The onset of COVID-19 quarantine restrictions prompted Austin Energy to use virtual inspections for its green building program.
“We have rated 170 homes in May and 152 in April,” Catherine Lee Doar, utility strategist at Austin Energy, said. “That is almost one-third of our typical annual production in just two months.”
The ratings are based on sustainability criteria that include items such as energy-, water-, and materials conservation as well as occupant and environmental health.
Texas did not impose restrictions on construction activity during the COVID-19 lockdown, so “our customers have been going full speed,” Doar said.
“I am sure we will continue to do virtual inspections” after COVID-19 restrictions are eased, she said. People will likely be working from home more often, and virtual tours save time and reduce pollution because inspectors do not have to drive in Austin’s heavy traffic, she said.
While the rating measures can be applied during the design and building of new or major remodeling projects, the vast majority of the work the Austin Energy Green Building team does is with contractors and developers engaged in new construction. The virtual tours are essential for residential ratings, Doar said.
The Austin Energy Green Building program evaluates the sustainability of buildings and awards a rating, on a scale of one to five stars, based on a point system of required and voluntary sustainability measures. The program groups buildings into one of three categories: commercial, multifamily and residential.
In a typical year, the Austin Energy Green Building program rates about 25% of permitted houses in the City of Austin. The program rates buildings in Austin as well as in the surrounding counties, but the developers hire contractors to conduct inspections in areas not served by Austin Energy.
“A large part of the ratings we do result from developer agreements with the City of Austin,” Doar said. Many of the people applying for ratings are doing so to fulfill a requirement for a minimum standard qualification as an affordable housing development or as a tradeoff for a zoning variance, she explained.
Since the green building program began in 1991, Austin Energy has rated 16,771 single family homes, 182 multi-family properties with a total of 29,900 dwelling units, and 331 commercial projects including 10,582 dwelling units.
Between the utility’s 2007 fiscal year, when Austin Energy first started measuring impact toward the newly adopted City of Austin Climate Protection Plan, and FY 2019, the program has realized rating savings of 58.7 MW and 156,739 MWh.
The rules and criteria Austin Energy develops for the green building program also find their way into other aspects of the municipal government. When the city revised its rules to require that 50% of construction waste is recycled, they used information on the green building rated projects’ success to develop the new rules. The utility also worked with the city’s fire department when they were drawing up a new Wildland Urban Interface ordinance.
In 1991, Austin Energy, with the help of a grant from the Department of Energy, developed the first residential rating system in the United States. In 1995, a checklist for commercial buildings was added and in 1998 multi-family ratings were added.
Many cities have since followed suit. Austin Energy also advised on the standards set by the more widely known LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program.
Austin Energy updates its green building program criteria every three years generally in conjunction with the release of new building codes.
“We spent the last 18 months developing the new 2020 ratings, which were released in May, and now we are adding innovation guides,” Doar said. The innovation guides encourage customers to come up with solutions that are not in our ratings, she explained.