Over the past few decades designers and policymakers have been working to increase the energy efficiency of buildings, and solid progress has been made. Still, today in the United States buildings account for 49 percent of energy use and 46 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Successfully tackling the dual challenges of rising energy costs and climate change is going to take massive reductions of building energy use.
A conceptual holy grail for energy-efficient building design is a building that generates as much energy as it consumes, a.k.a. a zero net energy building. And that's the goal of a recently completed 10-unit townhome development in Issaquah, WA, known as zHome, touted as the “first multifamily, production, zero-energy, carbon-neutral community in the United States.”
Spearheaded by the City of Issaquah, the zHome project was awarded to David Vandervort Architects in Fall 2007, but subsequently the real estate bust forced the original builder to back out. Howland Homes took over in Summer 2008, and the project broke ground that September. Faced with financing challenges and delays, Howland then partnered with Ichijo, a large Japanese builder known for energy-efficient production homes, and the project finished in September 2011.
zHome was designed to achieve zero net energy use through efficiency measures that reduce consumption by about two-thirds, and photovoltaics (PV) that generate enough electricity to cover the remaining third---approximately 5,000 kWh per year. That requires a hefty amount of PV, and indeed, the south-facing panels that cover the roofs are a prominent feature. During the sunny summer months the PV produce more energy than the buildings need, and the excess is fed back to the grid. If the building operates as expected, that "banked" energy will offset the energy consumed during the dark winter months when PV output is low, the result being zero net energy use on an annual basis.
Energy-efficiency measures incorporated in zHome include ground source heat pumps that provide space heating and domestic hot water, heat recovery ventilation, a tightly sealed and highly insulated envelope (R38 wall, R63 roof, U-0.33 double pane windows), efficient appliances, LED lighting, switched outlets to reduce phantom loads, and a real-time energy monitoring system. (The project is also designed to reduce water consumption by 70 percent.)
So how much did all that extra stuff increase the cost? Asking prices for the units are relatively high for Issaquah: $385k for 799 s.f. 1-bedroom; $530k for 1350 s.f. 2 bedroom; and $625k for 1694 s.f. 3-bedroom. Apparently the free land and significant logistical support provided by the City weren't enough to negate the cost premium. Eventually the upfront investment in efficiency would be offset by savings in the energy (and water) bills, but given current energy prices payback periods are relatively long. Of course, if all the externalized costs of our energy were included it would be a different story, but unfortunately a carbon tax is not happening any time soon.
It remains to be seen if zHome will achieve zero net energy performance in the real world, and success will likely depend to some extent on the energy use habits of the occupants---one thing designers don't have much control over. In any case, whether or not a building can produce enough energy on site to hit net-zero isn't necessarily the be all and end all for sustainable design. Arguably, what's more important is the practice of "efficiency first"---that is, first figure out how to fully minimize the building's energy use, and then worry about how to supply the remaining energy demand.
For example, the Bullitt Foundation's Living Building is targeting zero net energy and incorporates cutting-edge energy-efficient design. But analysis suggests that it could have been even more efficient if it had been built to the European Passive House standard, in which case it would have required less PV, potentially reducing both cost and physical design constraints.
Furthermore, when you look beyond the single building and consider larger systems of buildings and energy production, in some cases powering a building from an offsite energy source may make more sense than struggling to max out on-site generation. And for buildings taller than about six or seven stories, there simply won't be enough solar energy impinging on the site to meet demand, even for a hyper-efficient building.
In conclusion, while the concept of zero net energy buildings may have its limitations, projects like zHome and the Bullitt Foundation building remain hugely important for making progress on energy-efficient design. That's because they challenge designers to (1) work within a highly constrained energy budget, and (2) explore the limits of on-site energy production. And then there's also the potential for the big win as the designs move into the mainstream. Indeed, Ichijo has ambitions to ramp up the zHome concept to high-volume production. It won't be a moment too soon.
Dan Bertolet is an Urban Planner with VIA Architecture. VIA thanks City of Issaquah Program Manager Brad Liljequist for generously providing a tour of zHome. All photos by the author.
P.S. The DJC's Green Building Blog has written extensively about this project. To read more, and follow its progress, type 'zhome' in our search bar.
In Fremont, a different kind of living building is in the works: it's being built by a private developer.Skanska USA’s first development effort in the Seattle market. (Talk about a way to come to the market with green guns-a-blazing!)
