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BIT Building: An affordable path to higher performance for smaller buildings

With so much focus on performance in large commercial buildings—from green building certifications to utility programs—it's important to remember the little guys. Small buildings deserve a path to high performance, too, especially one that owners can implement with limited resources. 

Enter BIT Building. Launched in 2018, BIT Building is a building performance improvement framework designed to encourage the adoption of high-performance upgrades in small buildings. The BIT Building framework lays out 16 best practices that owners of smaller buildings can implement to make cost-effective, practical, and effective improvements within their own budgets and timeframes. BIT provides a new way to look at your building, empowering you to solve new problems, save costs, and create a more sustainable structure.

BIT also provides an onramp to clean energy jobs. On the program level, program managers can hire to serve as BIT aides to perform Level 1 audits of small buildings—often a new hire's first step toward joining the clean energy economy. Slipstream staff include team members who started their careers as BIT aides, converting their newfound knowledge into a lifelong mission to transform our nation’s buildings beyond the BIT program.

We recently caught up with Jenny Carney, a co-founder of BIT Building, to discuss how the framework helps owners and operators "go on a journey" with their building toward a better future. This interview has been edited for clarity.

How would you describe BIT? What inspired you to create it? 

The standard is really kind of our attempt to bring green building best practices to a broader audience. I started working on it around—oh, geez, I think 2012 or 2013, so quite a while now—and that was at the time when the US Green Building Council was doing a revision of the LEED program standards, which made it harder for buildings to pursue certifications because of the increased stringency of prerequisites for the LEED system.

And, well, I thought that made a lot of sense for new building design and construction, but I felt it was not as effective at driving transformation across existing buildings. That's where there are huge opportunities for carbon reductions and huge opportunities to bring the benefits of green buildings to a broad audience. 

So, I would look at the market penetration of the LEED program, and it's at maybe one percent, probably less than that. And then I see all these buildings out in the world that really need to be engaged in efficiency planning and implementation.

I wanted to take what we had learned from developing these best practices in essentially elite buildings—Class A commercial buildings—and envision a version of those practices that would be viable in smaller buildings, in neighborhood buildings. Those are buildings that typically don't have a lot of access to capital and also don't have a lot of discretionary staff time to spend interacting with energy efficiency incentive programs. BIT started with the hope that it would make it easier for a lot of different building types and people to engage around sustainability for operations and maintenance of buildings.

How does something like BIT differ from your standard utility energy efficiency program?

The small building angle really centers on the people aspect of change management, I think more so than a utility program would. Plus, it's more comprehensive, so it's not just energy efficiency. It also addresses a full suite of sustainability opportunities, including the things that the building users really care about, like air quality and some of those issues that a utility can't typically parlay into cost-effective efficiency measures that are easy to deliver at scale.

How'd you get interested in the science of buildings?

My background is in environmental science. I actually went to graduate school with [Slipstream SVP of Research] Doug Ahl, and we were in the same lab studying carbon cycling dynamics within forests and terrestrial ecosystems. After graduate school, I ended up taking a position at a small environmental nonprofit that, for some mysterious reason, was the contractor who was supporting the US Green Building Council in developing the LEED rating system for existing buildings. It's kind of fortuitous that they had this role with USGBC, which was then an emerging national organization with the heyday of LEED still ahead of them, but that was my entry point into buildings and into green building. I was interested in exploring market-based solutions to climate issues, and the built environment—especially operating buildings, existing buildings—seemed like a massive opportunity for environmental impact reductions.

So you got into environmental science to make an impact on climate solutions?

I would say generally, yes. I think for folks paying attention to environmental science and climate science [in the early 2000s], we knew that it was a necessary area to activate around.

My interest was sort of an affinity for science, as well as an affinity for the natural world, as well as it being the kind of science that—well, it has all the normal trappings of science, but then there's this really practical complexity around field science. I grew up in rural Wisconsin. My dad was raised on a farm. There's all these things about dealing with the natural world and being inventive, the way that farmers have to be—that's also true for field science. When you're running a field campaign, you have to conduct this scientific study that you've designed, but then also consider, "Okay, how do we avoid bears? How do we repair all the equipment that has been chewed up by animals? How do we construct scaffolding three miles away from the nearest paved road?" I really like that mash-up of worlds, of practical building and inventing solutions to things.

Someone who runs a building might say they do the same thing: find creative solutions to practical problems.

In my experience, facility staff and superintendents are really good problem solvers in general. That's a core aspect of their job. So a program like BIT just opens them up to a different set of problems to be thinking about how to solve for. It introduces some of the reasons why it's beneficial to focus on, you know, energy efficiency, water efficiency, air quality issues, and then some bread crumbs of the types of techniques and tools and processes that can be used to evaluate for those areas and plan improvements.  They already have a lot of the underlying skill sets to make optimizations in their buildings. So BIT is just a portal into a whole new type of optimization. I've seen building operators engage really creatively, even in things that you wouldn't think would be that compelling to them. 

