Energy Efficiency

Net zero building expo highlights

Net zero energy buildings require a lot of upkeep and maintenance, but the energy and health benefits are worth it.

By Ryan Haug November 4, 2020
High-rise commercial buildings in Chicago, along the Chicago River. Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

The Net Zero Building Conference & Expo in September comes at a time when we are currently witnessing extreme weather events coast to coast, from record breaking wildfires in the west to intense hurricanes in the east. The effects of climate change are happening, and it is our ethical responsibility to do our part in reducing our carbon footprint and do what we can to educate, inform, and empower our designers and clients for change. Key takeaways include:

Buildings are healthcare

Buildings are about the people who use them, so we should design our buildings based on that premise. The actions we do today will “determine our collective health for the generations to come.” The effects are seen at the onset of the design process, as choosing the building materials effects carbon emissions which is a direct ana log to global warming. On average, Americans spend about 90% of our time indoors, so it makes sense to create an environment that fosters the end users’ well-being. Pushing HVAC innovation will gain effectiveness and efficiency in both ventilation and filtration. Better air quality will help reduce transmission risk while improving cognitive ability.

Net zero energy buildings are real, but not simple

By setting the sustainability goals up front, the design team will develop and analyze multiple alternatives to meet sustainability benchmarks during the concept design phase. One way to tackle these goals is to take a three-tiered approach towards emissions:

  • Tier 1 – Direct emissions
  • Tier 2 – Energy emissions
  • Tier 3 – Embodied emissions.

By digesting each piece, the design team can learn through past experiences and allow for healthy dialog around sustainable design solutions.

Lessons learned in PV

One of the ways a building becomes net zero energy are through Photovoltaic (PV) systems to help offset the energy load. Yet a few things to keep in mind regarding PV is carefully reviewing siting to maximize the PV and sizing for the right amount. Utilizing only Title 24 energy modeling to predict energy consumption may not be so great at predicting passive building energy use. This could lead to a PV that is oversized and currently, economics don’t suggest that overproducing for PV is worth it. Using multiple angles (traditional modeling, creating spreadsheets to tabulate energy use, etc.) will lead to a better idea of energy use for PV sizing.

Demand regulation for clean energy

Let’s lift the “floor”, not just the ceiling. Floor = regulation, ceiling = voluntary measures. California has passed one of the most ambitious energy bills into law with SB 100, a commitment towards 100% clean energy in California by 2045. SB 100 is feasible based on these three reasons:

  • Technology is available that customers want (home & vehicle)
  • Seeing support in codes and standards
  • Generally, the declining cost curves of these products(customer adoption is critical).

Two thirds of California’s power came from renewable sources in 2019. As the grid gets cleaner, this unlocks the potential of attacking the biggest sources of greenhouse gases: transportation and buildings. All electric buildings should be a key policy need for jurisdictions. Currently, San Francisco is a key example and leading the field in this regard by aggressively working towards a zero emissions policy.

Innovative strategies on the field

Choosing better building materials can drastically reduce the building’s carbon footprint.  One exciting innovation is carbon cure concrete technology. This introduces recycled CO2 into fresh concrete to reduce the carbon footprint without compromising its performance.

The pandemic forced general contractor teams to explore sustainable construction strategies, such as:

  • QR codes for field material and resource procurement
  • Utilizing PlanGrid software for construction documents instead of hard copies
  • Use of robotic drywall sanders as an alternative strategy since sanding drywall is an IAQ (indoor air quality) concern
  • Solar powered mobile field trailers.

Enhance diversity within our ranks

The conference had a few different sessions dedicated to amplifying voices of people of color within the industry. Jason Pugh’s keynote address was incredibly powerful and stresses the importance to enhance diversity and educate from within. Supporting a pipeline of future talent from our underrepresented communities is a critical need.

Henderson attendees left the conference feeling energized. We are evolving the way we design and are committed to promoting visibility of sustainable thinking and practices throughout the firm.  We are looking forward to more innovative ways to make zero carbon future a reality.

This originally appeared on Henderson Engineers’ websiteHenderson Engineers is a CFE Media content partner. 


Ryan Haug
Author Bio: Ryan Haug, project manager and associate, Henderson Engineers