Small buildings get big boost from SMART Scale small commercial retrofit program

NBI has long advocated for more attention, tools and resources for energy efficiency in the small business sector. We created the only prescriptive approach approved as a LEED-NC pathway for moving small new commercial buildings to high performance – the New Construction Program used by a number of utilities throughout the U.S.cathyquote We’ve been quoting the stats on small commercial buildings for over a decade and efficiency advocate are putting more attention on this hard-to-reach segment.

The newest CBECS data (2012 data released in 2015) shows the same dominant proportion of small buildings as the previous data set: nearly 95% of all commercial buildings and half the floor space in the country is under 50,000 square feet. Even if you slice it at 25,000 square feet it remains a key part of the efficiency puzzle with 88% of buildings and 36% of floor space.

Ecology Action has been working on existing buildings, running small business retrofit programs for over 16 years in Northern California, with nearly 17,000 retrofits completed. That means they’ve talked to tens of thousands of building owners and managers to ‘get to yes’ for doing an energy efficiency retrofit. Along the way they improved and refined their program approach resulting in one of the most cost-effective retrofit models in the country for this sector.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) saw the potential, and Ecology Action won a DOE grant to make this model widely known and freely available to others in our industry. NBI was a partner on the project  to develop a scalable model targeted to utility and public benefits efficiency program operators for delivering deep retrofits in small commercial buildings called the Small Market Advanced Retrofit Transformation (SMARTScale) project. The effort is a hybrid that combines the history of Ecology Action’s retrofit experience with performance criteria designed by SMUD to drive depth and diversity of savings. Ecology Action has just finished a three-year pilot with SMUD of the SMART Scale approach and the results are impressive and replicable.

Last fall, we took to the road to share the program results and model in the Northeast and met with dozens for efficiency folk in this region. At one meeting a major utility program manager in this region said “I love this measure list – I wish we could capture our savings from a wider range of approaches.” The SMART Scale program has delivered 48% of its savings from non-lighting measures, rare among commercial direct-install programs that are typically 85%+ lighting. A tiered incentive structure and requirement of the program implementer for diversity of measures ensures that projects address multiple systems which usually results in greater savings per building. With a customer co-pay that averages nearly 30% the cost per transaction and deeper savings at each site the program cost per kWh is reduced.

SMART Scale doesn’t come with a Program Manager or Implementer or local contractors. We know that it takes a local program advocate and manager, supported by the regulatory framework and utility culture, to establish a successful design, marketing, delivery and to run a small business retrofit program. But this sector is too important to not learn from each other and beg, steal and borrow the best practices from our industry. That’s why SMART Scale is freely available.

The SMART Scale toolkit is online with an easily navigable site and accessible information, tools and resources. Please get in touch with us and let’s get into the Action on small existing buildings.

Go to to check out the Toolkit.

Mahlon Aldridge, Vice President, Ecology Action [email protected]
Cathy Higgins, Research Director, New Buildings Institute [email protected]

Written by Cathy Higgins, Research Director