EUI: it’s not just energy!

Energy Use Intensity (EUI) is a key metric used to benchmark buildings. Basically, EUI expresses a building’s energy use as a function of its size. In Portfolio Manager, the EUI is expressed as energy per square foot per year. Generally a lower EUI signifies better energy efficiency, although clearly different building types will always consume more energy than others. “pEUI”, or Predicted Energy Use Intensity describes what the design team anticipates the energy intensity will be (I prefer to think of it as “projected” EUI because you can’t truly “predict” energy performance in design). That said, EUI is really not just about energy. It’s really about culture!

A firm in my hometown is a great example and embodies this concept. Payette is an architecture firm that designs very energy-intensive building types such as hospitals and lab buildings. They are also a signatory of the AIA 2030 Commitment, putting themselves on a path towards carbon neutral building design by the year 2030. Not for the faint of heart, this kind of commitment clearly doesn’t happen without intention, dedication, and a shared understanding within the firm of how to get there. At Payette, EUI seems to have been both a linchpin and a catalyst in their evolution. In a recent conversation with Andrea Love, Payette’s Director of Building Science, she spoke of EUI as the common language on every project.

Every project manager knows that it is an intrinsic metric, alongside project budget and schedule. Active project pEUIs are posted publicly and actual EUIs are tracked and learned from. On one hand, this seems like such a simple approach, but on the other hand – not an easy one to implement. In my work with firms around the country who are just embarking on the 2030 Commitment (or struggling with hitting their targets) one thing I see frequently missing is this shared cultural focus on energy performance and the expectation and accountability to pursue it. In workshops that I conduct inside firms, I find that not everyone knows what EUI is or how to calculate it. Project managers are rarely held accountable for project performance, let alone tracking.

The singular focus on EUI creates a ripple. It challenges perceptions of design; form and function, it requires leadership (at all levels) to communicate the expectation and implement it in every team, it triggers accountability and the need for reporting and oversight, it requires quality control to ensure that best practices are implemented consistently and, most of all, it incites conversation and excitement around a common focus. Building owners and developers are beginning to understand this and increasingly include a request (or requirement) in RFPs qualifying a preference for firms who do track and measure their project performance. This is a good thing. Those firms who do track and measure have a distinct competitive advantage and they deserve it.

In a way, it makes me think of the phenomenon of “likes” on Instagram. Ever since my teen-aged kids discovered “likes” as a metric, it has changed their behavior – they take pictures that they think will get “likes” and evaluate their success as human beings based on numbers of likes or followers. Or think of “steps” – I haven’t gone a week without someone mentioning that they need to get out at lunch and walk because they haven’t hit their goal and their fitbit is holding them accountable! The concept of likes and steps, like that of energy, isn’t new, but the cultural phenomenon of the new focus changing behavior is.

What would your firm look like if EUI were on the same plane as project schedule and budget? What would change? You don’t need to be a 2030 signatory to find out. And if you are a building owner, developer or designer – you are certainly leaving money on the table if you aren’t asking your teams to focus on this from day 1.

(note: energy is only one parameter, health, resilience, and other factors are not less important!)