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Construction Corner: Net-zero tackles commercial sector frontier

Korky Koroluk
Construction Corner: Net-zero tackles commercial sector frontier

When the organization representing more than a million architects worldwide decided recently to try for the elimination of carbon dioxide emissions in the built environment by 2050, it vaulted the idea of low emissions, or zero emissions, into the consciousness of the North American construction industry.

The notion of net-zero energy has been around for several years now, but it is still either little known, or the victim of unwarranted assumptions.

But building scientists are working to overcome that, and spearheading the drive for better understanding — and use — of the concept, are the scientists working at the National Renewal Energy Laboratory in the United States.

Read their publications, and it’s apparent that net-zero energy is more accessible than most people think. In the words of Paul Torcellini, who heads the lab’s Commercial Buildings Research Group, "there’s a huge gap between what people think is achievable and what is actually achievable."

In an article published in the latest issue of the lab’s magazine, Continuum, Torcellini said that his group is working to close that gap.

To do that, they are examining the many factors that go into the decisions made by building owners and managers, right from the design stages all the way through to operations. The objective is to show that net-zero energy buildings are achievable for a competitive price.

About three years ago, the lab recently put up a net-zero energy Research Support Facility of 360,000 square feet for a cost of $259 a foot, compared with the $250-$350 per foot expected for a traditional building. It houses 1,300 NREL staffers on its campus in Golden, Colo.

Since it was completed, the lab has been carefully documenting every aspect of its performance, and publishing the results. As a result, the lab’s website has become an invaluable resource centre of free downloadable documents aimed at anyone who is serious about designing and building a net-zero energy facility.

"We’re working to condense what we did here … into something that is accessible, to really give people information they can use,…" says Jennifer Scheib, an engineer in the research group.

"Net-zero energy is an operating goal, and not just a ‘day-one’ goal" she says. "We want to make sure the building is still operating at net-zero energy in year 20 …"

At present, only about one per cent of new commercial buildings in the U.S. are built to net-zero energy criteria. One reason, Torcellini says, is the diffuse nature of the commercial building sector. That makes it difficult for new research to reach the market, and make an impact on it.

Talk of net-zero energy revolves around new construction, but researchers are concerned about commercial retrofits, as well. And Shanti Pless, another member of the research group, is optimistic that the concept will take hold in that sector during the next five years, as well.

He says he expects to see more of it in schools, banks, offices and many other areas — even entire campuses.

He also takes a jab at those who pooh-pooh the idea in the belief that net-zero energy costs too much.

"Extra cost is often a justification to not be efficient," he says. "There are plenty of ways buildings waste energy and money, but good energy-efficient design doesn’t need to."

Torcellini adds a note for purchasers of construction:

"Consumers should expect nothing less than net-zero energy buildings. (They) should demand excellence out of their design teams and construction contractors."

The NREL website is vast, but there is a page devoted to the Research Support Facility. Within that page are many links leading to such things as a handbook for planning design charrettes for high-performance projects, a data centre to help owners and builders to optimize efficiency, and more. Much more.

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Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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