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Finding the Needle in the Data Haystack: The Implications of a Data-Driven Built Environment

Finding the Needle in the Data Haystack
Reported by
Barbara Juncosa

Posted May 04, 2012

Presented By


With over 30 million sensors distributed in our environment to monitor everything from room temperature to how much someone exercises each day and with the number of sensors added to our surroundings growing at 30% year over year, analysts of the built environment are facing a deluge of data and a new challenge: how do you sift through digital information to find meaning? As barriers to data access slowly crumble in the real estate and construction sectors, professionals must find ways to parse and analyze the information to become more agile and productive as an industry. Without taking advantage of increases in data availability, those interested in anything from building operations to real estate finance will certainly miss opportunities to transform the market and to shape the built environment.

The February 16, 2012, meeting of the Green Buildings Discussion Group addressed Finding the Needle in the Data Haystack: The Implications of a Data-driven Built Environment, bringing together industry leaders to discuss new trends in data disclosure and analytics. The two-hour event served as an introduction for a full-day conference on Data Analytics in the Built Environment to be held on May 30, 2012.

In his introductory remarks, Chris Garvin, a member of the Academy's Green Buildings steering committee and an advocate for sustainable design at Terrapin Bright Green, discussed data challenges of the built environment—the interdisciplinary field that addresses the design, construction, management, and use of human-made structures from homes to office buildings and parking garages. With the proprietary nature of data and the lack of transparency in both real estate and construction, increases in data-driven building productivity and more accurate valuation of building have been limited in recent years.

As all industries look to collect and analyze data to improve efficiency, large cost savings are on the horizon. For instance, according to some estimates, the healthcare industry stands to save $300 billion with the deployment of digital medical records, remote patient monitoring, and the use of performance-based pricing adjustments. Leaders in the building industry can learn from other industries how better to unpack and to communicate data. In manufacturing—an industry closely related to the built environment—research and development cost savings result from disseminating data to speed up collaborations and from implementing changes based on readily available consumer feedback.

People in the built environment field have begun to develop tools for data collection and analysis. For example, the very popular Nest Thermostat aims to improve the responsiveness of heating and cooling systems by learning customer behavior. The thermostat not only sets the temperature of an occupied room to a comfortable level, but also lowers the thermostat to save energy when the room is empty. Another product, called Modlet, informs users about plug loads and helps reduce vampire loads—electric power consumed by appliances on standby. As the market continues to test these products, leaders in the built environment field have the potential to create additional tools and standards that will allow the industry to be more productive and that will result in more pleasing user experiences. Furthermore, the increased availability of data will allow the real estate sector to identify market trends and to react more quickly to changes in consumer tastes.

Cliff Majersik, Executive Director for the Institute for Market Transformation, echoed Chris Garvin's remarks on the importance of data sharing for the transformation of the built environment. His organization is creating data disclosure policies that can drive market transformation. The goal of this effort is to shift the underlying dynamics of the marketplace by driving innovation in energy efficiency. Data about the actual efficiency and effectiveness of building technologies can, Majersik argued, reward innovation. His group advocates the use of rating and disclosure initiatives to induce a virtuous cycle of improvement. When buildings become more efficient and the information is made public, the market rewards owners with higher sale prices and occupancy rates and thereby drives investment in additional energy-saving improvements.

Surprisingly, constructing (including producing building materials), powering, cooling, and heating buildings currently account for 49% of U.S. energy consumption. In New York City, 75% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be traced to constructing, maintaining, and using building spaces. As Mayor Bloomberg looks for reductions in GHG emissions, he has turned his attention to the built environment. Given that 85% of buildings that will be standing in 2030 have already been built, the industry must examine existing buildings for new opportunities to save energy and to cut GHG emissions. Unfortunately, most occupants and even owners do not know if their building is energy efficient or how it would compare to neighboring real estate.

Improving access to energy consumption data will be critical to saving energy in existing buildings, to encouraging investment in energy efficiency, and to creating jobs in the energy star benchmarking and data analysis sectors. The benefits of energy efficiency for building owners are apparent in the higher rent and sale prices (per square foot) and lower vacancy rates of ENERGY STAR and LEED buildings. As more states and municipalities adopt energy certification legislation mandating that buildings assess and report their energy use and performance metrics (a process known as benchmarking), we will continue to see the number of buildings disclosing their data skyrocket, Majersik explained. Currently, 4 billion square feet must be benchmarked each year in the U.S.—equivalent to three times the floor space of every Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Barnes & Noble, and Costco nationwide.

