Taking aim on greenhouse gases

57 Denver buildings enrolled in city program to cut energy use

1515 Wynkoop, the eight-story building in Denver’s LoDo district, has obvious attractions. Home to everything from law to insurance to oil-and-gas firms, the 306,791-square-foot building is just a block from Union Station’s convergence of light rail and buses and is within walking distance of intriguing retail and restaurants.

But another benefit to the 14 tenants is the attention devoted to energy use by Hines management company and building owner American Realty Advisors. Guided by the mantra that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, Hines first benchmarked energy use here at 1515 Wynkoop.

That standardized scale allowed the Hines team to detect a recent anomaly. By engaging in consistent building inspections, the staff caught a lighting control glitch that left lights on overnight that should not have been. The malfunction cost tenants, who were paying the utility bills, extra money. “This shows you can’t always rely on the automation system and that the human element is equally important,” said Liz Taylor, director of property management for Hines.

Saving energy is good for the environment, but the bottom line for Hines is saving money for tenants. It’s unlikely that it’s the first consideration, maybe not even second. But who doesn’t like to save money?

“It makes us more competitive in the marketplace,” Taylor says. “This affects operating expenses.”

Setting an Example

The 1515 Wynkoop facility is one of 57 buildings enrolled in a program launched in October called the Denver City Energy Project. The program is motivated in part by improved economic performance, as the city announced that it would “unlock” $1.3 billion in energy savings, reduce energy use in commercial and multifamily buildings by 18 percent and enable the creation of 4,000 jobs through the improvements generated by benchmarking. 

But the city government also sees this as a way of ratcheting down the city’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Denver hopes to achieve a 20 percent reduction by 2020.

Unlike other environmental programs, Denver City Energy Project targets energy use by larger commercial and multifamily buildings of more than 10,000 square feet. The enrollees include several King Soopers, George Washington High School, more than 7 million square feet in city-owned buildings and some of the city’s soaring skyscrapers.

Katrina Managan, senior adviser in the Denver City Energy Project, says improved energy efficiency in buildings in general, and large buildings in particular, is crucial if Denver is to lower energy use and cut its carbon footprint.

“Multifamily and commercial buildings are responsible for 64 percent of Denver’s greenhouse gas emissions,” she says. Single-family residential housing, transportation and industry represent the other 36 percent.

“They really are big energy users, and the biggest buildings are complex to operate. Because of that, many of the efficiency gains are to be achieved in the operation of the buildings, and not just the equipment that is installed.”

Local Matters

Buildings enrolled in the program span a great range of construction. The iconic Brown Palace Hotel & Spa — built in 1892 on the coattails of the vast fortunes made in Colorado’s mining towns — has, since 2012, focused attention on reducing use of both electricity and natural gas.

The Brown monitors energy consumption and reduction in several ways, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s powerful Portfolio Manager. That device aggregates information from a variety of buildings of similar size to give building managers intel so they can compare their progress to their peers, not just locally but in similar climates across the United States.

So, what improvements have there been at the hotel that has hosted every president since Teddy Roosevelt (save for Calvin Coolidge), Snoop Dog, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones?

During the past two years, occupancy at the Brown Palace increased 19 percent, yet electricity consumption dropped 26 percent and natural gas was down 24 percent per occupied room. The hotel used both high-tech and low-tech means to accomplish this. Because of complaints from guests, an HVAC upgrade was expected to allow guests to set room temperatures based on personal comfort and those settings can also be centrally monitored. A distinctly low-tech system also helps, as housekeepers now close blinds in the summer to reduce the need for air conditioning.

Across the street from the Brown, the office tower 1670 Broadway has a different history and another set of needs. In 1978, during its construction, it was the tallest building in Denver and was erected with efficiency in mind. But present property manager Cushman & Wakefield Colorado knew that simple upgrades probably weren’t enough because of the complex needs of the building, which has 700,000 rentable square feet.

A detailed study in 2012 by a team that included Xcel Energy, Group 14 Engineering and Klok Group Engineering found huge gains possible from a $591,593 new energy management system. The system has to meet needs of the many tenants who work in information technology, which has a sizeable demand for energy and cannot tolerate interruptions in supply. The upgrade was aided by a $183,527 rebate from Xcel Energy.

Savings in the first half of 2014 were stellar:

      •        20 percent reduction in overall electrical use

      •        25 percent reduction in overall district steam energy use

      •        $128,810 estimated annual average savings for the building

      •        2.7 years — payback time

Managan says it hasn’t been hard to persuade building owners and managers to enroll in the Denver City Energy Project. “A lot of these buildings were already benchmarking, and they were happy to get recognition. But they also see value in benchmarking. They say, ‘Oh yes, everybody should be doing this.’”

National Scene

Denver was one of 10 cities chosen to participate in the program from a pool of 25 applicants. The two national environmental groups provide assistance, such as information-sharing about financing opportunities. The Washington D.C.-based Institute for Market Transformation seeks to address “market failures that inhibit investment in energy efficiency and sustainability in the building sector.”

Improved building performance has gained traction across Colorado. The Rocky Mountain Institute recently broke ground for its new 17,000-square-foot headquarters in Basalt. RMI expects the building to be a net-zero energy facility, meaning it produces as much energy as it consumes. The building was designed to dampen energy demand by using natural heating and cooling mechanisms as much as possible. It also aims to avoid the expense of heating space that is not used, like the space above people’s heads. One strategy is something called a Hyperchair, designed by the Center for the Built Environment in Berkeley, Calif. The chair heats and cools the individual. Think of an individually heated car seat.

Architecture 2030 has even broader goals. Founded by Santa Fe-based architect Ed Mazria, the organization sees a fundamental and global revolution in building design and operation. Mazria, speaking in Denver in 2013, pointed out that 900 billion square feet will be constructed or redeveloped by 2030 as the world population grows. This is an area equal to 60 percent of the world’s existing building stock. He believes that improved building design and technology can dramatically reduce energy demand, by as much as 75 percent.

Now what?

There’s no magic wand to wave and accomplish this. It takes well-designed buildings, but even the newest architecture requires management, as Taylor can testify at 1515 Wynkoop. “This building was designed with energy efficiency in mind, but it is also a matter of making sure you are running the building as designed. You really need to walk the building to see, for example, if the exhaust fan isn’t turning off. You need to drive by at night to see if the building is lit.”

Despite its newness, 1515 Wynkoop — built in 2009 — has since had opportunities for upgrades, such as added LED lights to maximize energy efficiency. In this case, the owner was willing to make the investment. “If you have an ownership group that supports sustainability, you are able to make more significant improvements that have a greater effect on energy use,” Taylor says.

Why are owners willing to invest in energy upgrades? In the case of American Realty Advisors, Taylor says, it’s important to them, but they also believe it’s important to tenants. But it gets even more basic than that. Employees are asking about energy use.

In such a grassroots way, Denver hopes to both improve its already robust economy while dampening its greenhouse gas emissions.

Categories: Economy/Politics, Magazine Articles, Real Estate