Thursday, May 20, 2010

Green buildings, LEED, and energy efficiency

Did you know that buildings consume 70% of the electricity used in the US? Although there has been clear progress in terms of making appliances more efficient, an enormous amount of energy is still wasted in buildings. Equipment may be left operating when it is not needed, air conditioners may be running full blast where there are no occupants, and mechanical and electrical infrastructure may become less efficient over time.

When one considers how much time humans spend in buildings it is imperative that research into sustainable buildings receives full consideration and support.

Alec Appelbaum has an excellent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, "Don't LEED Us Astray." LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a program which awards points for incorporating eco-friendly material and practices into buildings' design and construction. It has brought great attention to environmental awareness from the buildings and construction sector, as well as from consumers.

The United States Green Building Council gives out the LEED certification, with the highest level being "platinum," and such certification has now become the most-widely used green building measure in the US.

Appelbaum, in his article, notes that much more should and could be done regarding the LEED certifications, since they provide a snapshot of a building at a point in time. According to Appelbaum, and I concur: some certified buildings end up using much more energy than the evaluators predicted, because the buildings are more popular than expected or busy at different times than developers forecast, or because tenants ignore or misuse green features. The government should institute regular audits or "check-ups" to ensure that the certified buildings are performing energy-wise, as certified. Those who perform well may get tax credits or even subsidies for outstanding performance.

I would argue that one needs to capture the entire life cycle of the building (clearly a challenging research and practical problem, but manageable). In order to do this, we need to develop green building supply chain design models. We have, recently, taken a step in this direction with our study, "Sustainable Supply Chain Network Design: A Multicriteria Perspective," which is forthcoming in the International Journal of Sustainable Engineering.

Given how much time people spend in buildings and, hence, how important buildings are to our health and well-being, and that of the environment, we, as a nation, need to push the frontiers of energy research in this direction.