Member Spotlight: Marcus Sheffer
Now and then we highlight one of our members and ask them to share with our community insights about themselves, their careers and the present and future state of energy simulation as they see it.
Marcus Sheffer is a consultant with over 35 years of green building experience. His company, Energy Opportunities, Inc. provides technical consulting services on projects relating to energy management, efficiency and conservation; renewable energy systems, and the environmental impacts of human endeavor. Marcus is also a partner in 7group, a multi-disciplinary team of professionals focused on developing the capacity of projects and organizations to affect how humans regenerate life through the act of designing and building. He is a LEED Fellow, an accredited LEED Project Reviewer, and a Living Future Accredited Professional. Volunteer activities have included leadership positions with the USGBC (LEED Steering Committee, LEED Technical Committee, LEED Market Advisory Committee and past Chair of the Energy & Atmosphere Technical Advisory Group), the Green Building Association of Central PA (Founding Board Chair) and the International Living Future Institute as a Living Building Challenge Ambassador.
What about BEM is exciting to you and matters?
My work is primarily in conjunction with green building projects. What excites me about those projects are the potential they have for helping to heal the environmental damage humans have inflicted on life; how they can be used as instruments to heal the wounds we have caused, both in nature and in ourselves. I am most excited working on projects with people committed to a larger purpose; those that are seeking to affect change in human systems that impact our development and the health of ecosystems - like education, food, land development, local community, health care, etc. We often ask people whether humans have the capacity and capability to address the environmental imperatives we face? Universally virtually everyone agrees that of course we do. So that begs the next question, why don’t we do it? The answers to this generally come around to the evolution of humanity’s worldview – our mindset that influences our perceiving, thinking, knowing and doing. So what the heck does this have to do with BEM?!?
Actually not much about BEM is very exciting for most people. BEM is just a tool and as such is a means to an end. The question is to what end? Unfortunately this tool is too often used in a regulatory, compliance mode – how many LEED points am I going to get, how much rebate money am I eligible for, etc. BEM starts to get exciting when it is used as originally intended – to guide design decisions. To do this most effectively it needs to be used as a tool to help understand the workings and interactions of systems. On a very small scale BEM can be a wonderful tool to introduce systems thinking into the process. Our normal mode of reductionist thinking tends to break down larger systems into their component parts and in the case of building design we create a whole series of specialists who understand those parts extremely well but can often lose the forest for the trees. BEM is a wonderful tool for helping us to see the whole and examining how the pieces interact with one another to create systemic affect. Used properly it can help us begin to start thinking in systems that focus on the whole, in alignment with the way that nature works.
Once we start to think systemically, we then need to apply an integrative process that facilitates the conversations required to optimize the performance of the whole. Nature is comprised of nested processes of exchange in reciprocal relationship. The processes we apply to the design of our building should be structured in a way that maximizes the opportunities for exchange among all of the project stakeholders. BEM is a fabulous tool to focus and enable these conversations to integrate all of the building systems in a way that significantly improves its energy performance without increasing its first cost. Trying to do so on dozens of different buildings is the exciting challenge we bring to each project. It is the exchanges within the conversations that create a value adding process associated with an energy model. It is what brings the work alive. If all you do is crank out a model without using it to generate these conversations it tends to be practically useless. Of course we do all of this because the outcomes do matter; producing significantly more energy efficient buildings that minimize their overall environmental impacts should always be the goal. Just creating the models usually doesn’t get you there alone. When BEM is used as a tool, in a process, for a project that is focused on shifting our collective mindset about the relationship of humans and nature, it can be a means to begin to change our mindset about the way we think about our projects. Once we start thinking of the building as a set of systems it is not much of a leap to begin to think of our buildings as systems within our communities, our watersheds, and our regional biomes embedded within living ecosystems. As they say, it is all connected.
What do you think the biggest areas of growth of BEM will be in the near future and what are you doing about it?
I always hesitate to predict the future. I have been hearing for 30 years that BEM will evolve to a simple tool that every designer will understand and use in the blink of an eye. While the tools are easier, I think we need a quantum leap in the level of understanding among designers. So I spend time on trying to educate others on the practical and useful ways we can employ BEM as a tool on most projects. Along those lines I served as an active member of the ASHRAE Standard 209 committee that was recently published to define a scope of work for design-phase energy modeling. I also usually start my day answering questions on the energy-related LEEDUser forums as a way to give back to the industry. In the past I was one of the early adopters and influencers in the development of LEED, especially as it relates to the energy credits.
What is your expertise and give some examples of how you have helped your customers in the past.
My expertise comes from decades of working to make buildings more energy efficient. I learned about building energy efficiency doing energy audits for many years on mostly small to medium-sized commercial buildings. Nothing like good field experience in my opinion.
I have also developed some expertise in the use of BEM as a design decision-making tool. This experience was a significant part of the integrative process outlined in the book I co-authored with Bill Reed and my partners in 7group, The Integrative Design Guide to Green Buildings, Redefinging the Practice of Sustainability, John Wiley & Sons, 2009. The process outlined in the book is almost identical to the process outlined years late within ASHRAE Standard 209-2018, Energy Simulation Aided Design for Buildings except Low Rise Residential Buildings. I guess you could say we wrote the book on the application of BEM within an integrative design process.
While there is certainly a technical aspect to this process and the use of BEM, I find it is not the numbers which ultimately influence hearts and minds. For a great paper on this subject I would heartily recommend Donella Meadows’ paper, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. BEM is a wonderful tool for understanding a system which is comprised of a combination of systems. It encourages and fosters systems thinking which can then be leveraged to help our customers think more broadly about the larger systems within which the project is nested. It can be used to challenge the goals of the these larger systems and ultimately challenge the mindset that creates the paradigm within which they operate . . . and you thought you were just doing an energy model! So the numbers are a great place to start but ultimately they are not sufficient.
We also have some amazing clients like the Phipps Conservatory, the Willow School, RE Farm Café, and others that recognize the practical value of an integrative process seeking a more regenerative design.
Tell us about how you came to work in BEM.
In college I read Amory Lovins’ book called Soft Energy Paths. It resonated deeply with me. I happened to have an internship with, and then was hired by, the State Energy Office in Pennsylvania. I directed an energy information outreach program back in the days when Google was a phone call and you would get your answer via snail mail! We offered many workshops and did many building energy audits. I have worked with BEM since the days of DOS based programs where you had to spend all day inputting code and then run the model overnight and hope that it would not crash. I started using these tools more frequently in the 1990s with the introduction of ASEAM (a bin method modeling tool) and then using Energy10 and PowerDOE on some of our early green building projects. We continue to use eQUEST and sometimes EnergyPlus for our project work. My little professional secret is that I actually do not know how to create an energy model! I have hired or employ engineers who do that work for over 30 years so I understand it about as well as anyone who has not actually built one could possibly understand it.