The next revolution in Net Zero buildings: Occupants

The next revolution in Net Zero buildings: Occupants

Soclet image by State Farm via Compfight cc.

What will the next generation of Net Zero energy buildings look like?

Ask a panel of engineers and architects who built the first generation and you'll hear that they may be bit smarter, perhaps a lot bigger, but they will be designed using the same principles. What’s new, they say, is a greater focus on the occupant’s role in operating these buildings.

About 100 people, mostly from the design and build community, gathered on Feb. 26 in San Francisco for a discussion about some of the industry's most successful Net Zero buildings, including IDeAs Z Squared, the first Net Zero commercial building in the U.S., and the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, which was one of the first buildings designated as a Living Building.

The panel, which was moderated by Integral Group's Lisa Fay Matthiessen, included Integral Group's Peter Rumsey, DPR Construction's Mike Humphrey and BNIM Architecture's Steve McDowell and Matthew Porreca, all of whom played a part in designing and engineering these early Net Zero buildings.

Much of what these designers and buildings pioneered is now becoming standard in sustainable design. So where do they see untapped potential in the next generation of Net Zero buildings?

"Occupant behavior change plus creative ideas equals Net Zero," says Humphrey of DPR Construction.

To these panelists, many of whom collaborated on Net Zero project teams together, paying more attention to the occupant means paying attention to plug loads. That's the amount of energy consumed by devices plugged into electrical sockets.

"When we started working with the Packard Foundation, just walking through their space we found space heaters everywhere, everyone had their own printer and on and on," Humphrey says.

Integral Group and DPR were on the project team for the David & Lucille Packard Foundation headquarters in Los Altos, Calif., which achieved Net Zero and LEED Platinum certification. After completing a plug load study, the project team reduced plug loads in the building by 50 percent.

The project team also wrote an occupant manual and put in a dashboard panel to monitor temperature and wind speed. A green light means it's a good day to open windows and doors. A red light indicates windows and doors should be closed.

Mention of the dashboard brings a lively audience discussion at the Net Zero event. Should smartphones have dashboards that sync up to building systems, or should we drive behavior through something more intrinsically elegant, like roundabouts in roads, for people who are suffering from data overload?

Smarter ways to engage occupants will be one of the challenges for the next generation of Net Zero buildings, already under way and scaling up. Integral Group, for example, is currently stretching its zero energy engineering skills on San Francisco's new 230,000-square-foot Exploratorium museum.

Scaling up Net Zero, it seems, requires no new silver bullets. 

"It's simple," Rumsey says. "First, look at the building envelope; then look at the lighting and daylighting; then the HVAC; last, look at plug loads."

While technology is improving and costs are coming down, many of the goals architects and engineers are trying to accomplish can be solved with off-the-shelf technology.

"It helps to have good gear, but it's not always about the gear," he says.

Larger zero energy buildings and communities loom as codes adopt Net Zero as a standard.

"Our work is really important in terms of influencing codes. If it's cost effective now, it makes it into code," Rumsey says. "We just have to make these buildings more clear, more understandable, more affordable and then it will be standard."

Socket image by State Farm via Compfight cc.