The best way to save on future energy costs for your facilities is to “design in” features and technologies during the planning and design phase – before construction begins.
We look at ten key “Net-Zero” energy considerations that architects and commercial interior designers should take into account when planning your next construction project or major remodel.
1. Modern Net-Zero Construction Techniques Can Help Future Proof Buildings While Helping Reduce your Greenhouse Gas Footprint and Energy Costs
The first issue to address is the “why.”
Why should you invest in net-zero energy conservation measures in your next building project?
One justification is that it helps fight climate change. According to the EPA, commercial and residential buildings account for 13% of greenhouse gas emissions.
The second consideration, especially for publically held companies, is the need to demonstrate effective Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) performance when making public disclosures of your organization’s impact on the environment – disclosures that are getting increased scrutiny by the government, investors, and consumers.
Third, the cost of energy is going up quickly, especially for natural gas, while new technologies in energy savings are driving acquisition costs down. Over the life of a new building, the potential savings in energy costs are significant with Net-Zero construction.
Finally, there is the issue of independence. Many Net-Zero buildings have the ability to produce power on site, which can literally “keep the lights on” when the public power grid goes down. Homebuilders are increasingly taking advantage of this by building fully off-the-grid structures.
If you are not convinced yet, keep an eye on changes to national and local building codes. The Biden administration is pushing new emission standards for federal buildings and promoting new Energy Star standards for heat pumps. Many local and state government agencies are following suit, such as NYC, which is moving to eliminate residential natural gas hookups in new construction.
TIP: The New Buildings Institute maintains an interactive map pinpointing the location of Net-Zero buildings across the USA.
2. Use Value Engineering Techniques to Maximize Net-Zero Return on Investment (ROI)
There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to creating an efficient Net-Zero project.
Not only are there more considerations to make within a traditional architectural design (such as site location and roof design, which we will touch on next), there are also significant advances in electronics, automation controls, heat pumps, solar arrays, and energy storage technologies – all of which can reduce the “operational carbon” footprint of the structure.
Further complicating the planning process is that many of these technologies are improving all the time, so it becomes important in many cases to decouple the rapidly evolving technologies from the permanent structure investments when considering ROI. Why? While the building structure should last the lifetime of the building (e.g. 30, 40, 50 years), the same may not be true of electronic components, which might become obsolete over that time frame.
Taken together, this poses a very challenging landscape for traditional architects and designers. In many cases, they will need to turn to specialized consultants to pursue value engineering strategies to identify a technology roadmap for the building – and to calculate the ROI of different systems over time.
In fact, it won’t be long until some of the AI-powered expert systems currently in development emerge as leaders in the field, helping to guide decisions based on site location, solar and wind potential, and current material and equipment costs. These AI-powered systems could also help calculate the more difficult issues of estimating the “embodied carbon” impact of different building materials, such as concrete (which is very emissions-intensive) versus wood (which is potentially renewable and less carbon-intensive).
3. Site Location and Roof Design: Make the Sun Work for You, Not Against You
Site location has become even more critical when planning a Net-Zero building.
Questions you might ask include: is there enough space to orient the building to optimize its exposure to the sun or is there sufficient area unobstructed by shadows to support a large solar array, or does the ground surrounding the building lend itself to installing a geothermal heat extraction system?
Most Net-Zero buildings are distinguished by passive heating and cooling features that take into account the solar gain that comes from exposure to the sun. Windows and door openings to the colder facing northern exposure are generally reduced in size or eliminated, while large overhangs can be designed to allow warm, direct sunlight to enter the building when the sun is low in the sky during the winter but provide shade when the sun is higher.
For passive climate control, architects can build Trombe walls, essentially large heat sinks, which are typically constructed so that large glazing panels allow light to enter the building and build up heat within large masses of masonry or concrete – which slowly release the heat overnight after the sun has set. Carefully designed Trombe walls can also work in reverse during the summer by absorbing heat within the structure.
IoT automation is also playing an increasing part, with systems that monitor the interior environmental conditions, adjust the position of window shades, and open windows to adjust the climate. Significant energy savings can also be achieved by using low-power LED lighting, which can be switched off automatically when not in use.
Many of these ideas are not new, of course. You only need to visit Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home built in 1809, to see passive cooling and heating in effect. The octagonal roof with its central exterior vent allows hot air to exit the structure thanks to the thermosiphon effect. Indeed many traditional Spanish and Middle Eastern structures have also long used heavy masonry to keep occupants warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
Roof designs are becoming more important than ever. Using reflective white roofing materials that reflect the sun is an easy modification even for existing structures and can create significant energy savings.
This is just one example of a “cool roof” design.
Others include a “living roof,” in which the building is either partially built below grade (e.g. in the ground) to take advantage of moderate below-grade temperatures, or an artificial “green roof,” such as the one built for clothing retailer Gap Inc. for their 2005 San Bruno, Calif. corporate offices. It features a lightweight grassy landscape which not only keeps the interior temperatures more moderate; it also reduces storm runoff and pollution.
