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Challenges in Commercial Buildings

Whether your focus is new construction or existing facilities, renewable resources or energy efficiency, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Commercial Buildings research team has the tools, resources, and expertise to address your challenges. NREL can help you:

  • Provide reliable and secure energy for your operations
  • Achieve your mandated or internal energy performance targets
  • Meet your organizational objectives while maximizing return on investment.

Real World Solutions

Working on real building projects with a range of large institutional and private sector commercial building owners in multiple building types, NREL has developed tools and resources to capture proven energy savings. You can take advantage of this expertise to make your next project a model of energy efficiency.

Identify your challenge below to find out how the NREL Commercial Buildings research team can help.

Contact us for more information.

Photo of an engineer working on a first generation prototype desiccant-enhanced evaporative air conditioner that links to a fact sheet about NREL's Energy-Saving Technology for Air Conditioning Cuts Peak Power Loads Without Using Harmful Refrigerants.
Photo of a SolarWall solar ventilation air preheating system on the AVUM helicopter maintenance hangar at Fort Carson U.S. Army Base that links to the NREL Department of Defense energy programs Web page.
Photo of OpenStudio software developers in front of the Research Support Facility that links to the OpenStudio software website.
Photo of the front of the Research Support Facility building at NREL that links to a Web page with more information about the RSF.
Photo of the checkout area of the Thornton, Colorado, SuperTarget.

The NREL Commercial Buildings team worked with Target to upgrade the energy efficiency of the Thornton, Colorado, SuperTarget.

Whether you have a single building or a large portfolio, a proven strategy is to focus on the maximum technically feasible energy savings for a given investment at the earliest stages of an energy-efficiency upgrade. This approach involves:

  • Developing baselines of current performance and existing building characteristics
  • Identifying energy efficiency opportunities in all building systems
  • Assessing the energy and economic impacts of various technologies, giving priority to those that save the most energy at the lowest cost.

How can NREL help?

  • The BuildingSync™ schema provides a standardized language for commercial building energy audit data that can be used by software developers to exchange data between audit tools, and can be required by building owners and audit program managers to evaluate program performance and analyze trends across multiple buildings.

  • Advanced Energy Design Guides (AEDGs) and Advanced Energy Retrofit Guides (AERGs) provide cost-effective technology roadmaps yielding up to 50% energy savings compared with code in new construction and 30% savings compared with code or current use in existing buildings across a range of commercial sectors. NREL's Commercial Building research team develops the technical support documents for these guides.

  • Commercial Building Partnerships (CBP) applies the recommendations of the AEDGs and AERGs to real buildings in collaboration with institutional and private sector partners. NREL's Commercial Building research team works with CBP partners to determine the most cost-effective energy efficiency measures and verify the savings, and the team can use that experience to help you improve energy efficiency in your buildings.

  • The OpenStudio platform provides tools for multi-building energy simulation and optimization. It includes cost constraints, and draws efficiency strategies from the Building Component Library. The NREL Commercial Building research team can help you make the most of this powerful tool.

Contact us for more information.

Photo of NREL engineers Michael Deru and Ian Doebber examining night curtains in the produce department of a Whole Foods Market.

NREL engineers Michael Deru (left) and Ian Doebber examine night curtains, a proven energy efficiency strategy, at a Whole Foods Market.

The return on your investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy depends on your buildings performing to design expectations. Whether you are a building owner or a utility company investing in efficiency, you can maximize energy savings and minimize frustration by using best practices for:

  • Determining what energy uses to measure and how best to measure them to characterize building performance
  • Calculating expected energy and cost savings
  • Comparing expected performance with measured performance to diagnose problems and identify additional savings opportunities.

How can NREL help?

  • The performance metrics project that the NREL Commercial Buildings team co-developed is a source of reliable information for determining your building’s performance.

  • OpenStudio can help you calculate expected energy performance and—by comparing with actual measurements—diagnose whether your building meets design expectations.

  • The NREL Commercial Buildings team can help you measure energy performance and ensure it matches expectations. NREL has developed best practices during decades of experience on high performance building projects including U.S. Department of Defense installations, big box retail, helping rebuild the town of Greensburg, Kansas, and serving as the owner's representative for the NREL Research Support Facility.

Contact us for more information.

Photo of NREL Commercial Buildings team members Jennifer Scheib and Matt Leach working in cubicles lit entirely by daylight in the Research Support Facility.

NREL's Commercial Buildings team works in the Research Support Facility, a living laboratory that incorporates smart design, load reductions, and innovative applications of existing technologies to achieve net zero energy on a fixed budget.

To hit net zero energy cost-effectively, the energy implications of every design decision must be accounted for and tracked from the beginning of the process using an accurate energy model. Radically reduced energy demands result in first-cost savings from downsized HVAC and renewable generation systems. These savings can make net zero energy cost-competitive, especially when combined with available incentives and novel financing arrangements.

Important strategies NREL uses to make net zero energy feasible include:

  • Incorporating energy modeling into the delivery process from start to finish.
  • Using an integrated design process and whole building systems approach.
  • Identifying first-cost savings through smart design and load reduction to achieve energy goals within a capital budget.
  • Integrating renewable energy after pursuing all available demand-side savings.
  • Coordinating the design process to ensure that all parties are working toward the net zero energy goal.

How can NREL help?

  • OpenStudio provides tools and workflows to track energy consumption in a building design from start to finish and to appropriately size HVAC and renewable generation capacity after building energy requirements are minimized.

