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Net-zero building: Considerations for retrofits and new building design

Net-zero building: Considerations for retrofits and new building design
An array of solar panels on the roof of a small building with a small wind turbine situated nearby.

By: Ashley M. Halligan

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McCormick, the Maryland-based food conglomerate, announced this spring their achievement of “net-zero” energy consumption at their 363,000-square-foot food distribution center. Efforts to achieve net-zero consumption are growing, particularly with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that will require all federal buildings to be net-zero by 2030, and all commercial buildings be so by 2050.

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And what exactly does this act mean by "net-zero?" Simply put, it means that over a 12-month benchmarking period, a building has produced just as much energy as it's consumed.

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How does a facility like McCormick's undertake a feat of that size? Jeff Blankman, McCormick's sustainable manufacturing manager, says, "The most important maneuver in a net-zero makeover is to focus on energy efficiency first. You must reduce consumption – making a facility as efficient as possible."

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Once retrofits were made, like more efficient lighting installations and updated HVAC systems, Constellation Energy provided photovoltaic solar panels which were installed on the distribution center's roof space. This installation, over the course of a year, produced not just enough energy to equalize consumption and energy production, but a surplus.

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While doing research on the trend for Software Advice, I interviewed a handful of experts in the net-zero industry. We also gathered things to keep in mind for design teams in the planning stages of projects aiming to achieve net-zero post-occupancy. The experts include Brian Anderson, founding partner of Anderson Porter Design; Dru B. Crawley, former commercial buildings team Lead for the Department of Energy and current director of building performance at Bentley Systems; and Blake Bisson, vice president of sales and marketing at Ekotrope.

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Mr. Anderson suggests holding integrated planning sessions. "The key is participation by critical stakeholders, board members, the C.E.O., the banker, as well as the day-to-day management team, designers, and builders,” he said.

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Mr. Bisson adds, "Do as much energy and cost modeling in the design process as possible so you can understand all of your alternatives from a cost and energy standpoint. Energy modeling allows you to better figure out how to reduce cold air, absorb sunlight, and understand insulation.” Mr. Bisson also reminds of the importance of finding incentives or funding possibilities. "You can build an N.Z.E.B. – with state incentives – at very close to the same cost as traditional construction.”

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Lastly, Mr. Crawley says to expect ongoing oversight – and to be prepared for challenges. "It requires a commitment from the building owner and operator to ensure the design intent is carried out. It requires that all energy use in the building be considered. It also takes periodic testing – energy simulation – to ensure performance goals remain on track.”

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Given the impending requirements of the coming decades, more and more facilities will need to undertake retrofit projects to reduce consumption – and eventually achieve zero consumption. Moreover, design teams and architects will need to specialize in designing entirely sustainable projects.

Net-zero energy consumption is ambitious and is a far bigger challenge for some buildings. Take those with less surface area for instance. A high-rise is far less likely to achieve net-zero than a single-floor, large center boasting significant square footage in roof space and allowing for a great number of PV panels.

Furthermore, cost is an issue for some organizations. That said, it shouldn't be a deterrent. The price of PV’s are falling, and the Department of Energy predicts the sale of panels will double in the coming year. Additionally, businesses can seek similar power purchase agreements that McCormick sought from Constellation Energy, at little to no up-front investment.

Mr. Crawley does suggest that net-zero communities may be a more plausible achievement, however. Given that some buildings will never be able to achieve this status, he says, “The potential over-supply from lower energy-intensity one- and two-story buildings can offset higher energy-intensity higher-rise buildings." Do you have experience in net zero efforts or achievement? Please tell us about your experience below.

Ashley M. Halligan is a facility management analyst at Software Advice.

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