In warmer climates, double roofs are becoming more common, with an “overdeck” constructed over the main structure, similar to a party tent marquee. In extreme weather environments, some architects are even turning to geodesic domes to surround their built environments to provide shelter from extreme conditions.
4. Avoid Thermal Bridges with Advanced Construction Techniques and Insulation Materials
Thick insulation and tight windows and doors are probably what comes to mind first when we think about Net-Zero building practices.
And it’s true – proper, even extreme, insulation and features such as triple glazed windows can help achieve the high level of energy efficiency needed for Net-Zero construction.
But we’d like to steer your thinking in a slightly different direction.
There is more to insulating a building than specifying increasingly thicker insulation with commensurately higher R values.
Instead, you should focus on thermal bridging and how to prevent it.
Thermal bridges, if you are not familiar with the concept, are the superhighways within a structure that allow heat to transfer from the exterior to the interior, and vice versa.
Let’s take an oversimplified example. Imagine you are building a new office using steel studs and steel trusses and rafters. You might decide to fill the voids between the metal wall studs with high-performance insulation by specifying R40 insulation instead of the typical R12. Likewise, in the ceiling, you might specify R80 instead of the more typical R34 called out in newer building codes.
But there is a fly in the ointment. Metal is a great conductor of heat, and those metal studs in the wall will transfer heat from the slab and from the exterior weather sheathing. Likewise, the metal joists and rafters will transfer heat to the interior of the ceiling and the walls. Not what you were expecting!
So the moral to the story is that when you are thinking about high-performance insulation, you not only need to seal out leaks (using modern adhesive building wraps), but you also need to identify ways to create air gaps or utilize other strategies to eliminate the thermal bridges that will undermine your building’s overall energy efficiency.
5. Capture Heat with Updated Technologies, including Heat Pumps, Solar Water Heaters, Geothermal, and Regeneration Systems
For decades, buildings in the southern states (with milder climates) have turned to electric heat pumps to keep interiors warm.
The good news is that heat pumps are becoming more efficient all the time, and they are finding important new uses, such as heating hot water for residential and commercial use.
Recent calculations show that in most cases electric-powered heat pump-based hot water heaters not only outperform traditional electric and natural gas water heaters, they also are more energy-efficient than instant-on gas water heaters.
Combining these heat pump water heaters with passive solar roof-mounted water heaters (with a solar-powered recirculation pump) could reduce the energy consumption even further.
More innovation is around the corner.
HVAC engineers at the company Heat Wayv in the UK are developing microwave-powered boilers that could replace traditional gas-fueled boilers in northern climates.
What about using the cooling and heating effects of the earth?
Even on the coldest winter days, the ground underneath our feet is significantly warmer below the frost line. And in very hot summers, it can be cooler underground, as we all know from going down into a basement.
Geothermal heat pump (GHP) systems are now within reach for individual homes and offices and may become a new retrofit option for commercial power plant utilities in the future.
GHP systems typically involve digging trenches to install a closed-loop system of subterranean pipes that circulate an anti-freeze-based solution, which either captures heat or expels it underground. Sites near bodies of water, such as ponds, lakes, or rivers, can also use an open-loop system to transfer heat before recirculating the water back to the source.
Finally, regeneration is seeing a resurgence of interest. The approach reuses energy byproducts, such as excess steam produced by large power plant systems to power industrial processes or heat buildings. Even bitcoin miners, a notoriously wasteful user of energy, are trying to recycle excess heat generated by their computers to perform useful tasks, such as drying wood in Norwegian timber industry.
6. Green Timing: Harness Sun and Wind Energy for Immediate Use
The price of renewable energy systems is coming down – fast.
But as we identified in our recent article on problems facing our aging power grid infrastructure, it’s proving hard for utilities to utilize all the cheap power produced by solar and wind during the day.
Of course, if we also had cheap ways to store this energy for use overnight, for example, we could continue business as normal. (FYI, we’ll talk about energy storage in the next section…)
But there is another response to taking advantage of cheap energy during the day when the winds are blowing and the sun is shining – we should just use it as fast as we make it.
Thus is born the new concept of Green Timing, or optimizing when and how we use energy.
Using Green Timing principles, many industrial users of energy could re-orient their shifts to do production during the day when energy is plentiful, thus reversing many years of operational best practices of running night shifts when fossil fuel-based power was cheapest.
We can also use Green Timing principles for managing our solar (or wind) energy consumption in our homes and office buildings.
Let’s say you are considering investing in a small on-site solar power system for a residence. Given the dramatic drop in the cost of solar panels and associated invertors, for a modest, off-grid solar installation, you could expect to pay as little as $1,000 for off-brand solar panels and around $1,400 for an inverter charger. Mounting the panels and wiring the systems will cost about a thousand or two for an independent system, significantly more for one that has an interop connection with your home wiring that’s connected to the grid. However, the biggest expense would be the storage batteries, which remain relatively expensive, costing somewhere between $2,000 to $10,000 or more, depending on the quality and size.
So, one approach to the cost is to decouple the battery storage from the equation. In other words, you could have a system that provides power during good solar conditions and uses the power as fast as it’s produced. Of course, you’ll need some batteries to manage the system, but you could jettison the large battery storage component for now and just focus on energy-intensive tasks, such as heating and cooling during working hours when the sun is shining.
