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What Makes a High-Performance Building? 3 Fundamental Aspects

Joe Di Noto

The buildings we work in have a major impact on our health, our environment, and our day-to-day lives. Modern high-performance design principles can reduce operational costs, increase property value, and provide a healthier and eco-friendly built environment. Below we delve into the three fundamental aspects that make high-performance buildings stand out, and best practices to implement in properties you own or manage.

Defining High-Performance Buildings

High-performance buildings are structures which are designed and operated in ways that optimize energy efficiency, minimize environmental impact, and promote a healthy indoor environment for occupants.

Recent years have seen growing interest in sustainability, rising energy prices, and higher awareness of health concerns – leading to building performance garnering increased attention in commercial real-estate and facility management circles, While the term does not have a strict scientific definition, it has been used in academic literature, federal guidelines (PDF), standards such as ASHRAE 189.1, and legislation such as the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007. 

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Performance is not just energy efficiency. Earlier writing about high performance buildings was focused on reducing energy consumption; but similarly to the transition from green to healthy buildings, current approaches adopt a more holistic outlook that encompasses the broader environmental impact alongside social concerns for occupant health, tenant satisfaction, and productivity – while also recognizing that improvements in one area will often carry on to another (read more about resolving the tension between sustainability and occupant health).

Another aspect, mentioned in the United Nations’ guidelines for energy efficiency standards in buildings, is that buildings need to be both performance-monitored, with feedback loops to operations and design tools; and performance-based, meaning they are evaluated by outcomes rather than specific components. This highlights the importance of a data-driven, quantitative approach for improving building performance.

The Three Pillars of High Performance: Energy, Environment, and Health

  1. Energy efficiency: High-performance buildings minimize energy consumption without sacrificing occupant comfort. This is achieved both through passive design decisions such as daylighting, as well as through the use of building automation and smart technologies that increase efficiency in ventilation, lighting, and other building systems. 
  2. Environmental impact: Beyond energy consumption, buildings have broader environmental impacts, both during construction and throughout their lifespan. Construction and renovation should minimize disruption to the building’s surroundings and the community; sustainable materials, water efficiency, waste management and recycling, should all be implemented on a continuous basis.
  3. Healthy indoor environment: A high-performance building creating a healthy, comfortable, and productive environment for occupants. This is achieved by controlling noise levels, improving ventilation and indoor air quality, and using materials with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

Making Sense of the Terminology

Is there a difference between high-performance, green, and healthy buildings? The terms are often used interchangeably, both by industry insiders (such as certification bodies), as well as in the broader writing about this topic. However, there are some nuances.

Writing and standards around high-performance buildings often emphasize energy efficiency; green building programs are focused on the broader environmental impact of a building's design, construction, and operation; while healthy building principles look at the same operational challenges from the perspective of occupant wellbeing. As we mentioned above, it’s broadly accepted that these issues are all interlinked, and the lines between the three concepts are somewhat blurred.

The Business Benefits of High-Performance Buildings

  • Lower operating costs: More efficient use of energy and water can help cut down operational costs. This is particularly important as energy prices continue to rise and as businesses look to become more efficient during the current economic slump. How much could you save? A study by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) found that high-performance building optimizations resulted in 23% lower energy use, 28% lower water use, and 23% lower building operating expenses,
  • Increased property value: High-performance buildings are attractive to tenants and investors. As a result, these buildings can command higher rents and resale values. Recently, JLL revealed that green buildings achieved an average capital value premium of more than 20%.
  • ESG and sustainability: According to the UNECE, buildings consume over 70% of electric power generated and are responsible for 40% of CO2 emissions. Incorporating high-performance design can help businesses that improve their ESG ratings by reducing carbon emissions, as well as through the social benefits of better occupant health.
  • Improved productivity and higher tenant satisfaction: Providing a healthy indoor environment, and especially improving indoor air quality, has been linked to higher occupant satisfaction, increased productivity, and reduced absenteeism due to illness. Hence, improving building performance can result in more satisfied tenants for property owners, and better business results for employers. These effects have been quantified - 35% less sick days, 30% fewer complaints from occupants, and $6,500 annual benefit per employee. (See: IAQ statistics)

Best Practices for High Performance Buildings

As you can imagine, performance is a broad topic, and can encompass both tactical and relatively inexpensive optimizations as well radical changes to new construction projects. While we will not be able to cover every possible vector of improvement in this blog post, here are some ideas you might consider to improve various aspects of your indoor spaces:

Energy Efficiency

  • Maintain HVAC systems: HVAC is one of the key energy consumers in modern buildings. Regular maintenance and performance monitoring of HVAC systems will keep them efficient and reduce energy use to the minimum required. This could include replacing filters, cleaning coils, and calibrating sensors.
  • Use building automation and demand-controlled ventilation: IoT-based air quality sensors can be used to automatically trigger changes to ventilation, based on indoor and outdoor air conditions, which can reduce unnecessary energy consumption without jeopardizing air quality.
  • Upgrade lighting systems: Replace outdated lighting systems with energy-efficient LED options, and incorporate daylight harvesting strategies to make use of natural light. (This will have the added benefit of increasing occupant comfort - see below.)
  • Invest in insulation: Proper insulation can help maintain comfortable indoor temperatures while reducing energy consumption for heating and cooling. Check that walls, roofs, and floors are adequately insulated to prevent thermal bridges and minimize heat transfer.

Healthy Indoor Environment

  • Prioritize indoor air quality: Indoor air quality plays a major role in promoting occupant health, increasing the subjective sense of comfort, and maintaining high productivity. Continuously monitor indoor air quality, ensure proper ventilation, and implement air filtration systems. 
  • Sound and acoustics: Integrate sound-absorbing materials and partitioning to minimize noise levels. Consider the layout and function of spaces when designing the building to avoid excessive noise in critical areas.
  • Biophilic design: Incorporate elements of nature into the building's design – green walls, indoor plants, and water flow. These elements can help reduce stress and improve the overall well-being of occupants.
  • Provide access to natural light: Natural light has been shown to have numerous benefits for occupant health, including improved mood and productivity. Maximize daylight access by designing spaces with ample windows and skylights, and use daylight-responsive lighting controls to reduce the need for artificial lighting during the day. 

Sustainability and Environmental Impact

  • Sustainable materials: Opt for construction materials with a small environmental footprint throughout extraction, production, transportation, installation, and disposal processes. Utilize materials such as recycled steel, sustainably-sourced timber, and low-impact concrete.
  • Water conservation and efficiency: Implement water-saving strategies in your building such as water-efficient fixtures, appliances, and irrigation systems. Consider using rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling systems to further decrease water consumption.
  • Waste reduction and management: Address waste reduction, recycling, and proper disposal. Encourage occupants to participate in recycling programs and consider implementing composting facilities for organic waste.
  • Promoting alternative transportation: Encourage occupants to use alternative transportation options such as biking, public transit, and carpooling – for example, by providing bike storage, transit information, and designated carpool parking spaces. 

Certifications and Rating Systems

Building certifications such as LEED, RESET, or WELL give you an objective, science-based benchmark to guide you throughout your journey to high-performance buildings. They can help you hone in on the areas that drive the most impact, as well as demonstrate your commitment to sustainability and occupant health – which will help attract tenants, employees, and investors who value sustainability and well-being.

We’ve covered these topics in depth in many of our previous articles – you can start by reading our overview of building certifications.

Get the Complete Guide to High-Performance Buildings

If you want to learn more about building performance, we have a comprehensive guide that might be of interest. We cover the fundamental principles, techniques, and strategies for high-performing buildings, in greater depth than we did here. Get the guide now, free.