  • The design best practices and lessons NREL learned as the owner's representative on the net zero energy Research Support Facility project are available online, and the researchers who worked on the project are available to provide assistance to public and private sector clients.

  • The NREL Commercial Buildings team has a long history of providing technical assistance to improve energy efficiency in real building projects, and these efforts are documented in the High Performance Buildings Database.

Contact us for more information.

Photo of Walmart's Jim McClendon speaking during the Commercial Building Energy Alliances Executive Exchange with Commercial Building Stakeholders forum at NREL in Golden, Colorado, in May 2012.

Walmart's Jim McClendon speaks during the Commercial Building Energy Alliances Executive Exchange with Commercial Building Stakeholders forum at NREL.

To deliver a high performance building project on time and on budget, roles, responsibilities, and performance incentives must be clearly defined in the contract. Energy targets and incentives must also be explicitly called out. Through participation in high performance and net zero energy building projects, NREL has developed best practices to assist in:

  • Communicating the advantages of performance-based design-build project delivery and implementing performance-based procurement for equipment and buildings.
  • Assembling a performance-based request for proposal focused on the project's goals, including energy performance.
  • Defining acceptable methods for a design team to demonstrate that a proposed design will hit the performance target.
  • Creating a voluntary incentive program to motivate the design and construction team and hold them accountable.
  • Identifying best-in-class equipment with proven energy performance and reliability.
  • Making economic decisions based on full life cycle cost accounting for the project as a whole.

How can NREL help?

Contact us for more information.

Photo of NREL senior engineer Eric Kozubal examining a prototype airflow channel of the desiccant-enhanced evaporative (DEVap) air conditioner. A graph superimposed on the photo shows how hot humid air, in red, changes to cool dry air, in blue, as the air passes through the DEVap core.

NREL senior engineer Eric Kozubal examines a prototype airflow channel for the desiccant-enhanced evaporative (DEVap) air conditioner. The colored graph shows how hot humid air (red) changes to cool dry air (blue) as it passes through the DEVap core.

  • Next generation HVAC to radically cut energy consumption while improving comfort and air quality
  • Sensors and controls to improve energy performance and building comfort
    • Building Agent, a software solution to collect occupant feedback and building measurements and communicate performance with occupants and facility managers
    • Web applications for whole building performance visualization
    • Image Processing Occupancy Sensor (IPOS), a next generation sensing solution that combines occupancy detection and classification, daylight harvesting, and security in one low-cost device.
  • Energy analysis tools
    • User-focused OpenStudio-based applications as well as an OpenStudio software development kit (SDK) that enables extremely rapid application development, reducing time to market and development costs.
  • The Energy Innovation Portal identifies leading edge energy technologies that can be licensed for use in the private sector, and the soon-to-be-launched Technology Portal gathers performance data.

Contact us for more information.

Small building and small business owners have a big opportunity for energy savings. Buildings smaller than 50,000 ft2 account for 95% of U.S. commercial building stock by number, 51% of the total floor space, and consume nearly 3 quadrillion Btu annually (equivalent to 44% of U.S. commercial building energy use). Small buildings often house small businesses. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), in 2010, there were 27.9 million small businesses in the U.S.

Given the fragmented nature of the small building community, achieving energy savings in mass is no easy task. Many small building and small business owners face several barriers that inhibit them from achieving energy savings. Those barriers include (1) limited capital for energy efficiency measures, (2) higher transaction costs relative to energy cost savings, (3) lack of time to research and implement energy efficiency solutions, (4) split incentive obstacles between owners and tenants, and (5) lack of user-friendly, sector specific resources and technologies. NREL has worked to help small building and small business owners in the following ways:

  • NREL provided industry research and recommendations for Small Buildings and Small Portfolios. NREL worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab to identify potential approaches and strategic priorities for the DOE Building Technologies Office to explore that support the implementation of high-potential energy efficiency opportunities for the small commercial building sector. A summary of the findings is available.

  • NREL conducted a pilot project, Reducing Transaction Costs and Analysis of Economic Risk, focused on overcoming two barriers to financing energy efficiency upgrades in small buildings: disproportionately high transaction costs and unknown or unacceptable risk. Working with two lead partners, Michigan Saves and Energi Insurance Services, NREL developed technical solutions that provide a quick and easy process to encourage energy efficiency investments while managing risk. Research was conducted to develop EEM packages for small commercial office buildings that achieve 20% energy savings cost effectively. The results are summarized in a simple spreadsheet tool, called the Energy Efficiency Measure (EEM) Selection & Cost Evaluation Tool. NREL also worked to quantify performance risk and the uncertainty in cash flow associated with EEM packages that are designed and installed correctly. The purpose of this analysis was to quantify the effects of uncontrollable uncertainties that go beyond typical performance guarantees including variations in weather, occupant behavior, fuel escalation rates, and quality of preventative maintenance.

  • DOE, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and NREL have worked together to create and deploy sector-specific, easy-to-use resources that help small businesses make effective decisions about energy efficiency as they use SBA loan programs to finance building improvement projects. The resources include two four-page guides that help small businesses and SBA lenders understand the energy and non-energy benefits of energy-efficiency investments and provides information about contractor and auditor qualifications, low- and no-cost energy savings opportunities, the decision process for energy-efficiency upgrades, additional resources to help make energy-efficiency decisions, information about incentive programs, and detailed information about SBA Loan programs that are appropriate for building improvement projects. A presentation explaining the guides is available.

NREL's buildings research supports the U.S. Department of Energy Building Technologies Office.