Solar California net zero design

Half of all new government projects in California are required to implement net zero design by as early as 2020. [Photo: Alfred Twu]

California is leading the energy independence revolution with changes in building codes, promoting net zero design.

As young architects learn the basics of design and the craft of the built environment, one of the first things we underscore is the importance of connections. The moments where things change are of vital importance, and how they change, connect, and move often represents an opportunity for design. A hinge in a door, a knuckle in a building, even a bend in the road represent times where we move from one state to the next.

We regularly celebrate exceptional projects that push boundaries, but it’s the everyday projects that have the greatest potential for impact at scale, and incremental changes in building codes can make huge strides to improve the market.

A Moment of Change

A new phenomenon in the built environment seeks to align the everyday and the aspirational—and it will help us transform the industry across the globe. Several municipalities are working to shift from incremental energy conservation and efficiency measures for buildings to energy independence.

Few places are more aggressive than California, where new single-family residential buildings in Santa Monica are already required to meet energy balance requirements. Net Zero Energy (NZE) buildings are high-performance developments that do not consume any more energy than they can produce by renewable means, which generally is expected to occur on-site.

A Building’s Purpose

Why start with residential? When we unpack different building uses through the lens of energy demands we find there are essentially two types of buildings—internal load dominated and external load dominated. Internal load dominated buildings regulate the temperature of the building by offsetting the output of people and equipment contained within them. This application makes up much of the commercial development market. External, also known as skin load dominated buildings, like single family homes, generally have just a few people and not a lot of equipment, so the conditioning of the space is driven by the temperature and other impacts from outside the building.

Skin load dominated buildings are generally easier to design to this level of performance, especially considering the advances of building envelope materials and improvements in residential equipment efficiency. Combined with new smart home connected devices that allow us to control conditioning in more intuitively, it’s easy to understand this typology as the starting point.

Leading by Example

To spur the advancement of Net Zero Energy for internal load dominated buildings, California plans to lead by example. Half of all new government projects are required to implement NZE design by as early as 2020, and the balance—including existing government building retrofits and all new commercial projects—will be phased in by 2030. These code requirements will likely be triggered at the point of permit, which means a project that breaks ground in 2020 under these new codes will have had to have started its high performance design integration as early as 2017. No, that’s not a typo—we’ve already started designing for this future change.

SEE ALSO: How to Turn Net Zero Buildings into Positive Teaching Tools

As the cost of energy continues to rise and manufacturing becomes streamlined on solar panels, making them more cost effective, the financial cost for on-site renewables will become more attractive than simply plugging into the local utility. At this point, the challenge will become one of space.

Large projects on constrained sites with high energy demands may not have the ability to produce enough to offset their needs. These properties may need to purchase over-generation from other properties. Much like selling air rights, where one property sells unclaimed usable area to another through a covenant process, low energy consumers may be uniquely positioned to do the same. Parking garages and warehouse spaces, with minimal loads beyond lighting and elevator movement, are prime opportunities for overgeneration sales. It’s something Amazon, for example, could easily consider. CNN has reported Amazon’s scaled approach to solar includes a plan to generate nearly 300 megawatts.

I am excited to see the aggressive vector we are setting for residential, government, and commercial development as we strive to make the exceptional projects of today the new minimum performance expectations for tomorrow. What are you doing to prepare for Net Zero Everywhere?

net zero design Anthony Brower Anthony Brower is the director of sustainable design at Gensler and leads their high-performance design practice out of the Los Angeles office with a focus on data integrated solutions. Anthony currently sits on the USGBC-LA board of directors, LA Metro Sustainability Council, and is a co-author of Impact by Design.