By Meghan Hall
The construction and commercial real estate industries each consume vast amounts of energy and renewable resources, putting them at the center of conversations regarding environmentalism and sustainability. While property owners, architects and contractors are all striving to complete increasingly energy efficient projects, little data has been collected on how well those projects run in the years after completion. Bractlet, an applied science and software tool, is helping those within the CRE office industry to highlight and fix these inefficiencies, using information and modeling in new ways. The Registry spoke with Bractlet’s CEO and Co-Founder, Alec Manfre, to understand what went into the creation of the platform, and how it seeks to provide office owners data that will allow them to make more affordable — and sustainable — choices.
Alec, tell me a little bit about your background in commercial real estate — what initially inspired you to begin learning about and working toward increasing the energy efficiency and sustainability of commercial projects?
My passion for energy efficiency and sustainability began in my high school biology class, when we first began studying climate change. I recognized the consequences of climate change, and I quickly became involved in raising awareness about this issue and finding solutions. My senior year of high school, I lead a project to increase awareness of climate change and help the school district reduce emissions. This entailed giving talks around the school district to educate younger students and to teach them about energy efficiency and setting up competitions amongst all the schools in our district to reduce consumption. This project was part of Community Problem Solving, the real-world application of the Future Problem Solving Program (FPSP), and [it] won the International Grand Champion Aware at the Future Problem Solving Program International competition.
From there, I decided to become an engineer because I wanted to work on solutions to drive energy efficiency and renewable energy generation. I attended the Georgia Institute of Technology where I studied Mechanical Engineering. Beyond the classroom, I was president of an environmental group on campus that worked with facilities to reduce energy consumption, awarded a grant to conduct research on carbon nano-tube based solar cells, awarded a grant to conduct public policy research, and did three rotations at GE Energy as an intern.
When I was still in college, it became clear to me that buildings were some of the planet’s largest polluters, and through my experience working to drive efficiency, the thing that was always a struggle was obtaining granular data on how buildings were consuming energy. I felt there had to be a better way. It was with that goal that I founded Bractlet with my Georgia Tech classmates Matthew Lynch and Brian Smith.
How are you seeing building regulations evolve in an attempt to increase building efficiency and reduce emissions, and how have these regulations posed challenges for building owners and operators?
Many cities are passing climate-related bills with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s not surprising that these laws often focus in part on building emissions. For example, New York City recently passed legislation with the ambitious goal of cutting building emissions by 40 percent in 11 years; LA’s recently released Green New Deal has more modest benchmarks.
This has created obvious challenges for building owners who have to better understand how their buildings use energy and how they can reduce it. (To be clear, some emission regulations are extremely ambitious, and may require owners to offset their emissions with renewable energy credits or significant changes to the buildings’ utilization to hit the required targets.)
The concept of measuring a building’s energy use is not necessarily new, since electricity, heating and cooling costs comprise a sizable portion of a building’s overall expenses. But now, building owners and operators not only have to collect and analyze data about their buildings’ energy use to see where there may be opportunities to cut costs, but they also must be able to use that analysis to predict the future with strong accuracy, i.e., to figure out what they can do to their building to reduce its carbon footprint and how impactful those changes will be. (With New York City set to levy fines against over-emitters, accuracy is key.) In most cases, emission reduction plans will involve retrofitting buildings to cut energy consumption, but determining the impact that a particular upgrade will have on a specific building is a major challenge.
What pain points in the industry ultimately led you to create Bractlet?
I mentioned that my personal impetus for entering this line of work was a passion for energy efficiency, but there are serious pain points in the industry that make our platform instrumental. Building operations data tends to be very siloed, and historically, when owners and operators analyzed potential energy-saving building upgrades, they relied heavily on engineering studies based on fragmented and siloed data, and only minimal real-time data. The cursory nature of traditional analysis and the associated complexity of systems have made it near impossible to accurately predict how building improvements will impact building performance. In addition, this lack of data coupled with a subsequent lack of tools to analyze that data often makes it seemingly impossible to locate ways to optimize a building’s existing systems, leaving significant money on the table. In addition, we found that once an owner makes a decision to move forward on a project, that is only part of the battle. You need to then subsequently bid out the project, ensure the bids are apples-to-apples, execute on the work, ensure the project was properly installed and configured, and then ensure the building maintains its performance as the building degrades and utilization changes. Bractlet exists to be a holistic solution for building owners and solve these challenging and technical problems.
How does its software work to identify energy-saving and green building initiatives to help property owners cut emissions?
To address the issue of siloed data that is not generally analyzed holistically, we’ve developed technology that allows us to create ‘digital energy twins’ that reflect a building’s actual performance and energy consumption. The twin is created by collecting a wealth of real-time and historical information about the individual building, including design and utilization information, building automation system (BAS) equipment commands, weather data and more. With all that information we create a physics-based virtual model that is able to simulate a building’s performance with near-perfect accuracy.
