Building Team Blog
Rob Cassidy (“ClimateGrouch”) is editorial director of Building Design+Construction. A city planner, he is the author of several books, including “Livable Cities,” and was a co-founder of the Friends of the Chicago River.
Follow Building Team Blog:

USDOE Research Support Facility, NREL

June 09, 2011

Man up*, America’s Building Teams! The gauntlet has been thrown at your feet. The fighting words have been issued. It’s dueling BIM models at sunrise. There’s no longer any excuse for not at least trying to build a net-zero (or near net-zero) energy building. (*OK, before I get hammered as a sexist, "women up" too, I suppose - although I haven't heard it used.) That’s because we now have tangible evidence of a viable net-zero energy building—the 222,000-sf Research Support Facility at the National Renewable Energy Lab, a Platinum winner in this year’s Building Team Awards (page 36). This building shows that net-zero energy construction is no longer a pipe dream. Can you imagine what it must have been like for the RSF Building Team, with hundreds of scientists—who spend 100% of their working hours on energy research—breathing down their necks? That the team exceeded all 26 management objectives with such an intensely involved client on their case is proof that this can be done under more “normal” circumstances. What, then, are the “excuses”? Well, it could be argued that, since the client is a government agency, they’ve got deep pockets. Wrong! There was a strict $64 million cap (which included infrastructure and campus improvements) on the job: The Building Team would have been severely penalized had they exceeded that limit. Did the Denver climate make it easy compared to, say, Florida or New England? Maybe. Maybe not. But future net-zero Building Teams would adjust their design and construction strategies to meet local conditions. In other words, the RSF should not become a cookie-cutter template. It is possible that future net-zero buildings may be taller than the RSF’s three stories; they may have a different footprint than the “slanted H” of the RSF. That would be a function of the imagination and expertise of the respective Building Teams. In the case of the RSF, the truly significant number is not zero, but 80. That’s the percentage of energy savings that the Building Team achieved in comparison to a conventional office building. They literally pushed the building envelope (and every other component—lighting and daylighting in particular) to squeeze out every wasteful Btu. Only then were renewables added. That target—80% energy reduction—is really what Building Teams should be eyeing. Clearly, Building Teams working on the next generation of new green buildings need to be thinking about bringing their projects in somewhere in the 50-75% range of energy conservation. I repeat: The RSF proves it can be done. In fact, the case could be made that, unless the renewables are heavily subsidized (with tax writeoffs, grants, or ESCO-type financing schemes), it might be better to make private-sector buildings “renewable ready,” and wait for PV, geothermal, and other renewable prices to come down (as they are). The exception: government buildings, which should include renewables as a means to help move those technologies along. I haven’t said anything about getting existing buildings to net-zero energy use, but that’s the next big step. After all, noresidential buildings consume 19% of energy use and residences another 20%, so most of the problem is already in the ground. Making existing buildings and homes more energy efficient would really pay off. I’ll end this discourse as I did elsewhere in this issue: If the U.S. government can build a net-zero energy office building at fairly reasonable cost, why can’t the private sector do so?

Other posts from this author

Comments on: "‘Net-zero’: It's now the New Normal for green buildings"


Net-Zero (+ this, + that, + the WHOLE kitchen sink)

As wonderful as it sounds and great that it's "Green" - ER..... Net-Zero is not addressing the main issues which are; 1) there are more inefficient buildings in existence than there will new ones during the next 75 to 125 years, 2) the new building materials are essentially unchanged (except for a very small portion of the whole), and 3) through 25) every bit of the entire infrastructure is shot. The solution is not putting the BAND-AID on this new building here or there, it is altering the way Architects and Builders can pull away from the infrastructure itself, which in turn will have the greatest MACRO effect. I myself, am a developer and scientist, and when I looked at my next project, I stopped in my tracks, and redesigned everything from the ground up to be totally inert to the environment. Yes it added 4 years to the project, but now I can say with satisfaction that the materials, their production, the design, and functionality make what I am doing really NET-ZERO Squared... No Energy in and No waste out, from the manufacturing of the materials, through the construction of the buildings from the ground up, and there after into the future. I took it a step further even and designed into everything the ability to apply the same technologies to existing buildings in a most cost effective way ..... The focus is simple, "Build to the land, and keep it inert." JD


Nice article. It would be nice to see the detailed brake down of what was involved in the project to reach 80% efficiency, the costs of the project vs. conventional, the long term savings, the systems picked, etc.