Sustainable architecture is a general term that refers to buildings that are designed to limit humanity’s impact on the environment. An eco-friendly approach to modern day building encompasses every aspect of the planning and construction process. This includes the choice of building materials; the design and implementation of heating, cooling, plumbing, waste, and ventilation systems; and the integration of the built environment into the natural landscape. Continue reading
In May 2018, the California Energy Commission (CEC) unanimously approved the 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards. The Standards now require solar PV on new homes constructed after January 2020. The CEC also created a solar plus storage option to give credit toward the new Standards. Continue reading
Solar Rebates and Tax Credits
California is far and away the most mature residential solar market in the country, which can be both a blessing and a curse in some ways. Overall, it is definitely a net positive for homeowners who live here because they are usually more informed about the intricacies of solar and the state’s solar lobby is powerful enough to fight for important savings tool such as net metering.
But the downside of the mature market is that, unlike other states like Massachusetts and South Carolina, where rebates and energy credits are used to incentivize homeowners to consider solar, California has discontinued almost all of its state-specific solar incentives because the industry is strong enough to sustain itself. Continue reading
Every three years, the California Energy Commission (CEC) revisits its energy efficiency standards, augmenting the building code to align with recent technological advancements and the state’s new efficiency goals. The commission underwent this process again this year, identifying areas for improvement in both new construction and retrofits for residential and nonresidential properties.
With this most recent set of revisions, the commission is striving toward a pair of new state efficiency targets: achieving net zero energy for new residential construction by 2020 and for new commercial construction by 2030. Referred to as the 2016 version, these standards will go into effect January 1, 2017. Continue reading
A Pacific Northwest organization has defined an environmentally sound structure as one that generates its own energy, captures and treats all of its water, operates efficiently, and is aesthetically pleasing. Many readers will recognize the movement as the Living Building Challenge, launched in 2006.
Whether your goal is to generate your own clean energy, increase your home’s appraisal value, save money on your electric bill, or all of the above—investing in a small-scale solar electric system is a wise decision. A small solar electric system—or distributed generation (DG)—can produce reliable, emission-free energy for your home or business. However, it is important to make sure that your solar photovoltaic (PV) system is correctly sized, sited, installed and maintained, in order to maximize your energy performance. Continue reading
What is a Net-Zero Energy Home?
Net-zero simply means that a building produces as much energy as it consumes. Net-zero energy buildings (NZEBs) minimize energy use through efficiency and by meeting remaining needs through renewable energy sources. Because NZE is a relative newcomer to the construction industry, it behooves all involved to be well-educated as to the steps necessary to successful design of the NZEB.
The acid test of whether a NZE home is performing as intended generally comes an entire year after it’s constructed, when the first year of energy bills are evaluated. By then it can be far too late to correct any deficiencies in the design. Moreover implementing NZE strategies, if not done cost-effectively, can completely erase potential energy savings (operating costs) due to excessive construction costs (initial costs), thus resulting in a failed building from a costs-benefits standpoint.
To help avoid these pitfalls we’ve outlined the following ten steps towards the affordable Net-Zero Energy Home.
1. It begins with the Design Process: The first step towards the affordable NZE home begins with an integrated design process, a team approach ideally including the owner, builder, architect and an energy consultant. Obtaining a cost-effective NZE home requires that a vast array of design decisions, many normally deferred until relatively late in the design process, be effectively identified and decided right from initiation of the design. To do this effectively requires hands-on involvement from all parties, including the owner whose job it is to make the decisions, the contractor advising on cost-effective options, the analyst verifying major decisions with energy modeling, and the architect facilitating orchestrated design decisions towards the optimal result.
2. The Site: For the most cost-effective NZEB, site selection must consider climate, weather patterns, wind, sun exposure, shade, heating/cooling degree-days, and topography. Ideally one should choose a site with a long east-west lot line to allow design imperatives such adequate south-facing roof for solar collectors and south facing windows for solar gain. The site should be free of obstructions such as trees, neighboring homes, and land-forms interfering with solar access.
A solar analysis is an important tool for evaluating passive solar, solar photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal (hot water) potential by objectively measuring a site’s limitations for solar gain potential. Taking full advantage of the solar potential for each site is one of the most cost-effective strategies for achieving the successful NZE Home.