We use this digital energy twin along with a detailed data analysis that allows us to understand how the building can be optimized. We have a database of optimizations and projects that are used to drive the identification process, and running these projects through the simulation model allows us to assess their performance, given the unique characteristics of the building. We are even able dial in and optimize the exact control algorithms. While this detailed energy analysis drives accuracy of energy savings, we also have a database of costs for these various projects that are tailored to the specific building, equipment and regional rates. This analysis gives owners confidence and puts these complex initiatives into financial terms for them to evaluate. Once they make their selections, our software outputs the exact specifications of the projects so they can be bid out and executed upon. We have found that providing exact specifications cuts bids in half. Once projects are installed, we are able to ensure they are installed correctly by using real-time data analysis and the simulation. The seamless nature of these solutions empowers owners to make better investment decisions that cut costs and reduce emissions, while ensuring their investment achieves their desires.
What are some examples of Bractlet successfully identifying energy inefficiencies?
As a general rule, every building has some inefficiencies, and the question is not whether inefficiencies exist, but how significant they are. (In literally every single building at which Bractlet has been deployed, we’ve found optimizations that could reduce energy expenses.)
Interestingly, this can even be true in cases when building ownership is actively attempting to be environmentally friendly, if analysis isn’t done holistically.
For example, a number of months ago, our system was deployed in a Texas office tower and was able to identify that a new chiller was installed incorrectly, and was therefore consuming an incredible amount of energy. While the “energy-efficient” chiller had been installed in the hopes of reducing costs, because it wasn’t installed right, it would have resulted in $1,000,000 of excess energy usage over the chiller’s life. The efficiency of a chiller is based on several factors, and when we went into the building, Bractlet’s holistic analysis identified factors that were off and helped locate the source of the inefficiency.
On average, by how much is Bractlet able to save property owners in terms of not just time and savings, but emissions?
On average, Bractlet’s platform identifies solutions that will reduce energy costs and emissions by 25 percent to 30 percent. Property improvements recommended by Bractlet generally pay for themselves within 1.5 years.
To clarify, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all projects are implemented. After we’ve completed our analysis, we provide building owners with an array of potential building improvements, with details about the energy and cost savings of each of them. In most cases, owners will look through each potential project along with its details, ROI and payback time, and then move forward with those projects that fit best into their capital improvements plan.
Do you believe that there is a point at which technology will no longer be able to increase energy efficiency of the built environment? If so, what is that threshold?
When discussing energy efficiency there are really two things to be aware of — one is projects that can be installed to reduce energy consumption, and the second is ensuring that the building maintains its efficiency as the equipment and systems continue to degrade.
The latter will not go away because all technology or equipment are in need of ongoing upgrades and maintenance (just think about the last iPhone you had or the last car issue you had to deal with). In terms of the former, yes, there are theoretical physical limitations to energy efficiency. If we want to always be comfortable in our buildings, then we will always have to remove energy from the building (cooling) or add energy to the building (heating), and by nature this requires energy. The same can be said for the need to be able to see in buildings (lighting), conduct work (plugs and internet connectivity for laptops), and wanting to work in a healthy place (air quality and outdoor air systems). There will always be demands on a building that have to be satisfied with energy consumption.
With that being said, I view the drive to net-zero buildings as a harmony where both the building demand and the grid have to work together. The difficulty of renewables is that generally their power peaks at times when it is not needed. To get that timing right there are sub-markets that exist to ensure the grid can balance power. Currently, buildings are largely reactive participants in these markets, rather than proactive providers or consumers of energy that help maintain a balance. I believe that while there are theoretical limits to energy efficiency, we have a long way to go, and what is just as important is how we maintain buildings and, ultimately, how they are a dynamic solution to net-zero consumption.
Looking at the CRETech industry, why do you think there are not yet many platforms that strive to address changing environmental conditions in the built environment?
I think there are quite a few applications that have tried to address this both in the past and present. However, I think these companies have not understood the complexity of buildings nor have they been able to bring together the right disciplines to create a platform that not only understand buildings, but also understands how decisions are made and acted upon. Bractlet stands out because we offer this type of holistic solution that goes well beyond collectingenergy data. Key to this is developing technology that provides accuracy, confidence, and trust. This is why we build digital energy twins because it is the only way to drive this type of accuracy and allows us to “predict the future.” This type of trust and transparency enables owners to make the necessary decisions to drive value in their portfolio .
Looking forward, what is next for Bractlet? Do you have any intentions of expanding the platform in an effort to analyze different types of commercial properties (multifamily, industrial, etc.)? Why or why not?
While our technology is applicable in all building types, and in fact has shown success in other verticals, we are staying highly focused on commercial office to ensure we create the best possible product tailored to the needs of commercial office owners. We have many exciting developments on the product front from building out even better portfolio tools to investing in technology advancements that allow us to deliver results even faster and provide solutions on the due diligence of new assets. Stay tuned!
Is there anything else you would like to add that The Registry did not mention?
One final thought worth mentioning: The key to making intelligent property investment decisions requires an understanding that each building is not a collection of siloed systems, but rather an interconnected ecosystem in which each part interacts with the other based on governing scientific principles of physics and thermodynamics. We’re fortunate enough to have built a team of energy engineers, mechanical engineers and data scientists that fully understand these concepts and were able to build our sophisticated digital energy twin technology that serves as the basis for a software platform that connects the various stakeholders in commercial real-estate.
It’s only because of this strong scientific background that we are able to provide such accurate projections and enable property owners to make smarter building investment decisions.