February 23, 2022
Research Highlight

A Decarbonization Foundation: Building Performance Standards

PNNL joins with the White House and Department of Energy to champion better-performing buildings

PNNL buildings-related facilities/capabilities

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s strong background in building performance standards, energy codes, and decarbonization strategies all come together to support the ambitious aims of the National Building Performance Standards Coalition.

(Image by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

In many states, vehicle owners must periodically take their cars in for emissions testing. If a vehicle belches pollutants, it likely not only flunks the test, but may need repairs to meet air quality standards and remain roadworthy.

For commercial buildings, a similar approach—of applying performance standards to building operations—already has taken root in parts of Europe and Asia and is gaining ground in America.  

“A number of states and cities have taken the initiative to establish building performance standards (BPS) policies for existing, older commercial and multifamily buildings,” says Bing Liu, who leads the building subsector at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). “Meeting the standards typically requires some level of replacement or tuning of a building’s operational equipment and systems, such as heating and cooling units, to comply with an established performance target, reduce carbon emissions, and improve occupant comfort.”

In support of BPS activities, the Biden-Harris administration recently created the National Building Performance Standards Coalition and provided funding for the effort from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The coalition includes two states and 31 cities pursuing BPS strategies in their regions and communities, and encourages participants to develop and enact policies by Earth Day 2024. The administration foresees BPS implementation providing a wide range of benefits, spanning from consumer energy costs and occupant health to decarbonization that helps slow climate change.

President Biden announces new coalition for building performance standards
President Biden announces the launch of the National Building Performance Standards Coalition at the US Conference of Mayors meeting on January 21. The Biden-Harris administration has marshalled the Department of Energy Building Technologies Office and national laboratories to work side-by-side with cities and states to adopt and enact building performance standards. (Photo: The White House)

The Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Office (BTO), a partner in the coalition, tapped PNNL and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to provide technical support and resources to the participants and help accelerate and expand coalition objectives. BTO further identified private sector technical support to assist cities, states, and building owners. 

Many experts believe that without federal government BPS leadership, it could take many decades to transform the existing US building stock and achieve enhanced performance.

“Energy codes and standards, which apply to new construction and major renovations, certainly help drive efficiency and other benefits,” Liu explains. “But the vast majority of buildings in America are not new, don’t have to meet performance standards, and represent a huge opportunity for saving energy, decarbonizing the environment, and improving occupant comfort and health.”

Tapping that opportunity, as attractive as it seems, will have its challenges. The requirements adopted in states and cities require building owners to meet building performance targets by a certain year; the requirements typically are linked to on-site energy use or carbon emissions. In Washington State, for example, where BPS laws already have been enacted, buildings of more than 50,000 square feet must meet site energy intensity targets by 2026, or the owners will be fined and required to take corrective action.

While many owners expectedly might bristle about possible fines and the cost of purchasing and installing new equipment and systems, the coalition will pursue creative solutions that help remove some of the financial and other burdens and pave the way for other states and communities to also adopt performance standards.

PNNL brings a wealth of buildings expertise

Liu believes PNNL’s knowledge of national and international BPS efforts, involvement in national building decarbonization strategies, and longstanding codes and building technologies expertise will be crucial to advancing coalition objectives.

Bing Liu
Bing Liu (Photo: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

She notes that tools developed by PNNL and funded by BTO’s Commercial Buildings Integration program will serve as key resources in implementation of BPS. The tools include the Building Energy Audit Template and the Building Energy Asset Score. “Now we’re going to find a much larger use of these tools to help the implementers and designers as they look at retrofit options, from the technology point-of-view and the financial choices point-of-view,” she says. 

PNNL’s work specific to BPS began a couple years ago. The PNNL energy codes team, led by Jian Zhang, started monitoring BPS developments in cities and states, collected information on the topic, and conducted research for BTO.

Then, in February 2021, ASHRAE—the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers—established a special task force for building decarbonization. Liu was selected to chair the task force’s BPS working group. Since then, that working group has been examining performance standards to fully understand what has been developed and what’s needed. They created BPS 101, a resource that provides basic information to a diverse audience ranging from the general public to policymakers and professionals. In addition, the working group has published a BPS needs assessment and resources and publications list.

“The working group also is in the process of developing an ASHRAE technical resource guide to help decision- and policy-makers think through what metric they will use, whether that is energy use intensity, carbon emission index, source energy, or others, and then establish a target,” Liu explains. The guide also includes best practices for implementation plan design and outlines financial options for BPS implementation.