3. The Basis of Design: After the site analysis has been concluded, the next step is for the project team to collaborate with the architect in preparing the NZE’s program brief. The “Brief” is simply a detailed, itemized list of the strategies to be implemented for this particular home on this particular site to achieve the intended goals. It thus serves as a checklist or “road map” for the project.
The Brief encapsulates key components and measures such as the building’s area, projected construction budget, size and characteristics of various rooms, appropriate construction type for foundation, walls and roof assemblies, targets for appropriate ratio of floor area to percentage of window glazing, and targeted sources for renewable energy.
4. Size and Shape Matter: When contemplating the design and construction of an affordable NZE home, size and shape matter. Smaller homes use less energy for space heating and cooling, thus reducing operating costs. The savings from building, say, a 10% smaller home that achieves the same level of comfort and livability as a standard home represents a significant lowering of the cost construction, thus improving the bottom line right from inception. The well-known strategies of the Not So Big House movement can be used to result in a smaller home designed to look and feel larger,more spacious and comfortable without wasted space, resulting in a smaller home which functions as well as a larger home without unnecessary expense. Shape is also important. For example, an axially arranged organization of rooms will increase the surface area available for south-facing windows, optimizing opportunities for passive solar gain as well as daylighting. Similarly a thin organization of rooms will increase opportunities to cross-ventilate the home, thus facilitating passive cooling.
5. Design to use the sun: To be successful, NZE homes must be designed to take advantage of the sun’s energy to the greatest extent possible, using it for example as the energy source for passive solar gain, generating electricity, and collecting solar hot water. After site analysis the conceptual model of the home can be appropriately located and massed appropriate to climate and site conditions, allowing mapping of potential energy performance and energy savings from the start.
Using this data the total area of southern-facing glazing will be determined – generally speaking it’s better to have too much rather than too little south-facing glass since excess solar gain can always be mitigated, but there is no remedy for inadequate amounts of glass.
Once the appropriate amount of glazing is determined, control features such as eaves, light shelves, trellises, horizontal louvers, brises soleil, external shades and shutters, and glass selection are used to fine tune performance to avoid excessive heat gain in the summer and optimize solar heat gain in the winter.
The design effort can then focus on the non-solar energy sources contributing to the overall energy picture by quantifying photovoltaic, solar hot water and other on-site renewable energy sources necessary to balancing the NZE home’s energy equation.
6. Design for added insulation: Think of the home as a six-sided box in which all six sides need to have the most cost-effective insulation specific to the project need. R-value is the unit of measure for insulation, and R-values on each side of the box, as determined by energy modeling, must meet but not exceed the net-zero energy goals. Once NZE goals are meet, surplus insulation in excess of project needs is not a cost-effective use of resources.
Features such as thicker walls, deeper floor framing assembly or slab-on-grade, and raised roof-truss heels may be incorporated in the design to accommodate the appropriate insulation. Here in coastal California, the design issues are relatively less challenging. Nonetheless, as with any other aspect of the design, it is important that these strategies be weighed, decided upon, mapped, and incorporated into the design documentation to ensure that the subcontractors on the jobsite understand unambiguously the design intent and how it is to be built in order to ensure success.
More challenging climate zones such as inland California, the Mountain States and Midwest may require measures such as 8-inch to 12-inch thick, off-set stud walls to provide for adequate insulation. Moisture related issues must also be considered in the design of the highly insulated and airtight building assemblies of the NZEB. Designing assemblies that are both breathable and airtight prevents moisture-related issues in the realized building.
7. Minimize thermal bridging: During the course of the design thermal bridging must be eliminated as much as possible from all six sides of the six-sided box. A slab-on-grade foundation system for instance is always placed atop an insulative barrier separating it from grade. In conventionally framed walls, every nail, every screw, and every stud in the wall assembly is a potential thermal bridge. For this reason advanced framing using offset studs are coming into favor. An alternative is the use of outboard rigid insulation, which must be carefully detailed if thermal bridging is to be avoided.
8. Windows and doors: If the NZE home is a well-insulated, highly airtight, “six-sided box,” windows and doors are relatively poorly insulated “holes” in that box. Moreover they are far and away the most expensive element in the wall assemblies that make up that “box”. For these reasons optimizing the location and size of openings is among the most important design strategies for achieving the affordable Net-Zero Energy Home.
