The Energy Star label is a familiar sight to homeowners and consumers, as well as designers and specifiers. The mark appears on everything from computer monitors to appliances and lighting equipment. What many may not know is that the Energy Star label can apply to the energy efficiency of an entire building, not just the equipment inside.

By using the organization’s free online tools, designers and owners can reduce the energy usage of their new and existing buildings and even earn Energy Star certification for the entire structure. Along with being a quantifiable mark of efficiency, this translates into real savings in energy costs during the life of the building. Eco-structure recently had a chance to talk about energy efficiency with KAREN P. BUTLER, Energy Star’s manager for commercial building design.

Do you think overall awareness of energy issues is improving in the building community?
KB: I find that because energy is being linked to carbon emissions and people are looking at their carbon footprints, people are becoming more aware. And from the design side, there are tools to help designers get their arms around energy with metrics they can understand, measure and quantify. The bar has been raised by activities on the market, but the part that’s catching up is metrics. How do we quantify performance? We’re moving in that direction and I think all the different market players are beginning to converge to make it easier for people to understand what they need to do and what they need to measure.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., has developed an energy-performance rating for tracking building energy use and rating the estimated energy use for design projects. What is the rating based on?
It is a 1 to 100 scale, with 100 being best, based primarily on the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey database developed by the U.S. Department of Energy [Washington]. It surveys a random sample of commercial buildings for each space type and uses that data to run analyses and develop the rating system. So when a building owner, developer or designer gets their energy-usage information, it’s compared to the CBECS data and displayed on a distribution curve that shows where the building falls in relation to a comparison of that group of buildings.

There are drivers of energy use that vary somewhat by space type, but our research has shown that the bigger universal factors are square footage, the number of hours the facility is operated, number of people in the building and computer equipment. Buildings would operate very nicely without people in them. When people come in and turn on lights or adjust the thermostats because they’re too warm, those things generate the energy use in the building. People’s interactions when they’re in the building—whether they’re at school, work or play—are the biggest drivers of energy use.

What is Target Finder? How does it help a designer improve a building’s energy efficiency?
Target Finder is a free online tool intended to help designers set their energy targets. As you go through the steps of creating a design, something different happens at each step. The building’s appearance and its performance characteristics become more defined. Target Finder is used throughout that process to check performance based on the assumptions being made or the criteria put in the design.

At the beginning of the design process, when all the key people meet and discuss what they want a building to be, they can use Target Finder to set the energy target. Then the design team can work up the schematic, look at the orientation of the building and examine all the things they can do to make it sustainable and energy efficient. As the team moves through the process, they can test their intuition with Target Finder and find out whether they’re meeting the project goals.

At the end of the design process, a final Target Finder rating can be generated. If the design’s intent achieves a score greater than 75, the team can submit the energy design intent document, which is generated by Target Finder, to get the designation for Designed to Earn the Energy Star. It’s not a certification; it’s a graphic that goes on the title block on the drawings and on the contract documents as an indicator to the design team, the building owner and all the players involved that the intent of this project is to get built and earn the Energy Star-qualified building label.

The rating used to determine if the design meets the criteria for the Energy Star is the same rating later used to determine the operational performance of the building. Using the same system creates a nice connection between the design and operation of the building.

A building is eligible to achieve Designed to Earn the Energy Star as long as it is not generating any utility bills. Once it goes on the meter and begins generating utility data—even if it’s not fully occupied—it’s no longer eligible for Designed to Earn the Energy Star. At that point, the design team or building owner should start tracking the energy use of the building to benchmark it and apply for the Energy Star label.

Is third-party verification required?
The third-party verification generally comes from an engineer. For existing buildings, it’s a professional engineer that goes through and signs off on the documentation, confirming that, to his or her professional ability, the information is correct and accurate. For a new building’s design, the project engineer or a licensed architect can sign off on the documentation; it says that he or she has given the best professional analysis or estimate of the intended energy use for that design. Energy Star then reviews everything. If there are any anomalies, we’ll call back and ask questions to make sure the information is correct.

What is the Energy Star Challenge?
Each year we partner with the [Washington-based] American Institute of Architects and create a forum to celebrate architecture firms that have achieved Designed to Earn the Energy Star. We encourage designers to submit projects that meet or exceed the requirements for Designed to Earn the Energy Star. If a firm turns in a project, they’re part of the Energy Star Challenge; that’s saying they are part of the solution to design a better world.

What’s encouraging about the program is that, because it’s not a competition, the participants range from very modest charter-school projects to 1 million-square-foot [92900-m2] office projects in major metropolitan cities. That has been a really great thing because it encourages small and large firms to participate. It’s had a positive impact because it helps to move the market on all levels.

What goals does Energy Star have for the future?
One goal is finding a way to better engage the design community: to bring them on board and help them understand how their projects can achieve better energy performance. The next part of that equation is to engage building owners to ask for Designed to Earn the Energy Star on their projects—not just asking for Energy Star, but understanding what that means in terms of cost savings and environmental impact.

It’s important to have the owner and design team working together on energy from the beginning. When I was in architecture and working for a firm, the architects would design the building and then go back later to run energy calculations on it, rather than having energy as one of the factors at the very beginning. If you know what the goal is from the start, you can design to meet that goal.

Is there a compelling financial incentive for owners and developers to look at energy performance?
I was talking to one of our developer partners today and he told me about the benefits of using Energy Star for marketing buildings to their investment partners, as well as to prospective tenants. He’s telling me that everyone is beginning to ask for sustainability and is looking at the sustainability issue; it’s becoming an important driver in the marketplace.

Being able to embrace and talk about the energy piece is one of the cornerstones of sustainability. Because energy is quantifiable and measurable, you can begin to set up guidelines and goals that affect your bottom line and your environmental impact. You can track it, work on it and improve it. So yes, an important piece of this equation lies with the building owner. Especially when you talk about cost savings. With energy costs skyrocketing, cost and availability are very important issues.

Energy Star: A joint program of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Star is a voluntary, market-based partnership that aims to reduce greenhouse-gass emissions through increased engery efficiency.  Along with a certification and labeling program for energy-efficient electronics and appliances, Energy Star offers energy certifications for 11 different building types, as well as a series of tools to help designers and owners meet their energy-efficiency goals. For more information, visit