August 14, 2012 | Ryan M. Colker

Buildings serve as the cornerstone of the nation’s economy. Citizens depend on them for housing, businesses operate in them, and children learn in them. They represent more than half of the nation’s wealth. New construction and renovation activity amounts to over $800 billion annually. The sector employs over 10 million people (five percent of total U.S. employment) and is responsible for 13 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Beyond the economic impact of buildings, building owners and occupants and government agencies look to them to provide numerous services. From protection from man-made and natural hazards and maintenance of occupant comfort to accessibility and sustainability, buildings provide many benefits to society.

The U.S. Congress recognized these diverse needs in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 where they defined high-performance buildings as those that integrate and optimize on a life cycle basis of all major high performance attributes, including: energy conservation, environment, safety, security, durability, accessibility, cost-benefit, productivity, sustainability, functionality, and operational considerations.

However, given the broad and far-reaching impacts of buildings, no national buildings policy exists. Programs are scattered across numerous agencies often with little to no coordination. Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office identified 94 separate initiatives in 11 agencies with implications for private sector green buildings alone. Accounting for all buildings related programs, the numbers are likely even more staggering.

Understanding how each program meets national goals related to buildings, the economy, security, and the environment is impossible without clearly identified priorities and the metrics necessary to verify such achievements. As policymakers struggle to cut budgets and federal agencies must respond, efficiencies can be gained through better coordination and cooperation across agencies and programs. A National Buildings Policy with clearly identified priorities, metrics, and recommendations for cooperation can help to reinvigorate the building sector and provide much needed focus to its diversity of participants.

The identification and acceptance of common metrics to measure success are vital to achieving any identified priorities. Even despite an obvious focus on building energy use, the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) is struggling to maintain funding to complete the survey. In addition to CBECS, the National Institute of Building Sciences (Institute) identified numerous data needs to achieve high-performance buildings. A unified database of building performance data across numerous attributes is possible, but requires the focus and motivation that a comprehensive building policy can provide.

The expansion of tools like Building Information Modeling and processes like Integrated Project Delivery have begun to shift the building community away from a fragmented, every discipline for itself industry. However, development of a National Buildings Policy is necessary to continue this transformation and bring focus to the numerous efforts underway in both the public and private sector. 

As indicated above, the diversity of federal agencies shaping building policies is significant. Establishing an interagency working group on buildings charged with providing feedback and reducing overlap in federal policy could be a valuable starting point. Organizations like the Institute—which was established by Congress to work across the public and private sectors to improve the built environment—can provide the forum for development of a holistic National Buildings Policy, but the engagement of all relevant stakeholders is required.

Leadership from legislators (including members of the High-Performance Building Congressional Caucus) and executive agencies (including the National Science and Technology Council, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Homeland Security) can provide a signal to the building community that such an effort is valuable to meeting national goals and providing high-performance buildings for our citizens.

Ryan M. Colker is Director of the Consultative Council and Presidential Advisor at the National Institute of Building Sciences, where he is responsible for leading the development of findings and recommendations on behalf of the entire building community and transmitting those recommendations to Congress and the Administration. He also serves as staff director of the Council on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate; the National Council of Governments on Building Codes and Standards; and the Sustainable Building Industry Council.

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Ryan M. Colker

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