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As more federal buildings target zero energy, leading designers tell us that day-to-day choices make all the difference

Automatically operated shades and a passive transpired solar collector could help bring the NREL research support facility to net-zero energy use--but it takes intentional conservation too. (Photo: Frank Ooms)

If you build it, they will plug. They will plug in drip coffee makers, halogen lamps, personal DVD players, aquariums, space heaters, and maybe even hair dryers. They will leave computers, lights, and printers on all night. How many of them will it take to screw in incandescent light bulbs before we realize that net-zero is not just about design?

That was the big takeaway from a net-zero press conference I attended during the AIA Convention. The conference, sponsored by Building Design+Construction to promote its new white paper on net-zero buildings, focused on an AIA/COTE Top Ten winner, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) research support facility in Golden, Colorado. Completed in June 2010, the NREL facility could become the largest net-zero building in the country.

Unlike with Energy Star, LEED, or even Passivhaus certifications, a zero-energy building (ZEB) doesn't get to call itself that until it has shown for a whole year that it produces at least as much energy as it consumes (subscribers can read Tristan Roberts' feature on energy metrics for an in-depth comparison of various systems). This is where some designs targeting net-zero have run into trouble: buildings don't use energy. People use energy.

Zero-people buildings?

The obvious way to get to zero energy, then, is to have zero occupants. Problem solved!

Unfortunately, the purpose of 99.9% of buildings is to have occupants living or working in them. So ZEB designers are feeling their way toward three main strategies for balancing the net-zero equation to account for us humans and our crazy need for "comfort":

  • Engineer for maximum efficiency. According to David Eijadi, FAIA, who worked on the net-zero Science House, targeting net-zero needs to begin with efficiency--a minimum of 50%–70% above ASHRAE 90.1. This involves right-sized mechanical systems, tight envelopes, daylighting, and other features that are fundamental to good, energy-efficient design and construction. Tom Hootman, AIA, added that it was key to "start with passive strategies" for heating, cooling, ventilation, and lighting.
  • Automate. Tagging along right behind passive strategies are automated systems that turn lights on and off using motion sensors, close and open louvered shades based on sunlight conditions, or even sense indoor and outdoor temperatures and automatically open windows. For safety or comfort reasons, most of these automated systems will need the flexibility of human override, which is why you need to...
  • Talk to owners and occupants. A lot. Because they need to understand that achieving net-zero requires constant, intentional conservation. In the case of the NREL building, the client was 100% on board with this. "Set aggressive goals," emphasized NREL's Paul Torcellini, P.E., Ph.D. "Get behind it, set the budget, and unleash the creativity" of the design team. Still, there are a lot of people using this building every day, and each one has to take some responsibility as well. They are alerted at their work stations when a central computer thinks it's a good time to close a shade or open a window--but that doesn't mean they'll do it. You may be going for zero, but buy-in has to be one hundred.

'Embrace your limits'

The panel was made up of industry leaders who have helped design multiple net-zero buildings. From left to right: Tom Hootman, AIA, of RNL Design; Paul Torcellini, P.E., Ph.D., of NREL; David Eijadi, FAIA, of the Weidt Group; Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, of HOK; Mark L'Italian, FAIA, of EHDD Architecture; Philip Macey, AIA, of Haselden Construction.

The stringency of achieving net-zero might seem daunting, but the whole panel here seemed really excited about the possibilities. "Embrace your limits," emphasized Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA. Lazarus, one of the designers of Net Zero Co2urt, also served as a judge for this year's AIA/COTE Top Ten awards. "Rethink your process," she said, "and be pushed to a new set of processes."

Other panel members concurred, and added that if you try really hard to get to net-zero and you don't make it, you've still made a much more efficient building than you would have if you hadn't had this goal in mind.

What about the renewables?

Distinctly missing from this conversation was the thing that puts the Z in ZEB: energy produced on the site. Aside from photovoltaics (PV) on the roof and on an adjacent parking structure, the NREL building also uses some interesting strategies like a transpired solar collector and a thermal labyrinth to make use of solar energy for heating. While very creative, the design intentionally employs established technologies and off-the-shelf products and does not incorporate any funky, cutting-edge renewables. This is partly for budgetary reasons and partly as an object lesson: if the nation's largest net-zero-to-be can get there on a low budget, so can you!

What do you think? Would you have gotten to zero a different way? Or is getting to zero even important, considering that old-fashioned (and some new-fashioned) conservation is doing so much of the work?

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1 Of course it's people, and no posted by Robert Riversong on 05/29/2011 at 11:01 pm

Of course it's people, and not inanimate buildings, that consume energy (or, more accurately, consume exergy and degrade it into entropy – energy cannot be created or destroyed).

I've been arguing, often against incredible resistance, that comparing homes (or other buildings) by actual energy use rather than modeled energy use primarily measures occupant behavior rather than building efficiency – and human behavior is often irrational and highly paradoxical.

