Last month, President Obama announced the Better Buildings Initiative, which sets a target to improve commercial buildings energy efficiency by 20 percent over the next decade.
Depending on how they're defined, net-zero-energy buildings may take what Obama envisions one step further. Usually, net-zero refers to buildings that don't use any more energy than they produce. Once the buildings are running, they must meet the energy rules set before construction to stay true to the net-zero claim.
Two reports released last month by the CBC detail ways for new buildings to achieve net-zero-energy status.
The CBC, an umbrella organization that includes more than 430 organizations representing commercial building interests, says no formal definition exists for net-zero. Both reports lay out a "directional goal" to get there. One focuses on technology barriers, while the other looks into market barriers like building codes and standards.
Jeffrey Harris, senior vice president for programs at the Alliance to Save Energy, says that the magnitude people are talking about for net-zero is an 80 percent reduction of energy consumption from today's levels.
A net-zero building should be relatively thin, H-shaped, with courtyards, high ceilings and access to natural light, said Harris, who worked on the reports.
Their small, one-story size gives net-zero buildings plenty of daylight. Mild-weather environments allow them to ease use of air conditioning and heat. It's also hard to put them in urban environments because shading from nearby buildings will affect natural lighting.
'Keep building standards flexible'
One unintended consequence of building many of these with the available technology could lead to a groups of small, low-level buildings spread out in a sprawl. The CBC doesn't want this to happen.
A way to avoid this would be to be flexible about standards. A new 30-story building may need 10 times as much energy as a three-story building, Harris said, but it could still produce as much energy on a square-foot basis. That 30-story building may not be self-sufficient, but it would still save energy.
Harris identifies three immediate areas to help achieve net-zero: integrated design, efficient control systems and lifetime performance assurances. In other words, a building's design process must include input from designers at all levels. Its control systems must work together, and it needs a system to monitor its performance.
Harris describes integrated design as "making sure the new building's team brings in energy efficiency teams to take account of how changes in one system can affect another."
Diana Lin, a program manager with the National Association of State Energy Officials, said the process could include lighting designers, engineers, contractors and other "downstream actors."
"Oftentimes, a building owner comes in with an idea and an architect designs it" and it stays at that, Lin said. What could result is an inability to understand how a building's many different systems work together. Bringing all levels of designers in at an early stage would give them a chance to provide input. It would also help developers understand how a building's different systems interact, Lin said.
The Magnify building, which used a lot of the same building processes later laid out by the CBC reports, is an ambitious venture for a credit union. The investment in it won't pay for itself for maybe 15 years. Santarpia said all the press coverage and attention has led to new customers. But most mid-sized credit unions can't afford to wait that long for money to come back.
Magnify is one of the highest-capital credit unions in its county and has been around for 50 years, Santarpia said, so it can afford something like this. But he hasn't heard much about the building from other banks around the area.