Who this is for: Building industry stakeholders interested in the emerging landscape of zero energy buildings in the United States, and some of the drivers behind it. Architects in particular will find the suggested AIA resources helpful in understanding how their role on projects will evolve as high performance building requirements become the norm.
Takeaway: Example U.S. Zero Energy Buildings were scarce five years ago, but the list is growing rapidly as the industry proves it can be done at lower upfront cost than many would expect. Fundamental shifts in the building industry’s traditional approaches to energy modeling, energy codes, and team collaboration are behind the growing ZEB trend. As enterprise clients and jurisdictions grow to require more rigorous high performance building standards, architects must embrace energy modeling as an essential tool for design decision support—not just code or LEED compliance at the end of a project.
Author: Jonathan Rowe manages the Zero Energy Buildings Program for Autodesk’s Sustainability Solutions team. Based out of the San Francisco office, he enjoys riding his bike, relaxing in Dolores Park, and seeing breaks in the fog.
Looking back on my early career, ASRHAE’s 2008 “Net-Zero and Beyond” conference in San Francisco was a formative experience. Having spent the past several years as a LEED consultant and sustainable design education director for my architecture firm, I was eager to expand my awareness of environmental building strategies focused less on chasing the cheapest LEED credits and more on pursuing an integrated, performance-based approach to efficiently design, build, and operate our nation’s expansive—and highly resource intensive—real estate. Back then, the pack of example Zero Energy Buildings (ZEBs) was pretty thin, confined to the handful of small demonstration projects documented in NREL’s white paper Zero Energy Buildings: A Critical Look at the Definition .
Half a decade later, it’s a remarkably different story. Last spring, the New Buildings Institute’s (NBI) Getting to Zero 2012 Status Update report tripled the number of documented ZEB success stories on the books in the United States, while concurrently identifying an even larger pool of projects either targeting ZEB status—but not yet verified (dubbed “emerging”)—or with efficiency levels close to documented ZEBs—but lacking sufficient on-site renewable generation to offset annual energy consumption (labeled” Zero Energy Capable”). With that list expected to grow with NBI’s 2013 Update this September, the market for zero energy commercial buildings—while still in its developmental stages—is booming with activity. Central to this phenomenon are three fundamental shifts in building industry’s traditional approaches to modeling technology, energy codes, and team collaboration.
Location of the 21 Commercial Projects Identified in the Getting to Zero 2012 Status Update
(Source: The New Buildings Institute )
Today, prescriptive or comparative energy modeling paths alone rarely lead to zero energy performance. Instead, project teams aiming to verify ZEB status during operations require robust building performance analysis as a critical decision support tool in the earliest stages of project conception. And naturally, for a conservative industry like construction, old habits die hard. Many professionals share an entrenched perception that energy models are solely useful for predicting an annual energy bill or proving compliance with LEED requirements. This view minimizes energy modeling’s most promising potential: to quickly and accurately compare coarse design options against one another and inform sound decision making during the most environmentally influential project stage.
In the American Institute of Architect’s first video installment of Design: Art + Science, the narrative centers on the “New Normal” of high performance and best-value building principles becoming embedded in emerging codes, compliance standards, and voluntary rating systems. The International Green Construction Code (IgCC)—now adopted and in use in 10 U.S. states—offers a new approach to energy targets. Based on the Zero Energy Performance Index (zEPI), it removes the task of modeling a fictitious reference building for comparative purposes, and instead sets zero net energy as the absolute goal. This shifts the dialogue from a achieving a certain percentage better than code minimum to a percentage within reach of net zero annual energy consumption. It also represents a necessary reframe that targets outcomes rather than hypothetical baselines (and the unavoidable time-sink required for modelers to conceptualize them).
International Green Construction Code Adoption Map
(Source: International Code Council Website)
Voluntary leadership standards like the widely-adopted 2030 Challenge drive the conversation even further, inspiring industry awareness and buy-in for dramatically pushing the energy footprint of America’s planned and existing building stock closer to zero over the next two decades. Similar, yet broader in scope, is the American Institute of Architect’s 2030 Commitment, which requires firms to model, improve, and track performance of their firms’ designs against 2030 Challenge targets, in parallel with reporting plans to decrease their organizational environmental footprint with strategies like recycling, energy and water conservation, and green purchasing programs. Looking forward, LEED’s new Integrative Process credits, which incent “simple box” energy models and water budgets during schematics, will serve as a catalyst for extending adoption of design performance and whole building energy modeling solutions.
(Source: Architecture 2030 )
The compass points towards a landscape where architects, engineers, and builders must more fluidly collaborate through all stages of design. Structurally, professional trades—often siloed from one another in current practice—will be required to penetrate outmoded norms of teaming to effectively achieve future building energy requirements. Whether the modeling expertise resides in-house or through alliances with third-party consultants is an important strategic decision for design firms, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But regardless where the knowledge is positioned, the mechanics of tomorrow’s paradigm emphasize a need for architects to embrace their pivotal role as masters of collaboration who facilitate synergistic environmental benefits across complex multidisciplinary design teams. Emerging technologies that synchronize communications and workflows will serve as the connective tissue for this collaborative exchange. Transforming the human element will require willingness to adapt, evolve, and rise to the challenge of delivering best-value buildings to clients who are coming to expect it outright.
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No matter where your firm sits in the energy modeling adoption curve, you’ll benefit from the wealth of information included in the AIA’s Energy Modeling Practice Guide and recently produced video, Design: Art + Science: Energy by Design , which expands on many of the themes above.
(Source: © 2013 The American Institute of Architects)
Question for Readers: Is your firm working on any zero energy building projects? Do you have one completed and verified? If so, consider registering your project with the New Buildings Institute. NBI is compiling the list for the 2013 ZEB Status Update and requesting information on commercial building projects designed for, within reach of, or achieving net zero energy performance. I’d love to hear about what you’re working on, so please leave stories or feedback in the comment section below.