Brooks Sports is the anchor tenant and will take 80,000 square feet and move 300 employees into the space in late 2013. Skanska said it would lease the site from the owner, Fremont Dock Co. The site is at 3400 Stone Way N., next to the Burke Gilman Trail and near Lake Union.
This project is of course fascinating because it’s a living building, widely considered the toughest green building certification on the planet. But another thing that makes it stand out is who’s building it. All living buildings on this coast that I'm aware of are built by schools (University of British Columbia's CIRS project); nonprofits (the Bullitt Foundation's headquarters in Seattle); consortium's of city groups or donors (The Bertschi School Science Wing); or partnerships involving all of the above (the Oregon Sustainability Center in Portland). There's also a few home projects thrown in. These groups have various resources (tax credits, donors, endowments etc.) that a standard developer doesn't have access to.
Skanska's project in Fremont is the first I'm aware of to be built by a commercial developer on its own. Granted, it is being self-financed. But the fact that Skanska is building it means the company sees a future in living buildings. It's taking a chance! In the scale of things, it will be incredible to see how this project works out because it will inevitably be used as a living building test case for other developers.
Living buildings are fascinating creatures but they're not cheap. Generally, I'm hearing that developing a living building costs a third more than a standard project. Schools and nonprofits are willing to make that investment. But the formula gets more complex with private development. Adding to the complexity, Skanska is aiming for its project rents to be market rate.
Chris Rogers of Bullitt’s development partner Point32 says Bullitt's space will be market rate too, though it's being marketed towards environmentally-minded businesses and organizations. The Cascadia Green Building Council is one tenant. For these organizations, the environment is a critical part of what they do. For Skanska's more mainstream tenants, locating in a living building says they care. But Skanska's also got to do more convincing.
In this DJC article from last June, Peter Busby of Vancouver's Busby Perkins + Will said it cost his team $100,000 to go to living building status on two Vancouver projects. He said it generally costs $40,000 to have a project certified LEED gold. The Bullitt Center project is costing about $30 million, with Bullitt putting up half that amount and borrowing the rest from US Bank. Rogers of Point32 says a lot of the cost is a first-cost premium, because it’s the first time his team (or any team) is moving through a living building project of this size with the city. But there’s still a premium.
According to the International Living Future Institute, it costs $20,000 for living building certification of a building that is between 107,640 and 538,195 square feet.
Skanska’s project is also interesting because of what it could bring to the neighborhood. The end of Stone Way near Lake Union has a handful of stores but is kind of a dead zone. In a Seattle Times story, Ryan Gist, a neighbor called it "an odd, pseudo-industrial street that really doesn't do much for the neighborhood."
Once complete, the ground floor of this building will house Brooks' first ever retail concept shop. The goal is for the shop to act as a gathering place for the community and trail users.
There are some neighborhood concerns about the structure's height. Here's hoping a clean agreement can be made on that topic so this revolutionary project can move forward.
By the way, back in January, I wrote this post about the launch of Skanska's Seattle commercial development division. In it, I said:
"I'm curious to see what kind of projects they pursue, what kind of sustainable goals they target, and what kind of green technologies they might choose to pursue that others wouldn't be able to. Of course, they could simply go the LEED gold route. Or they could build something really innovative."
I don't want to say I told you so but it's fair to say this project falls to the later half of that spectrum. Now the question is to see how it plays out.
P.S. It's interesting to see the architecture firms with living buildings under their belts. This project is being designed by LMN. Bullitt's is designed by Miller Hull. The Bertschi project was designed by members of KMD Architects. I'm going to be waiting to see how long it takes for the area's other big green architecture firms to add a living building to their project list. At the current pace, I'd bet we'd see another two or three pop up.
When we're talking about solving big problems there is a division between those who believe new technology will hold the key and those who believe things need to change now, even if we don't have the perfect tools. That division was highlighted at yesterday's talk on energy and climate by Bill Gates.
Bill Gates, former Microsoft CEO and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke at Climate Solutions' annual breakfast May 10. Our story on his talk is here and there are
“The thing I think is the most under-invested in is basic R&D,” he said. “That's something only the government will do. Over the next couple of decades, we have to invent and pilot, and in the decades after that we have to deploy in an unbelievably fast way, these sources.”
But even during the breakfast, this division between work in the future and work now was felt. Dean Allen, CEO of McKinstry, spoke before Gates did. He said technological silver bullets are great but "it's often not best to wait for superman. It's sometimes better to figure out how to take practical and profitable real time solutions where we live.", go here.