In New York City, Local Law 84 mandates that all commercial and residential buildings over 50,000 square feet must be benchmarked and that the information be disclosed to the public. The first filing deadline was in December 2011, and the City saw a 75% compliance rate. Following the second deadline in May, the City will enact the first ever broad disclosure of commercial building data in September 2012. New York City has already benchmarked and published data on more than 2,300 government-owned buildings. The data indicated that municipal buildings' energy performance falls near the average for buildings in the U.S., with a normal distribution across the spectrum of energy efficiency. The challenge remains to make whole-building data widely accessible. Although Con Edison provides spreadsheets with data aggregated from all electricity meters in each building, these files are not as user-friendly as building managers would hope.

The Institute for Market Transformation, a non-profit organization that promotes energy efficiency, is currently completing a broad analysis on the national impact of disclosure laws. A national law enacted today mandating data disclosure for all residential buildings with more than 20 units and all commercial buildings over 25,000 square feet would save $4 billion by 2015 and up to $40 billion by 2025. These savings would result mostly from operational improvements not from costly retrofits. Furthermore, the group estimates that such a national law would result in 50,000 jobs added to the U.S. economy by 2020.

Chris Pyke, Vice President of Research for the U.S. Green Building Council, focused his presentation on green building and shifted the conversation to the use and interpretation of the data that flow from information disclosure. After 10 years of LEED projects, green building has become a global movement involving 127 countries. The next challenge is using the data gathered over the last decade to scale up green building and to drive additional innovation. Pyke stressed that we are currently "drinking from a fire hose" of data derived from building information models, benchmarking movements, and other initiatives. But data are not enough. How can the industry transform the market with these data?

With increased data access, green building developers can now compare the performance of their buildings in various categories to data derived from other LEED projects. The ranking charts on the right show the actual data distribution for each category gathered from all LEED buildings and how the selected project compares (red arrow). Using this information, developers can identify areas for improvement and innovation. (Image courtesy of Chris Pyke)

Pyke posited that we must start with intent. Only by understanding what architects, engineers, and occupants intended for a space can we make sense of the use of that space. The LEED program defines the intent of green building as follows: to reduce negative environmental and economic impacts of energy use. A simple scorecard has allowed the green building sector to define goals for the design, construction, and operation of buildings and to determine the process for evaluating results. After 10 years, there is an enormous number of LEED projects representing the implementation of diverse energy-saving strategies under a broad range of circumstances. Data from these projects are an incredible resource for assessing the efficacy of particular strategies.

According to Pyke, Plaques denoting LEED certification should be considered more than an endpoint. The process of achieving that certification provides opportunities to uncover how a building performs over a range of categories, including materials, indoor environmental quality, water efficiency, and operations innovations. By creating labels for individual LEED buildings outlining their performance in each category, we can begin to dissect how a building performs in comparison to data gathered from thousands of LEED projects. Placing buildings on the LEED performance continuum allows us to incentivize competition and to study how and why a project outperforms its peers.

Experimentation is the key to green building. Each project provides a new opportunity to test strategies to achieve defined goals, and then measure performance to ascertain how well those goals were met. Currently, about 20%–25% of green building aspects are amenable to testing with physical metrics (i.e., energy metrics), and 25%–40% can be tested through user experience. Furthermore, according to Pyke, knowledge of the user experience is 20–100 times more valuable to built environment analysts than any measure of energy use, since the purpose of any space is to provide an optimal environment in which occupants work and play.

A profound mismatch has existed, however, between our goals for the experiences of occupants and our data stream reflecting the experiences of those occupants. The best industry measure for testing user well-being and activity within a space has been a paper survey distributed to the occupants of a few thousand buildings. This mismatch is rapidly resolving with the advent of web-based surveys, social networking, and environmental sensors. These tools provide windows into the user experience on the same spatial and temporal scales as our energy monitoring. We now have a huge opportunity to leverage user data to improve green building and the general built environment.

Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.

Presentations available from:
Chris Garvin (Terrapin Bright Green)
Cliff Majersik (Institute for Market Transformation)
Chris Pyke, PhD (U.S. Green Building Council)

Presented by

  • The New York Academy of Sciences

Silver Sponsors

  • HOK
  • United Technologies

Books, Journal Articles, and Reports

Chris Garvin

Boyle CA. Sustainable buildings. Proceedings of the ICE – Engineering Sustainability 2005;158(1):41-48.

Clarke J. Energy simulation in building design. 2nd ed. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann; 2001.

