm and corroborated facts are few and far between. The building industry is no exception, with new technologies continuing to flood the market and the proliferation of “green” as an advertising focal point. As we fight to push the industry forward, we have to ensure that decision makers and influencers are able to access clear, reliable data to inform their work.

Fortunately, advancements in building measurement and verification standards (M&V 2.0) are making this possible. M&V 2.0 enables energy savings to be evaluated more accurately by harnessing data analytics to estimate pre- and post-retrofit energy use in real-time. This level of granularity and accuracy allows the market to value efficiency “negawatts” as an investible asset class, which in turn makes energy efficiency projects more financeable, increases investor confidence, and promotes new revenue-generating opportunities like participation in demand response programs. The value this information provides is instrumental in scaling the deployment of energy efficiency investments.

The ability to measure and verify savings with much greater accuracy and granularity will also allow energy efficiency projects to invite public scrutiny as a way to overcome the waves of skepticism created by “greenhype” with verifiable facts. RMI decided to allow the public to examine the Innovation Center’s efficiency by displaying real-time energy performance on a live interactive dashboard. The data made available shows whether our building is performing as expected (and allows us to identify unexpected issues as they arise so we can address them and ensure our investment maintains its value). The dashboard also illustrates cutting-edge energy performance, providing the public with the kind of proof needed to build confidence in future projects.

But performance transparency does more than force the market to stand by its claims: It turns energy efficiency from an invisible asset to something tangible. In a world where homeowners and real estate investors alike often choose hardwood floors over increased insulation, turning efficiency into something you can see is essential to making it something you want. Our IC dashboard is helping to define this work in commercial buildings, while our Residential Energy+ Initiative is supporting the residential sector by pushing real estate platforms to provide home energy performance information to prospective buyers. We’re also partnering with industry leaders across different consumer touch points—including those associated with contractors, real estate agents, and mainstream media—to help homeowners draw greater meaning and actionable information from such data and, in turn, motivate increased energy investments.



This is the first in a series of posts that focus on the important and evolving role data plays in new building construction and building retrofits that improve performance, enhance comfort, deliver ongoing value, and enable our building stock to play a productive role in the low-carbon electricity system of the future. There’s a whole ocean of data to wade through, and we’ve only just dipped in our toes. Future posts will dive deeper into a number of the complex issues highlighted here.

We stand on the border of a world of innovation that could transform our nation’s buildings from the equivalent of 1980s brick-phones to smart phones. Because buildings are at the nexus of the electricity grid, distributed renewable resources, and even transportation, transitioning “dumb” buildings to efficient, interconnected grid assets is an imperative task. Only by collecting, harnessing, applying, and sharing the right data to solve the right problems—in other words, by teaching buildings to swim—can we achieve a better future for building owners, building occupants, and the environment.

Image courtesy of iStock.