Since at least 1865, it's been noted that nearly every increase in technical efficiency produces a net increase in consumption – this is called the Jeavon's paradox. For instance, while automobile fuel efficiency increased from an average of 16 mpg in 1930 to 22.3 mpg in the US today, fuel consumption per vehicle has gone up in that time by a factor of four (in spite of the relatively high cost of gasoline).

Net zero, in itself, is a meaningless concept and a self-defeating goal if it can be achieved as easily with more on-site production as with more building efficiency. The value that it teaches is that consumption is OK as long as you produce at least as much as you consume. The problems caused by our high-energy-use society are not solved by increased production (whether centralized or dispersed), nor by energy-efficiency, but only by drastically reduced consumption. Thus the only way to get to a true net zero building is not to build it, because even the "bricks and mortar" require huge amounts of energy and the desecration of the earth by mining and processing minerals.

2 For the benefit of readers in posted by Ray Gomez on 05/30/2011 at 05:02 am

For the benefit of readers interested in learning the real "value" of what the Net-Zero Commercial Building Consortium teaches, I would like to refer readers to the fundamental mission and vision of the Net-Zero CB initiative:

The development of Net-Zero technology is in its policy development phase. Expecting an overnight transition is not realistic. Industry is eager to sink its teeth into something with substance to prove or disprove its validity. Therefore, industry is quick to point out the known elements, the limitations or shortcomings and challenges of an emerging industry. It's no surprise there's a lot of complaining out there. How else will we get there?

Unfortunately, humans will keep building. Long gone are the days primitive dwelling styles. Not building - is not an option.

Along with the development of Net-Zero Building technology, human consumptive behavior must be re-trained during the process, as alluded to by the article and latest comments.

3 "Not building is not an optio posted by Robert Riversong on 05/30/2011 at 06:32 am

"Not building is not an option". In fact it's the only rational and responsible option, along with not reproducing and not consuming anything more than what is necessary to sustain our bodies.

quoting Bill McKibben, From The Sky Really Is Falling, by Chris Hedges:

"They haven’t begun to internalize the idea that the science has shifted sharply. We are no longer talking about a long, slow, gradual, linear warming, but something that is coming much more quickly and violently. Now what we are coming to realize is that the most important adaptation we can do is to stop putting carbon in the atmosphere. If we don’t, we are going to produce temperature rises so high that there is no adapting to them.”

"It is going to be a century that calls for being resilient and durable. Most of that adaptation is going to take the form of economies getting smaller and lower to the ground, local food, local energy, things like that. But that alone won’t do it, because the scale of change we are now talking about is so great that no one can adapt to it. Temperatures have gone up one degree so far and that has been enough to melt the Arctic. If we let it go up three or four degrees…we are really not talking about a planet that can support a civilization anything like the one we’ve got."

"The problem, at this point, is not going to be dealt with by small steps. You can’t make the math work one house or one campus at a time. We should do those things. I’ve got a little plaque for having built the most energy-efficient house in Vermont the year we built it. I’ve got solar panels everywhere. But I don’t confuse myself into thinking that that’s actually doing very much. It is going to be dealt with by getting off fossil fuel in the next 10 or 20 years or not at all."

"We’ve already passed the point where we’re going to stop global warming. It has already warmed a degree and there is another degree in the pipeline from carbon already emitted. The heat gets held in the ocean for a while, but it’s already there. We’ve already guaranteed ourselves a miserable century. The question is whether it’s going to be an impossible one.”

- Bill McKibben

4 Transition and permaculture a posted by Paula Melton on 06/01/2011 at 11:13 pm

Transition and permaculture are both really awesome. But they are neither mainstream nor widespread. The thing that impresses me about this NREL project is that it is a government building that may accomplish net-zero on a conventional building budget. The other thing that impresses me is the built-in expectation that hundreds of workaday employees will intentionally conserve energy day after day, year after year.

Growing the Three Sisters in my shady back yard doesn't come anywhere near the kind of impact that a mainstream project like this can have on regular people.

5 Paula, if you think the failu posted by Robert Riversong on 06/01/2011 at 11:39 am

Paula, if you think the failure of the human race to live by a high standard is "complete", then perhaps you should have checkout out with the Rapture on May 21st. Cynicism doesn't build a new paradigm, nor does it have anything but a deleterious influence on the existing one.

And, if you really believe that people are by nature "irrational and selfish", then you're basing your conclusions on the 1% of human history during which we've spoiled our nest rather than the 99% of human culture in which we lived sustainably on earth. I'll go with the 99:1 odds that humanity is better than it now appears.

You're quite right that people are not going to stop perpetuating the current myth of permanent economic growth because I or anyone else points out that the "emperor has no clothes" and that permanent growth violates the laws of physics, thermodynamics and biology.