Later, in a briefing with journalists, KC Golden, Climate Solutions' policy director, said he doesn't think all our problems will be solved by public funding. Public money isn’t a panacea, he said, but it is a critical piece of the solution for the energy sector “because the way the regulated economy works starves the energy sector of R&D money and innovation.”
If we are going to solve the energy and climate problems, what do you think we should be concentrating on - innovation or current work? Of course, the true solution would and most likely will (if we find it) include both. But which area do you think deserves more attention?
In honor of Earth Day next week (don't even get me started on the Earth Day advertising pitches and products I've been getting), here is a short list of do-it-yourself tips to improve home energy consumption. The tips are courtesy of Gretchen Marks, vice president of marketing for Washington Energy Services.
- Seal the leaks around windows and exterior doors. This is easy to do, and will help your home
- Fix your insulation situation. Insulation is typically the #1 way to save energy in your home. According to the Department of Energy (www.ornl.gov) “heating and cooling account for 50 to 70% of the energy used in the average American home. Inadequate insulation and air leakage are leading causes of energy waste in most homes.” And according to EnergyStar, you could “save up to 10% of your total annual energy bill” just by sealing and insulating.
- Clean and seal heating ducts. Almost 20% of the air that moves through your duct system is lost due to leaks and poorly sealed connections. Over time, ducts can sag or collapse. Vermin and other animals can chew holes in crawl space ductwork. Ducts can also come apart at the seams. When this happens, any air that should be going to the rooms in your home is instead being wasted by ending up in your attic, your walls, or under your house. If duct tape was used on your ductwork originally, it's best to have it replaced with aluminum or foil tape. Traditional duct tape deteriorates quickly. Metal seams should be cleaned and then sealed with duct mastic, which doesn't crack and creates a permanent seal.
- Let your equipment breathe. Your heating and cooling systems depend on a flow of air to maximize their efficiency. Homeowners can take easy steps to help change the furnace filter, and check for leaves/debris around an outside heat pump or air conditioner. A clogged air intake outside or dirty indoor furnace filter limits air flow to the equipment and causes it to function inefficiently. It can eventually lead to costly breakdowns and repairs. This is similar to changing the air filter in your car. Electronic filters typically need cleaning at least twice per year and paper filters need replacing. Check your product warranty for your manufacturer’s specific instructions.
- Open those registers. Many people close floor registers to push heat into certain parts of their house. Since about the late 60's the products installed in homes have been forced air furnaces. These are designed for a specific amount of air to flow thru the furnace while operating. The ductwork is designed for this amount of air also. When air registers are closed it reduces the airflow and allows heat to buildup in the system. That heat has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is up the flue and out of your house. Closing 1 or 2 registers is fine in rooms that get too hot. Keep as many registers open as possible so your furnace can operate at maximum efficiency. This is the same for heat pumps and central air conditioning.
Not sure where to start to make your home energy efficient? Consider a home energy audit. A certified audit uses the latest technology to analyze your house, and show you how your home uses and wastes energy. This will also help you prioritize what you can do to get the most energy savings. Learn more about audits at www.bpi.org or look for audit providing companies in your local area.
Because wind energy is such a trendy topic with so many arguments for and against, it's easy to put the turbines that actually generate electricity to the back of your mind. We don't stop to think about how massive these things actually are.
This week, I came across some gorgeous images to illustrate just how gigantic these things can be - and what a huge operation it is to install them.
The project is Puget Sound Energy's third wind power plant, called Lower Snake River Wind Project, near Pomeroy in Garfield County. It recently erected its first wind power turbine. The project should be operating in spring of 2012 with 149 wind turbines, enough to create 343 megawatts or enough energy to power 100,0000 homes. Here is the first turbine:
To install this sucker, huge cranes with booms extending 390 feet in the air set the turbines' lower sections, nacelles and three-blade rotors in place. Many of the nacelles, which contain the turbines' gear boxes and power generators, are being made at a Siemens plant in Kansas. A Siemens factory is Iowa is producing all the turbine blades.
Each rotor is 331 feet in diameter, more than a football field's length. The turbine towers are bolted to concrete foundations taht are up to 8.5 feet thick and weigh more than 600 tons, equal to the weight of more than 100 bull elephants, according to a PSE press release. The turbines weigh more than 240 tons.
The project began in May of 2010. RES America is PSE's lead contractor. To see more photos, click here. It also includes a 15,000-square-foot operations and maintenance building that will have office, warehouse and workshop space. Opp & Seibold from Walla Walla is PSE's general contractor. About 25 permanent employees will occupy the building when it opens this fall.
