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Funding for Green Building Research is Improving, but Not Fast Enough

The role buildings play in energy consumption and climate change is finally being understood. So why is funding for sustainable building research so hard to find?

By Sara Fernández Cendón

During his most recent State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama spoke of reinventing the country’s energy policy. “We're not just handing out money,” he said. “We're issuing a challenge. We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo projects of our time.”

President Obama isn’t the first to compare the quest for a carbon-free economy to historic science and technology initiatives like the race to the moon. But in spite of this handy anecdote, many in the sustainable building research community believe the United States is simply not putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to energy research and buildings.

Just how big is the gap between “one small step for man” and a smaller carbon footprint? A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office estimated the annual cost of the Apollo lunar landing program at about $15.5 billion in 2005 dollars. The federal government spends just $193 million every year on green building research, according to a 2007 U.S. Green Building Council report. According to the New York Times, this year’s federal budget compromise saw cuts to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, which has suspended the 2011 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey, a key source of building performance data. Of course green building is just one area of energy research, which as a whole receives more federal funding, but if any one area deserves Apollo-like attention, researchers agree buildings are it. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings account for approximately 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption.

“Jesse James was said to have [been] asked why he robbed banks, and he replied, ‘Because that’s where the money is,’” says Stephen Selkowitz, head of the building technologies department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). “We should focus on buildings because that’s where the energy use is.”

The climate for combating climate change

The general sense among green building researchers is that the field suffers from chronic underinvestment, or at least investment that has not been consistent over a long period of time. But the same researchers also agree that the current climate is positive, and that the Obama administration has the right priorities regarding sustainability.

Professor Vivian Loftness, FAIA, researches environmental design and sustainability at the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. She describes the levels of federal funding for green-building research as “pitiful.”

“We haven’t seen half as many advances in products as we should have seen in the last 20 years--for energy efficiency, for indoor environmental quality, for ergonomics, for longevity,” she says.

Funding has increased recently, thanks in part to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In November of last year, for example, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu awarded $21 million to 24 projects to help design, construct and test low-energy commercial building plans.

Chris Pyke, director of research at the USGBC, says there has been a significant increase in federal funding for green building research in recent years. To varying degrees, he says, the DOE and EPA have begun to recognize green building issues as legitimate topics of research. The USGBC, after publishing a report detailing the low levels of federal investment in green-building research, responded by investing $2 million to create the Building Research Fund, a one-time grant to raise awareness of the need for research.

Fragmentation and risk

Researchers agree that industry fragmentation is a key reason for underinvestment in the green building sector. James Freihaut, associate professor of architectural engineering at Pennsylvania State University, says large corporations in other industries can drive the sector with coordinated research and development programs that are vertically integrated. Also, he says, the building industry doesn’t have the market base to amortize research and development costs over millions of copies. If any lab spent billions on developing a green building technology that instantly dominated the market, how many customers would there really be? “There are only 5 million commercial buildings in the U.S., and that includes many different building types that operate differently from one another,” he says.

Considering the fragmented nature of the building industry, no company is big enough to assume all the risk. “We need an association between the public and private sector that can address this issue jointly,” Freihaut says.

As director for technology and operations at the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster for Energy Efficient Buildings, a DOE Energy Innovation Hub, Freihaut has an example of just such an association. The research center recently received a $129 million grant to create and study energy-efficient buildings. Headquartered at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the project includes 11 academic institutions, two DOE laboratories, regional economic development agencies, and more.

Beyond industry fragmentation, researchers say that products in other industries have better defined performance expectations. With cars, for example, most people know there’s a performance metric called “miles-per-gallon,” and they have a sense of what a good number is. Building owners don’t have that level of recognition, Selkowitz says, and they don’t buy buildings on the basis of performance, but focus instead on cost-per-square-foot.

A related problem (and an active research area) is the lack of post-occupancy performance data. “Without comparative feedback, there’s no real impetus to spend 20, 30, or 40 percent more on a better building the way we might on a better laptop or a better car,” says Loftness.


Most researchers agree that establishing a connection between design intent and operational performance is crucial if the building industry is to make serious progress in the area of energy efficiency. Selkowitz says simulation is a helpful tool, but it can’t take the place of measuring actual building performance. In a hopeful sign that resources are aligning with the right priorities, Selkowitz and his team at LBNL have recently received funding for the construction of a new series of test buildings.

Bill Worthen, AIA, the AIA’s sustainability resource architect, says that collecting actual building performance data must happen for all buildings, not just LEED-rated exemplars of green design. “[Gathering this data] is going to be one of the keys to us understanding how not just the 1 billion square feet of LEED buildings are doing, but how all 300 billion square feet of all buildings out there are doing,” he says. The AIA’s 2030 Commitment program, to have architecture firms provide energy usage and performance data for every project in their portfolio, is one such attempt at building up a knowledge base of information for future research.

The architect’s role

Architects have a vital role to play in raising the profile of building research and energy efficiency. Loftness suggests one task is to deliver buildings that perform well and are so aesthetically brilliant that the market covets them the way consumers lust after beautifully designed iPhones. “It would be nice if the buildings we feature on the covers of magazines weren’t just interesting shapes, but incredibly beautifully detailed buildings that also deliver a whole new level of performance,” she says. “Right now we’re not marketing value, but shape making.”

The idea, though, is to marry the two to entice demand and investment. Beyond that, she says, architects tend to have a narrow view of their skills, even though they are trained to solve problems spanning a broad range of areas.

“‘Master builder’ is only one career for our training,” she says. “Working with manufacturers, for instance, architects can help design products that meet a broader set of goals with 21st-century appeal.”

Worthen says that a vital way to broaden architects’ expertise is to advocate (through regulatory changes) for designs that take responsibility for the environment beyond each individual project’s lot line. Only by holistically addressing the built environment and infrastructure each building plugs into, he says, can the case for greater green building research be made effectively.

Finally, architects must continue to play the role they’ve always played in educating the public about the importance of the built environment. Selkowitz says trends come and go, and especially in the U.S., there hasn’t been a uniform message about the critical importance of energy use. But, the architectural profession can act as a sounding board. “Architects will be smart to ignore the twists and turns of politics,” he says, “and be a consistent voice for energy efficiency and carbon management.”

The LEED Platinum Aldo Leopold Legacy Center in Baraboo, Wis., designed by The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc. Image courtesy of Mark F. Heffron/The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc.


Recent Related:

DOE-Funded Labs Spend Stimulus Dollars on Sustainable Building Research

With New ARRA Stimulus Funding, DOE’s National Accounts Program Expands Big Box Sustainability

Stimulus-Funded DOE Research Invests in the Building System and Sustainability Technologies of Tomorrow


Visit the Committee on the Environment Web site on AIA KnowledgeNet.


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