Generally, most glazing will be south-facing, with lesser amounts allocated to east and west facades. North-facing glazing will be minimized. The exact ratios will be evaluated, determined by the energy modeling, and captured into the design documents. In terms of detailed requirements and by way of example, casement and fixed windows are less susceptible to infiltration than sliding, single- or double-hung windows. Fewer, larger windows are more energy efficient and more cost effective than more, smaller windows because there is a higher glass-to-frame ratio in larger units.
9. Alternative Construction Technologies: Although conventional wood framing and it’s derivative, advanced framing (a.k.a. optimum value engineering) are most commonly in use, many other construction technologies lend themselves to NZE. Systems which might lend themselves to a satisfactory result and which might be considered include timber framing, Structural Integrated Panels (SIPs), Insulating Concrete Forms (ICFs), Wood Waste Masonry, strawbale, rammed earth, PISE, and traditional wattle and daub techniques.
In each case the technology of choice will be a function of the owner’s preferences, the builder’s familiarity and comfort level with the technology, and the costs-benefits accruing to its implementation specific to the project.
10. Design for builders: Given that the NZEB is a relatively newcomer to the construction scene, a great many of the kit-of-parts contributing to the successful NZEB will benefit from reality-checking for constructability and cost-effectiveness to build from an experienced contractor. For this reason, as mentioned previously, we generally encourage bringing the builder on board early in the design process, when ground-floor decisions informing subsequent stages of the design process are being made. Although not an absolute essential, having a contractor either as an integral member of the design team or in a consulting capacity will facilitate cost-effective decision-making right from project inception.
While building an affordable Net-Zero Energy homes is within reach of anyone who is in a position to commission a new or remodeled home, the too-be-desired results – namely affordable initial (construction) costs plus high return on investment in the form of low recurring (energy) costs – requires a host of sound decisions, systematic design and documentation, and a concerted, diligent construction effort to realize. We hope the foregoing 10 points have provided you guidance towards that end.
NZEB is one of many aspects of sustainable practice with which we have experience. To see more examples of our work in green building design click HERE.
Integrated building design or Integrated Design Process (I.D.P.) is the name given to the high levels of collaboration and teamwork necessary to the delivery of a high performance green building project.
Charles Kibert in Sustainable Construction: Green Building Design and Delivery describes I.D.P. as design which, “considers site, energy, materials, indoor air quality, acoustics, and natural resources as well as their interrelationship with one another. In this process, a collaborative team (architects, engineers, building occupants, owners, specialists in indoor quality, materials, and energy and water efficiency) uses systems thinking to consider the building structure and systems holistically, examining how they best work together to save energy and reduce environmental impact”
The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building defines a truly integrative design process as one which “optimizes the interrelationships between all the elements and entities associated with building projects in the service of efficient and effective use of resources.”
I.D.P. is characterized by early, intensive collaboration between key members of the design team. Those design decisions fundamental to the intended goal of obtaining a high performance green building are identified and substantively mapped. They are then conscientiously revisited and strengthened through mapping against other competing priorities throughout the entire duration of the design process, thus resulting in the highest, best result within the scope defined for that performance.
The San Lorenzo Valley Water District Facilities Consolidation Project located in Boulder Creek, CA is a LEED NC2.2-registered design exemplifying the benefits of implementing Integrated Design Process. Green building design goals were identified, qualified, and then sorted along with all other priorities, early on. These initial goals were then shared collectively through the LEED charrette and other collaborative communications with all key members of the project team, resorted, and re-prioritized among all the values brought to the table by the project team, most especially those having to do with projected construction costs. This regimen of evaluation and re-evaluation was adhered to from schematic design, through design development, and culminating in having those goals manifested in the 100% construction contract documents, thus assuring the responsible implementation of those goals once the built project is realized.
More detailed discussion and updates to the status of S.L.V.W.D. Facilities Consolidation Project can be found here. For more information about Integrated Design Process, the American Institute of Architects has identified I.D.P. to be an essential to sustainable design practice. The resources they have compiled are available here.
Updated 2013 Building Energy Efficiency Standards (Title 24) took effect July 1 in California. Designed to obtain improved energy savings from new and existing residential and nonresidential buildings, the updated standards are intended to result in 25 percent less energy consumption for residential buildings and 30 percent savings for nonresidential buildings over 2008 Energy Standards.