Make hay when the sun shines indeed!
And this concept is not limited to residential construction. A new study indicates that if we installed solar panels on all the roofs of big box stores across America, we could power 8 million American homes.
7. Achieve Independence from the Grid by Storing Energy for Use at Night
Of course, a fully integrated solar generating system is much more convenient, albeit expensive.
And it’s becoming easier for residential customers to choose end-to-end solar systems now that Elon Musk offers solar roof tiles that look like conventional shingles (solar shingles are also available from mainstream roofing supplier GAF as well). Combine this with a Tesla Power Wall (or two) or a battery array of your choice, and you can save that energy captured during the day for use overnight.
Tesla even offers the promise of extending your local battery storage by leveraging the battery in your Tesla car, should you have one.
A word of caution, however: the market for power storage components is changing rapidly.
In just a few short years, we’ve already transitioned from lead-acid batteries (found in conventional car batteries or golf carts) to lithium-ion batteries (found in computer laptops and phones and most current EVs) to the newest lithium iron phosphate battery technology (LiFePO4), which promises much longer battery life and near-infinite cycle duty performance.
What else is on the horizon that we should be looking out for?
There are quite a few projects in the lab right now.
For example, some researchers are taking a second look at gravity-based passive energy storage systems, such as pumping water to higher elevations where it can be tapped for hydroelectric power later. This is not a new idea, of course, the Edmonston Pumping Plant outside Los Angeles pumps water nearly 2,000 high over the Tehachapi Mountains into storage reservoirs where it can generate hydropower as needed.
But some of the newest concepts seem a little, well, unconventional. Swiss researchers are investigating hauling 35-ton concrete blocks high in the air using an electric crane to store energy. Other companies, such as the Swiss conglomerate ABB and the French company Energiestro, are investigating high-tech flywheel storage systems to retain energy.
Other technologies, such as compressed air tanks or high-power capacitors, may unlock an economical and scalable approach to solving this problem.
In the meantime, the best solution is to minimize energy usage in any new solar power system installation.
This means expanding the scope of the analysis to identify and eliminate energy losses. One promising approach for those primarily using solar power is to specify an all DC system, including DC-powered HVAC units, refrigerators, lighting, laptop computers, and the like. This can increase the system efficiency by 10% or more by eliminating the losses incurred by converting DC current produced by solar panels using an inverter back to AC current.
8. Get Certified
Are you ready to jump into the world of Net-Zero building planning, construction, and management?
Obtaining a certification might be a good move.
There are two main competing camps in this space, so it’s worth your while to investigate both of the following organizations, as well as other specialty certifications offered by other groups.
The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) offers a Net-Zero Energy (NZE) certification program for projects using renewable energy. It also offers a Living Building Challenge (LBC), which features seven performance areas (called ‘Petals’), which are Materials, Site, Water, Energy, Health, Equity, and Beauty.
Those already with LEED building certification knowledge will be familiar with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which has expanded its certifications (in response to the success of the upstart ILFI, it would appear) to include a LEED Zero Energy and LEED Zero Carbon certifications.
9. Apply for Tax Credits and Other Incentives
Tax credits and other incentives may be available for green energy projects, depending on where your project is located.
Check with your local utility, as well as city, county, regional, and state organizations to see what is available.
As of this writing, the Biden administration’s ambitious hopes to pass a comprehensive Build Back Better green infrastructure bill through Congress have stalled.
For those looking for Federal clean energy tax credits for solar installations, wind turbines, and geothermal systems, this is unfortunate news. The BBB law, if passed, would have renewed these credits at their original higher rates. As it is, the credit amounts are tapering off significantly this year.
But there is still hope that some tax incentives may still pass this year, so keep tabs on the latest news from Washington.
Some progressive economists point out that these tax credits if renewed, could be one of the most economically efficient ways (taxwise) to drive change in the fight to remake our energy system.
10.Get Ready for the Coming Net-Zero Backlash
You may have noticed (aside from a gentle suggestion favoring clean energy tax credits in the previous section) we have tried to assiduously avoid politics when discussing clean energy investments in Net-Zero projects.
Unfortunately, politics may yet become embroiled in a “war” over Net-Zero – if the emerging Net-Zero backlash currently happening in the UK is a useful predictor for what may happen here on this side of the pond.
Of course, whenever there are large sums of money at stake, politics will follow.
But it pays to be vigilant and double-check news sources, as the energy industry is investing heavily in media buys to promote their point of view, from paying Instagram influencers to promote gas stoves to investing in Google search advertisements that mimic the look and feel of search results.
Formaspace Wants to Help You Build the Future
If you can imagine it, we can build it, here at our Formaspace Factory Headquarters in Austin, Texas.
We are known for our custom, all-American furniture production, serving markets ranging from manufacturing, cleanrooms, assembly plants, distributions centers, to research laboratories, educational facilities, to hospitality and resimercial office environments.
Obviously, we have a lot to talk about. Why not get the conversation started today by contacting your Formaspace Design Consultant?
Let’s build the future together.