‘Net-zero’ energy design changing how we build, consume and live

‘Net-zero’ energy design changing how we build, consume and live

The Los Angeles office of the design firm Gensler was built to use LEED -- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design -- strategies that approach net-zero. (Courtesy of Gensler)

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Army has a goal of “net-zero” energy consumption by 2030. Hewlett-Packard just unveiled designs for a data center that requires no net energy from traditional power grids. Here, Worldview contributor Robert Price shares his predictions of what net-zero design may mean for how we build, consume and live.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007) has a goal of “net-zero” energy use in all commercial buildings by 2030. The goal currently is voluntary, but if enacted, the look and utility of our future buildings will change forever. Master planners, architects and interior designers will look at their field in ways they haven’t in generations.

The Tower at PNC Plaza, designed by Gensler, is a planned 33-story, 800,000 gross square feet structure built to approach ‘net-zero’ standards.
Net-zero is a popular term that means that an installation or building produces as much energy as it consumes and has zero carbon emissions annually. The zero-energy design principle is more practical to adopt than ever, due to increased costs of traditional fossil fuels and their negative impact on the planet’s climate and ecological balance.
A net-zero building can be independent from the energy supply. Energy is harvested on-site using a combination of solar and wind technology, while reducing the overall use of energy with extremely efficient heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) and lighting technologies. Energy can also be supplemented by long-term contracts with a green energy source.
Master-planners will think about building sites, how surrounding buildings affect new construction and how to maximize solar technologies. Existing buildings will need an upgrade for fear of losing the best tenants. European Union directives will set a rating system for all buildings. They may impact how they are insured and taxed. In China, inefficient buildings and those with high energy consumption will receive an extra carbon tax.
The skyline of U.S. cities will look different. Buildings in the Northern Hemisphere will be oriented south to take advantage of sunlight. Southern Hemisphere buildings will be oriented north. This is how it’s done in China and South America.
The interior of Gensler’s L.A. offices. (Courtesy of Gensler)
The tops of buildings will look different. High-rises will take maximum advantage of roof space, solar devices and greenscape. Northern or southern exposures will integrate visible or invisible solar technologies. Glassy structures will be less sexy.
Real estate developers must think long-term about costs. Building owners must now understand the efficiency performance of their buildings as part of their criteria when trying to rent or sell to tenants. Designers will utilize a whole new and varied set of tools to access building design. They, along with contractors, will be held accountable for how buildings perform two, five and maybe ten years after completion. Lifecycle costs will be more real.

This all means my fellow architects will have to leave their egos at the door…It’s a new day.

Robert L. Price is an architect and interior designer based in Shanghai, China. He is Worldview’s arts and architecture contributor and the show’s global cities co-contributor. Price also serves as Senior Associate and Technical Director for Asia at Gensler, a global design firm.