The 2013 standards update for lighting, space heating and cooling, ventilation, and water heating are anticipated to add approximately $2,000 to the average cost of a new residential building construction. Estimated energy savings to homeowners, however, is estimated at over $6,000 amortized over 30 years.
In total, the standards are estimated to save 200 million gallons of water (equal to more than 6.5 million wash loads) and avoid 170,500 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per annum.
The changes to the Building and Standards code are the first update since California’s energy agencies agreed upon a Zero-Net Energy goal for all new residential buildings by 2020 and new nonresidential buildings by 2030. The 2016 and 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards will move the state even closer to the Zero-Net Energy goal. The new standards call for:
- Insulated hot water pipes to save water and energy, and cut the time it takes to get hot water.
- Improved window performance to reduce heat loss during winters and heat gain during summers.
- Whole house fans when appropriate, to reduce the need for air conditioning.
- Improved wall insulation to reduce heating and cooling loads in all climate zones.
- Mandatory duct sealing in all climate zones.
- Mandatory solar ready zone to facilitate future installation of solar systems.
- Recognizing photovoltaic compliance credit for the first time in the building standards.
- High performance windows that reduce heating and cooling loads in buildings year round.
- Efficient process equipment in grocery stores, commercial kitchens, data centers, laboratories, and parking garages.
- Advanced multi-level lighting controls and sensors to minimize the usage of electric lighting by taking advantage of available daylighting and demand response opportunities.
- Occupant Controlled Smart Thermostats allow for setting and maintaining a desired temperature and voluntarily participation in a utility’s demand response programs.
- Increased solar reflectance for low-sloped roof to reduce cooling load in summer time.
- Increased cooling tower energy efficiency and water savings by requiring drift eliminators and other water saving measures.
- Standards for all types of buildings require “solar ready roofs” to accommodate future installations of solar photovoltaic panels. This is the first time photovoltaics are included as a compliance option.
To help the industry meet the 2013 standards, the Energy Commission developed public domain software to assist with compliance. The California Building Energy Code Compliance (CBECC) software is a free, open-source program that models residential and nonresidential buildings, giving businesses a better understanding of what is required to be in compliance. The CBECC platform is said to provide more consistent simulation results, and facilitates compliance analysis within third-party building energy design tools. In addition to CBECC, there are three additional vendor software programs to help designers, builders and others measure and evaluate results.
Their web address for access is: http://www.energy.ca.gov/title24/2013standards/2013_computer_prog_list.html. To learn more about the 2013 Title 24, Part 6 Building Energy Efficiency Standards you can visit their website: http://www.energy.ca.gov/title24/2013standards/.
A reader recently queried in response to our recent posting The Brave New World of Insulating Wall Assemblies, “will adding exterior insulation act to decrease the probability of a condensation issue”?
The short answer is, adding exterior insulation will always decrease the risk of condensation within the wall assembly.
That said, in the design of the entire wall assembly including insulation in the stud bay + outboard insulation, we want to design the whole assembly with the dew point outboard of the wall sheathing. That way condensation, in the rare event it does occur, does not take place within the stud bay.
The chart at right provides recommendation for balancing the insulation. In a commercial application we can assume indoor RH of 35%. In Santa Cruz, the average for the coldest three winter months (Dec, Jan, Feb) is 49.7 degrees. Cross-indexing these (35% x 50 deg F) results in 0.00. In other words, in our climate zone since temperatures are mild, insulation balancing is not likely to be a consideration.
The most conservative estimate might assume an indoor RH at the highest end of the spectrum i.e. 60%. In the same temperature range (50 deg F) this results in a 24% ratio for the exterior insulation. If we seeking to attain an R-20 wall this means it’s recommended to design R-4.8 into the exterior insulation, and the remainder (20.0 – 4.8 = 15.2) in the cavity. Using conventional insulation, options might include: A. R14 batt + R6 rigid = R20 target B. R19 batt + R1 rigid = R20 target. Since the ratio is less than 24%, Option A is the better of the two, since it is the least likely of the two option to result in condensation within the cavity.
There is a detailed and comprehensive article at Building Science.com: http://www.buildingscience.com/documents/digests/bsd-controlling-cold-weather-condensation-using-insulation. It’s author, Dr. John Straube of the University of Waterloo, is widely considered to be an authority on the subject of moisture transport within building materials and systems.