Metrics Magic

Josh Radoff, Tork® Green Hygiene Council member and co-founder and principal of YR&G

I’m just back from two back-to-back conference weeks, first at Greenbuild in Toronto and then the annual Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference in Pittsburgh. During both conferences, there were two topics that seemed to keep coming up—quality of spaces in the built environment and performance metrics. Greenbuild even had a Performance Lounge where one could meet up with other colleagues (perhaps they should add a Performance Anxiety Lounge for those people engaged in the issue, but worried about how they plan to get there).

With all of the focus on performance, it revealed the need to develop metrics that more accurately capture the essence of what we’re trying to measure in our sustainability efforts. For building energy use, for example, the default metric is energy use intensity or a building’s Energy Star score. A parallel topic that existed at these sessions was that the quality of the spaces in the built environment could range from biophilia to daylight to natural ventilation to acoustics and even the net productivity or happiness of the occupants in the space. Which is all that matters in the end, don’t you think? This might lead to metrics of kBtu / SFWHIP (SF Where Happiness or human health is Possible), or kBtu / SFWOGAHH (SF where organizational goals were attained and happiness happened). Catchy right?

And so it seems that our metrics need to evolve to the point where we are not only measuring the energy performance of a space but the performance of spaces that meet certain quality criteria. For example, who cares if a core office cubicle represents efficient square footage if the people who sit there can’t see the outdoors, can’t open a window, don’t have fresh air or daylight and live beneath a cruddy array of ceiling tiles and whirring, clunky, and potentially moldy fans? If this space had energy star score of 99 it would still be a failure.

However, if there was a metric for environmental performance, such as energy use per square foot of quality space, where we agreed on a definition of quality, then we’d be getting somewhere.

To do so, we’d have to come up with quality designations for different spaces. Maybe a tiered structure such as the following would do the trick.

  • Class A Quality Space: Daylight of 20 FC, views to the outside, operable windows representing five percent or more of the floor area, regular verification that occupants are comfortable and experience good acoustics, a textured environment such as exposed timbers or brick, biophilic elements and an operations plan that meets LEED-EBOM criteria (or critical elements thereof, such as regular air quality verification, green cleaning programs, etc.)
  • Class B Quality Space: All of the above, but reduced daylight thresholds (~10 FC), reduced tolerance for comfort and acoustics, and reduced texture and biophilic elements.
  • Class C Quality Space: All of the above, except no operable windows (there’s a lot of space out there without operable windows).

It should be noted that LEED (New Construction, Schools, Retail, etc.) and the Living Building Challenge both offer ways to quantify many of these characteristics, but it seems important to actually call out the constituent elements of what makes a space “good.”

Of course there are a lot of ways to qualify this, but the real estate community seems adept at making classifications for office space types anyway, and these designations seem to be more important that the usual array of qualities and therefore not outside the realm of possibility.

Once we start taking measures to define what quality looks like, then the metrics start becoming more relevant. If my building had an Energy Star score of 95 and 90 percent of the regularly occupied spaces were Class A Quality Space, with the remaining 10 percent being Class B or C space, that would be a great achievement. Until then, telling me your energy use intensity tells only half of the story and hides in the dark (along with your employees) the more relevant truth.

About Joshua Radoff

Joshua Radoff, the co-founder and Principal of YR&G sustainability consultants, has a background in sustainable energy engineering and works at the intersection of the energy, climate, and green building fields. He is a regular speaker on sustainability issues and the LEED rating systems and has consulted on hundreds of sustainability projects for both public and private sector clients, nationally and internationally. Radoff brings a broad knowledge of waste reduction methods, water efficiency programs, green site and building exterior maintenance, recyclable products and renewable energy offsets.