On this episode of the Deconstructed: The Future of CRE podcast, host Vivek Kartha of WorkSpace is joined by Paul Reale, Director of Building Operations Research and Training at CUNY Building Performance Lab. Paul talks about his experience at the Lab at CUNY and how they are using a scientific approach to create new ways to achieve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions in residential buildings. 

What is the CUNY Building Performance Lab?

Paul has been involved in a variety of projects over his years at the CUNY Lab, most involving high-performance building operations. As Director of Training, Paul’s work has him focusing on daily operators of commercial buildings and multifamily residential buildings. From a real estate standpoint, commercial and multifamily buildings are completely different markets, but those types of buildings share enough commonality for Paul and his team to work with operators in both categories. 

Building operators and management weren’t always looking for ways to run their buildings with optimal energy efficiency. But as Paul points out, many buildings are being pressed into efficiency of late because new local, state, and federal mandates are pressuring operators to reduce energy consumption. This is especially true in reducing carbon emissions. 

The Lab is located in New York City which has intense mandates on energy efficiency. Paul works in the middle of a hotbed of regulation and oversight, which is currently an exception to the national requirements. But operators around the country and around the world are taking note of the techniques Paul and his team are developing, because New York is seen as an early indicator of the direction the entire industry is heading.

Nationwide Momentum Is Increasing

This focus on energy efficiency and carbon emissions reduction is gaining traction and momentum throughout the country, and other areas may emulate New York sooner than many experts in the industry are predicting. New York has some of the most aggressive laws in the world in terms of reducing carbon emissions, meaning the rest of the country has some catching up to do. 

Along with governmental regulations and mandates come letter grades and performance scores, which is a topic Paul wants building management professionals to keep in context. He says you can’t look at a score, like an ENERGY STAR score which simply scores how much energy a building is using, without using the context of the building’s age, the environment, and how the operator is running the building. 

As Paul says, “They might get an ENERGY STAR score—where 100 is spectacular, and one is lousy—of 30. That sounds pretty bad. But if you have a not-so-skilled operator, it could be a 15. What we really care about is seeing these operators get better and improving their scores on their buildings, when they’re compared with other buildings.”

In New York, buildings are also assigned a performance letter grade they have to display that is visible to the public. In this case, a building might have a D grade, but that happens to be the average grade for tens of thousands of buildings in the city, so it is more important to monitor the improvement in the future. 

Automation Will Be Key

A main focus on creating efficiencies in building operations comes from systems automation. Paul says that 41% of all electricity on earth is used to run motors. A large chunk of that energy use is for motors in HVAC systems in buildings, like fans, pumps, and compressors. 

A building operator may be diligent in making rounds to mechanical rooms to monitor performance of those motors and systems, but they can only see what is going on while they are in the room. An automated system allows those systems to be monitored at all times so they can be shut or slowed down when not needed, resulting in massive energy savings. 

Automation is not without its faults, and Paul believes that it is critical to keep operators trained on current best practices to work with automated systems to achieve maximum efficiency. It is vital that operators be able to manually intervene in automated systems in cases where it is justified. Over time, as those systems develop and mature, operators can become more comfortable delegating more responsibility to automation.

The Future of Building Operations

Paul believes that the future is here, and in New York City building operators and management are gearing up for more significant changes that are coming in this decade. In the 2020s, it is estimated that more than $20 billion is going to be spent on retrofitting existing buildings in New York to meet the new efficiency laws and their deadlines. It is a tremendous investment, but the financial penalties for non-compliance will be significant, so those investments make sense to building management professionals and owners.

Moving forward, Paul thinks that continuing to coach operators to run the energy systems with maximum efficiency is going to become more important as more automated systems are added. It is going to take human brain power and reasoning to make sure the systems are running the way they are designed. This training is not achieved through a series of PowerPoint slide decks—it takes hands-on training with each individual being trained on their specific building. 

Training for the Future

Fortunately, Paul and his team have been honing their skills and training techniques over the last several years and, in what he calls a silver lining, they were forced to learn how to do this training remotely due to the Covid pandemic. 

This experience has led to the Lab working with the Department of Energy to start a three-year project to coach building operators remotely. This project will involve more than 50 buildings in several major cities and will start in 2022. 

While new buildings are coming online that are incredibly efficient, Paul points out that the number of older buildings that will be retrofitted far outnumbers the number of new buildings, and the need for training building operators is only going to increase as efficiency mandates are put into place. Those laws and mandates are gaining traction across the US and Paul believes laws similar to New York are going to be rolling out in earnest in the next five to ten years.

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