Benchmarking is an increasingly popular method used to develop requirements and set goals that will improve just about anything including business strategies, products, processes, and buildings.

Essentially, what it does is to enable us to compare strategies, products, and so on with others that are similar but better than ours. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we can learn from what others have accomplished and set out to match or even better their achievements. By identifying and understanding best practices and processes in specific industries, we can develop ways of adapting them to meet our needs.

Benchmarking is an invaluable process in the building industry that can be used very effectively to boost energy efficiency and improve sustainability. But for benchmarking to be successful, it is essential to measure and monitor the data available. It is also important to follow established building benchmarking procedures.

Benchmarking of certain buildings in New York City are mandatory. Picture: Shutterstock

The Importance of measuring & Monitoring Performance

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Conversely, if you can measure it, you can manage it!

The original quote, “what gets measured gets managed,” now often reconfigured and used in various ways, is attributed to business management guru, Peter Drucker. Essentially, what it means is that without measuring, determining, assessing, or evaluating something so that you can define and track it, you won’t ever know in the future if you have been successful and have improved.

Of course, it’s not that simple, and in fact, there is much that cannot be effectively measured. Additionally, measuring, in this context, is not a mathematical exercise and it must be appropriate to the activity or item being measured.

Benchmarking is an excellent way to determine performance, but it is not exclusive to business management or, in fact, to any product or process. It can be used to compare all sorts of things to determine performance and identify opportunities for improvement.

When it comes to buildings, and more specifically their energy-efficiency, there are invaluable tools (see Procedures for Benchmarking below) that may be used to measure building energy-use data. By sharing the data in a transparent manner, it can be made available for other building owners and cities to use to compare their buildings and energy use, and improve performance.

Now known as Benchmarking & Transparency (B&T), the process is so successful it is mandatory in many U.S. cities including New York, Portland, Seattle, Orlando, Boston, and St. Louis. If building owners and/or building managers or operators do not comply on time, they face harsh penalties, which is why many engineering firms now offer specialist benchmarking engineering services.

The Orlando skyline features many buildings that must undertake the B&T process regularly. Picture: Shutterstock

Origins of Benchmarking

Benchmarking originated in the mid-Seventies, ostensibly when Xerox Corporation needed to improve its market share after Japanese competitors had started manufacturing better copy machines for less than they were able to. But one man is singled out as the so-called “father of benchmarking.” Robert Camp, who worked at Xerox Corporation for more than two decades, and who expanded and intensified the benchmarking process, making it key to obtaining best-practice knowledge as well as superior performance.

Camp wrote a seminal book on the topic, Benchmarking: The Search for Industry Best Practices that Lead to Superior Performance, first published in 1989, and which is still a best seller. Recommended for middle managers in various industries as well as government agencies, quality improvement projects, and even not-for-profit organizations, benchmarking has become “the master key to becoming the best” (Google Books). It, quite simply, details the process of finding the best practices that will lead in various ways to superior performance.

It has become the benchmarking bible even though the context in which it is now used is considerably wider than that defined by Camp.

Buildings Suitable for Benchmarking

Both commercial and multifamily residential buildings can benefit from B&T. However, there is no standardization in terms of what individual cities demand either in the type or size of buildings. For instance, the square footage might as high as 75.000 sq. ft. or as little as 10,000 sq. ft.

In 2018, New York City expanded its coverage to buildings larger than 25,000 sq. ft., while the City of Austin in Texas includes a greater range of sizes in its policy statement having started at an initial threshold of 75,000 sq. ft. which was reduced to 35,000 sq. ft. and then to 10,000 sq. ft.

A lot depends on individual city resources. But perhaps even more importantly, building owners need to be aware of the opportunities available for improving building performance and increasing energy efficiency.

Another factor to remember is that different cities have different requirements and where benchmarking is mandatory, it must comply with these requirements.

Procedures for Benchmarking

In essence, B&T involves monitoring the electricity, gas, and water use in buildings. This is essential for B&T professionals to be able to accurately analyze energy and water use.

The process, while simple, must be done correctly using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager (or a similar) tool that provides the data that can potentially boost energy efficiency in buildings.

An engineering firm that offers B&T services will evaluate all the utility bills relevant to a particular building and both calculate and verify consumption of electricity, gas, and water. They will also submit the necessary documentation to the authorities concerned.

The ENERGY STAR tool enables them to measure the carbon footprint of a building and benchmark its performance. By measuring the performance of the building in this way, building owners and building managers are able to minimize the wasteful use of energy and water and in this way maximize performance.

Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of Nearby Engineers and New York Engineers, which is an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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