It's similar to what I've seen in LEED projects, where the chief engineer is sticking around for the rest of the sustainability meeting and actually has these really interesting ideas for how to improve recycling, even though recycling is not really in his purview. It's that problem-solving mind that starts latching onto these things related to sustainability and just get cookin', being in the mix and figuring out viable solutions. 

So BIT is not even necessarily giving people new skills or anything—it's giving them a new lens through which they can think about their buildings.

Yep. That's one of the main things.

Which is your favorite of the 16 best practices?

The one that I feel like was a real innovation in terms of a best practice—and this might sound silly because it doesn't seem that jazzy—but the Annual Sustainability Planning Meeting (BP02) is one that I'm very enthusiastic about. Because, you know, energy audits have been around for a while, right? There's well established protocols that ASHRAE puts out. Lots of utility incentive programs offer some kind of audit, maybe with money to implement the projects, maybe not. But what I've seen—and what I think a lot of folks who've been around energy audits have seen—is what we call stranded ECMs. These are energy conservation measures that that have been identified in a document in an audit report, but for whatever reason they never get implemented. 

So, I'm really curious about the question of, okay, someone's gone through this process, they've been served up a handful of ways to save money and have a better building, but why doesn't that automatically play out with implemented projects? And those are the types of questions we have to solve for when you really think about climate change, because, as I like to say, atmospheric carbon doesn't give a shit about our good intentions. It's not good enough to have the ideas for the emissions reductions—you actually have to do them, and you have to do them at scale.

So those pain points to getting to implemented projects I think is something to solve for, and one of the reasons that those ECMs get stranded, I think, is the audit might happen in, let's say February, and a certain person commissions the audit in February, gets the report in March, and sees some capital expenditures that aren't in the current year budget. So then they think, okay, well, maybe these improvements could be integrated into next year's budget. But in order for that to happen, you have to remember that those opportunities exist during the budget planning process. But that might be 10 months away! So the Annual Sustainability Planning Meeting best practice is an effort to kind of create this space for reflecting on what you've learned about opportunities that exist in your building and, at the same time, that you have an opportunity to earmark money for making those improvements in the fiscal year ahead. So it's really trying to dust off the assessments and turn them into reality through fiscal earmarking.

It's like self-improvement. You could have the goal to learn guitar or go to the gym, but you have to actually write down the goals in your planner or you won't remember them.

Yeah. January rolls around and you're trying to think about how to be a better you, and you forget that eight months ago you already did a thorough evaluation of optimization. (Laughs)

Your ex handed you an audit!

Yeah, and so, absent that list, you just reflect on whatever bad behavior you've most recently been exhibiting.

How does a building operator get started with BIT?

The gist of the program is that there are some kind of annual program fees for participating, but that also accommodates access to a variety of implementation resources and coaching and support along the way. You can access a checklist of all the best practices without officially signing up, so for buildings that aren't sure if they really want to fully engage yet, they can check out the 16 best practices and start evaluating: Which of these are we already doing? Which of these are kind of new? Do we know how we would do these things if we wanted to implement them? 

One way that buildings can get to know the program and take a look is during the monthly community calls, which are free to join. These calls give visibility into some of the best practices and access to different experts who provide advice on how to introduce those best practices to buildings. So those are some of the lighter touch ways to check out the program. 

The idea was to make BIT pretty affordable compared to other programs. So if you pursue LEED certification, for example, you register your building, and that's maybe 1,500 bucks or so, but then to certify your building, depending on the building size, it could be many, many thousands of dollars for that third-party review process. BIT is structured a little differently to have much more interactivity and implementation support and coaching, so that's why there's sort of more of a subscription model. The idea is that there would be a lot of touch points back and forth during the process of bringing those 16 best practices into the building. And, above all, it's at a level that is reasonably affordable for facility management budgets.

You mentioned earlier that existing buildings, as a whole, represent an enormous opportunity to make an impact on climate change. But what would you say to individual building owners or facility managers who might be thinking: "Well, I'm just one small building. Why should I get involved?"

Well, first, there are energy savings to be had in some of these best practices—your costs will go down if you commit to the best practices. But beyond that, every building has a role to play in solving for climate change. Building managers are exactly the change agents we need to get into the mix. And going on that journey with your building is meaningful. It will yield dividends to the organizations involved, but also environmentally and for the people who use those buildings.

Thanks to Jenny Carney for taking the time to speak with us. Get started with BIT at bitbuilding.org.

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