This week, I toured King Street Station. For those of you who aren't aware, the 1906-built-station is in the midst of a $50 million renovation. The project is absolutely, totally and utterly incredible.
The main thrust of the project is a much needed seismic renovation. Seriously, the tons of steel being put into this project are indescribable. But King Street Station is also a historic building and must be maintained as such. Once the rehabilitation is complete, it will be very sustainable: it's on track to meet LEED platinum, up from a goal of LEED silver. Last year, the project's sustainable efforts were honored by AIA Seattle with a gold level award from the What Makes It Green event. ZGF Architects is the architect. Sellen Construction is general contractor.
Obviously, the most sustainable thing about the project is the fact that it is a historic renovation of an old structure, which retains the embodied energy inherent in the building. But the team went much further. Geothermal wells in the building will likely provide all heating and cooling. The main waiting room will return to its 100-year-old state of being naturally ventilated. Incredible effort has been spent to save, clean and better old building materials. All of these elements will be detailed in a future DJC story.
For now, I'll whet your interest with some photos of the space. As you can tell, I got to tour the inside of the clock tower, which is not part of the current project's phase. However it is really cool. To see more photos of the clock tower or tour, follow my page on Facebook here. And if you haven't voted for this blog yet as best of the web, please do so. For more info on that, see the post below.
Recently, the Restorative Design Collective completed what will likely be the first living building in Washington State at the Bertschi School. Of course, we won't know whether it meets living building certification until it has operated for a year. But the project is designed to provide all its own energy, treat its own water and lay light on the land. It is called the science wing and will be a scientific learning area for students.
This is the first living building project to target the 2.0 version of the challenge (a tougher standard than the original), and the first project to be built in an urban area. The project was built largely through volunteer work, organized by a group called The Restorative Design Collective. The project cost about $1 million but members of the collective donated about $500,000 in pro bono time in addition to that.
Stacy Smedley, of KMD Architects and co-founder of the collective, said it is important to have a living building in the region where the challenge was born. Jason McLennan, CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Chapter, published the challenge at the end of 2006. Chris Hellstern, the other co-founder of the collective, is also at KMD.
The DJC story on the finished product is here, a story written last June details the founding of the collective and design plans here. If you don't have a DJC subsciption, this story is unlocked (meaning anyone can read it). It's a really interesting personal look at problem solving issues on the project. We also covered the installation of the building's SIPS panels on the Green Building Blog here.
For instance, the team focused heavily on water and has a system in place that would treat collected water to potable standards. But before it can do that, it must wait for state and local rules to change. A runnel, cut in the ground, will allow children to see flowing rainwater.
Bertschi will offer tours of the building, though it will usually be a science wing for students' education so tours must be pre-arranged. For more information, call Bertschi at 206-324-5476.
If you're interested in learning more about living buildings, check out the fifth annual Living Future (Un)Conference. This year it is in Vancouver, B.C. from April 27-29. As someone who has attended each of these conferences so far, I can say it is an incredible time.
Here are some pictures of the finished product. More pictures on my Facebook page here.
Recently, a story of mine appeared in the DJC called "Smart grid experts say AEC firms should start getting ready." It's about the smart grid, and how it will likely affect many aspects of your life - from the space you live in, to the car you drive to the way you use energy.
Vadari said there's a ton of money heading into this industry and the game changing technology, if it's not already here, isn't far off.
He said the idea of a green building will change from a minimal energy user to an energy producer. As more people get electric cars and pull energy from the grid through buildings, he said a structure that produces extra energy would be ahead of the curve.
“You've got to start thinking holistically because if you just lean more into the grid, you're not helping your carbon footprint,” Vadari said.
Vadari said more thought will be given to combining technologies to save and produce energy, or to achieve multiple goals. For example, he said windows and roofs could become energy-producing solar cells, forcing changes in the market as no one will want traditional windows and roofs anymore.
We're just at the beginning of the smart grid now, with regional demonstration projects funded by the stimulus in motion in all corners of the country. Regionally, Battelle is leading the $178 million Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project. Electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf, are just coming to market and charging stations are just beginning to be installed.
But the potential for the smart grid and its related technologies to change our lives is huge. There's no telling now which direction will move quickest but changes could include market-priced energy with monitors that allow you to control when you purchase energy based on price; electric cars; and homes and buildings that produce energy and feed it back into the grid.
Is there anything -- energy wise -- that you're excited about or looking forward to? Would love to hear your thoughts.