Crawley DB, Hand JW, Kummert M, et al. Contrasting the capabilities of building energy performance simulation programs. Building and Environment 2008;43(4):661-673.

Robert A, Kummert M. Designing net-zero energy buildings for the future climate, not for the past. Building and Environment 2012.

Cliff Majersik

Burr AC, Keicher C, Leipziger D. Building Energy Transparency: A Framework for Implementing U.S. Commercial Energy Rating and Disclosure Policy. Washington, DC: Institute for Market Transformation; 2011.

Fuerst F, McAllister P. Green noise or green value: measuring the price effects of environmental certification in commercial buildings. Real Estate Economics 2010;39(1):46-69.

NYC Energy Management. Energy Benchmarking Report for New York City Municipal Buildings. New York, NY: NYC Citywide Administrative Services; 2011.

Pivo G, Fisher JD. Income, value, and returns in socially responsible office properties. The Journal of Real Estate Research 2010;32(3):243.

Chris Pyke

Pyke CR, Guma A. Green building and GIS. Washington, DC: U.S. Green Building Council; 2010.

Pyke CR, McMahon S, Dietsche T. Green building and human experience: testing green building strategies with volunteered geographic information. Washington, DC: U.S. Green Building Council; 2010.

Pyke, CR. Using Information Technology to Transform the Green Building Market. Frontiers in Engineering 2012.


Chris Garvin, AIA, LEED AP

Terrapin Bright Green

Chris Garvin is an accomplished practitioner and active voice in the sustainable design community. His interests include high-performance design at both the building and community scale, zero energy communities, biomimicry, and water conservation. Garvin serves as a project lead for many of Terrapin Bright Green's consulting engagements while also managing projects for Cook + Fox Architects where he is a Senior Associate. Complementing his work at Terrapin, Garvin lectures on sustainable design and has taught at the Pratt Institute's Center for Professional Practice since 2002. He also advises several organizations, including the National Building Museum, on sustainability issues. Garvin is a member of the New York Academy of Sciences's Green Building steering committee and serves on the Board of Directors for the New York Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and on the Advisory Board for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability.

Cliff Majersik

Institute for Market Transformation
e-mail | website

Cliff Majersik is Executive Director of the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT). He directs IMT's research into green building, energy efficiency, and property value. Majersik leads IMT's education and outreach to the finance, appraisal, and real estate sectors. He provides expert assistance to federal, state, and local officials developing energy and building policy and legislation. He was a leader in crafting Washington's Energy Act of 2008 and Green Building Act of 2006. Before joining IMT in 2002, Majersik served as Director of the eProcurement Project and eBusiness Director for Conservation International's Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. Previously, he worked as a management consultant at the Corporate Executive Board specializing in E-commerce, sales-channel management, and strategic customer relationships. Majersik advised dozens of firms including Carrier, Chrysler, Cisco, BNSF, Verizon, Coke, Oracle, Sony, Tampa Electric, TI, and Marriott. In 1994, he founded a web-based collaboration software company, eventually growing the firm to 25 employees. He currently serves on the board of directors of Greenspace NCR and on the Washington DC Green Building Advisory Council. He received his bachelor's degree, cum laude, in Political Economy from Williams College. He is a LEED-accredited professional.

Chris Pyke, PhD

U.S. Green Building Council
e-mail | website

Chris Pyke is the Vice President of Research for the U.S. Green Building Council. He directs a diverse research portfolio that includes next generation rating systems, the assessment of building performance and occupant experience, and the study of market trends and dynamics. His research emphasizes the application of advanced information technology and covers a range of issues, including greenhouse gas mitigation and resilience. He directs the development of the Green Building Information Gateway, an innovation resource to "unpack" information underlying LEED certified projects. He also serves in a number of technical advisory roles, including as a lead author for IPCC Working Group III, as chair of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, and on the Chesapeake Bay Commission's Advisory Council on the Economics of Trading.

Barbara Juncosa

Barbara Juncosa is currently finishing her PhD in microbiology at The Rockefeller University, where she studied gene regulation in the human bacterial pathogen Streptococcus pyogenes. While in New York City she also actively pursued her interests in science communications through internships at Scientific American and National Geographic Television. Juncosa earned her BS at the University of Miami, studying both microbiology and marine biology. In the fall, she will be heading out west to teach microbiology at Citrus College in Los Angeles.


Presented by

  • The New York Academy of Sciences

Silver Sponsors

  • HOK
  • United Technologies