In truth, the "green" building movement is in complete denial about these fundamental laws. Jeavons paradox demonstrates that increasing efficiency results in greater consumption. The efficiency with which we use energy matters not a whit to the earth – only the total amount of energy consumed and waste products (including entropic heat) that we leave behind. The US, more than any other nation, is unwilling to do anything to sacrifice growth, and most Americans are on the same page, even though a dramatically growing economy has left most of us in the dust. This kind of hopefulness is blind faith no less than that of the followers of Rev. Harold Camping who sold their homes and maxed out their credit cards in anticipation of an impending miracle.

What you're acknowledging is that a day of reckoning is near, but until then your goal is to slightly slow the train heading for the cliff. Problem is, a slow tumble over the precipice will be just as cataclysmic as a head-long rush and maybe more painful. I'm simply saying it's time we open our eyes, see what's coming, and get off the train. Nothing less will have any possibility for a positive outcome, even if the probability for a positive outcome has diminishingly low odds.

You want to use "every trick up our sleeve". The secret of all great magicians is that (pssst) there are no tricks up the sleeve – it's all about distraction and illusion.

McKibben, bless his soul, has faith in mass public movements to influence political, economic and social institutions. I've been there done that since the 1960s. It can make incremental changes but, as even McKibben testifies, small steps ain't gonna get us to the promised land. What you refer to as my plan, is merely the obvious that's staring us in the face: get off the fast track or end up as a footnote to history. Slow down, reduce your needs to a subsistence level, collaborate, celebrate, conspire together to envision a world that works for the entire Web-of-Life, and flesh out that vision with acts of courage, dignity and integrity. It's really as simple and as wonderful as that.

6 I should add that I'm not tal posted by Robert Riversong on 06/01/2011 at 12:40 pm

I should add that I'm not talking about some utopian image of a possible future. There is an international movement which largely expresses and lives out this vision – or, rather, gives local communities the tools and direction and inspiration to co-create their own local visions.

It is the Transition Movement, based on the most holistic "map" of culture yet devised in the modern age: Permaculture.

Built on Bill Mollison’s seminal book Permaculture, a Designers Manual, published in 1988 and David Holmgren’s 2003 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, the ideas were explored and expanded in a student project overseen by permaculture teacher Rob Hopkins at the Kinsale Further Education College in Ireland and based on his "Energy Descent Action Plan" which looked at holistic creative adaptations in the realms of energy production, health, education, economy and agriculture as a "road map" to a sustainable future. Two of his students turned that "road map" into the Transition Town concept, which took root in Kinsale, Ireland and then spread to Totnes, England where the concept was further developed during 2005 and 2006. The aim of this venture is to equip communities for the dual challenges of climate change and peak oil (financial collapse was added later).

The Transition Towns movement is an example of socioeconomic localization, much like the one I helped with in Washington County ME in 1980, begun humbly by Sister Lucy Poulin a decade earlier to become H.O.M.E. coop – a fully self-contained alternative grass-roots social economy based on the faith tradition of the works of mercy and lay community. Another similar effort I assisted in 1982 was the Woodlands Community Land Trust and Woodlands Community Development Program in Rose's Creek Hollow TN, begun by Sister Marie Cirillo in 1977 as an effort to rebuild the rural life of the Cumberland Mountain region of northeast Tennessee – another region that was an economic colony of corporate America. She had previously started the area's first cooperative business enterprise – a pallet factory.

This movement, and not the very mainstream "green" building movement, represents the kind of paradigm shift that will be required to get us through the coming perfect storm of multiple crises.

Pertinent quotes from the TT movement:

"By shifting our mind-set we can actually recognize the coming post-cheap oil era as an opportunity rather than a threat, and design the future low carbon age to be thriving, resilient and abundant – somewhere much better to live than our current alienated consumer culture based on greed, war and the myth of perpetual growth."

Transition US Mission: "Every community in the United States will have engaged its collective creativity to unleash an extraordinary and historic transition to a future beyond fossil fuels; a future that is more vibrant, abundant and resilient; one that is ultimately preferable to the present".

"An essential aspect of transition, is that the outer work of transition needs to be matched by inner transition. That is, in order to move down the energy descent pathways effectively we need to rebuild our relations with our selves, with each other and with the natural world. That requires focusing on the heart and soul of transition."

7 Robert, I admire your ability posted by Paula Melton on 05/30/2011 at 03:22 pm

Robert, I admire your ability to continue to hold humanity to a very high standard despite our complete failure to meet your expectations! Your optimism is inspiring.

I am much more cynical than you, and more likely to accept that people are irrational and selfish and try to work within those limits. I'm afraid my sympathies are with Ray: people are not going to stop building new buildings, regardless of how you and Ray and I feel about it.

A lot of green building technology is about accepting human nature and finding ways to make it easier for people to do the right thing. There's still no guarantee they'll do it. People have an amazing capacity to stay in denial until there is an absolute necessity to act. That day of absolute necessity is coming, but until then I'm in favor of using every trick up our sleeve to get our environmental impact under control.

McKibben is suggesting large-scale solutions. Are you? You suggest that no one should build buildings, no one should reproduce, and no one should consume more calories than they need--but how do you propose we put your plan into action?

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