Implementing Building Performance Standards: Consistency is Key

A building performance standard (BPS) provides a powerful solution for cities working to meet climate goals, achieve energy savings and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As a forward-looking policy for existing buildings, a BPS commits a city or state to a long-term, high-performance standard (i.e. energy or carbon intensity), with interim targets that ratchet up over time. While just one state and three major U.S. cities have passed BPS legislation to date, New Buildings Institute (NBI) is working with an increasing number of jurisdictions that are developing mandatory BPS policies as a way to achieve ambitious energy and emissions reductions targets.

As with any emerging policy, there is some confusion among policymakers and stakeholders about what a BPS is, how to discern the differences between the terminology used to describe it, and what considerations should be made to develop and implement the policy. In this second blog of a three-part series about existing building policies, we attempt to clarify BPS terminology, which are in bold below and we hope will lead to consistent policies across the U.S., and, if possible, consistent terms in published literature on the subject.

Why building performance standards?

Wayne Aspinall Federal Building, Grand Junction, CO

Although programs to encourage energy efficiency improvements in existing buildings have operated for decades, even the best programs result in upgrades of only 1–2% of eligible buildings each year. Clearly, we need a more ambitious strategy if we are going to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit the rise in global average temperature to below 1.5 degrees C°. Local leaders have several policy options when it comes to addressing the energy use of existing buildings. Compared to other policies, Building Performance Standards (BPS) have the potential to vastly increase the number of retrofits completed to lower energy demand and reduce the associated carbon emissions of those buildings. Following are several major considerations for successful BPS.

Defining metrics and policy goals

The first step policymakers must take when establishing a BPS is to set a policy goal for existing buildings. The policy goal sets the city’s intent and priorities and gives it an absolute timeline. If a jurisdiction already has a sustainability, clean energy, or climate action plan, the policy goal should support those pre-established aims.

For example, if a city’s overarching climate action plan goal is to reduce GHG emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, its policy goal for existing buildings might be to reduce energy use in existing buildings by 50% and reduce GHG emissions from existing buildings by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

In this example, there is a clear goal–50% energy reduction and 80% emissions reduction–as well as a clear benchmark of 1990 levels, and a clear timeline to 2050.

Determining which buildings fall under the BPS

The BPS policy must clearly define which buildings are required to meet and comply with the BPS, which are referred to as covered buildings. The most common characteristics used to define covered buildings are occupancy type and building size.

Occupancy type includes a classification of a building or space(s) within a building defined by its intended use, such as assembly, business, educational, residential, storage, and utility. Occupancy types may be broken down further to meet the needs of a jurisdiction in determining applicability, varied performance standards, or compliance paths available to certain buildings.

Building size threshold
refers to the physical size of a building. BPS most commonly include covered buildings that are 50,000 square feet or larger, and require smaller buildings, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 square feet to comply over time.

Determining the performance standard

Policymakers must also define the performance standard, which is a designated metric, or level of performance, that a building must meet to be compliant. If a city or state includes multiple metrics in its BPS policy (i.e. energy and GHG emissions), it must set a performance standard for each one. When doing so, policymakers have two options: establish a fixed standard or a recalculated standard.

Fixed Standards are static targets. By making the fixed target known to stakeholders in advance, jurisdictions set their stakeholders up for greater certainty in planning, even if the plan means missing the mark. A fixed standard will allow building owners to incorporate the BPS into their operations and capital planning without concerns about a moving target.

Here’s an example of a fixed standard: Primary and secondary education buildings must meet an EUI of 38 by 2025, 34 by 2030, 31 by 2035, 27 by 2040 and 20 by 2050.

In this example, there is a final standard that reflects the existing buildings policy goal. There are also interim standards, which set specific, intermediate goals that owners must meet along the way.

Recalculated Standards are targets that are adjusted at the beginning of each compliance cycle (see below). Because it fluctuates, a recalculated standard may create periods of uncertainty in the building sector. If owners can’t guarantee their immediate investments will guarantee compliance later, they are less likely to take action.

Here’s an example of a recalculated standard: Buildings must meet the local median energy use intensity (EUI) score each compliance cycle.

Establishing compliance cycles and paths

Wayne Aspinall Federal Building, Grand Junction, CO

Another important step is determining when and how an owner must report compliance. Intent to achieve the metric is not the same as meeting it. As such, BPS must include a compliance method that requires reporting and confirmation of a building’s energy performance. Reporting does not have to be complex and there are many automated systems that now that allow for data to be transferred from the energy provider to the reporting agency without the building owner needing to collect or manage information. Terms related to reporting and compliance are described below.

A compliance cycle is the period of time during which compliance with a standard is measured. A typical compliance cycle is 5-6 years.

A reporting period is the frequency with which a covered building is required to submit compliance documentation. This may be more frequent than a compliance cycle. A typical reporting period is annual.

BPS can offer multiple compliance paths. The most basic is the direct compliance path, where a building proves it has met the standard with measured energy use data. For buildings that do not demonstrate direct compliance there are other options. A prescriptive path, would outline the specific measures a building owner must implement in a renovation or energy efficiency upgrade. A performance path, requires buildings to improve by a certain percentage over their baseline performance and would be estimated with modeling, and proven with measured energy use data. Options also exist for jurisdictions to use fines or payments for compliance or grant extensions and exemptions.

Best practice on BPS

Based on what we’ve learned from working with leading jurisdictions implementing a Building Performance Standard, we strongly recommend cities and states write BPS legislation that contains a fixed standard for each metric with interim standards that provide intervention points to assist with compliance and plan for multiple compliance path options. There are several benefits to this approach, including long-term certainty for the building industry and regular intervention points that allow policymakers to make adjustments. While mandatory BPS are in early implementation stages in the United States, we’ve seen this approach drive early and swift action making BPS an promising strategy for achieving energy and climate goals.

This is the second of a three-part blog series on Building Performance Standards. The first post covered the urgent need to address efficiency improvements in existing buildings. In the next and final blog in this three-part series on existing building policies, we’ll look at how BPS can be a key policy lever to make our existing buildings a leading climate solution while preserving the health of its occupants and providing millions of local jobs across the country.

by Kim Cheslak, Associate Director of Codes and Policy