AIA Seattle Getting to Zero – Thoughts about Session 1 “Preparing for Net Zero”

WoodHarbinger-611-Edit_1by Matt Woo, P.E., RCDD, LEED AP BD+C

My colleague Shaun May and I recently attended the first session of the AIA Seattle Getting to Zero educational series on October 2, 2015. We were excited to participate in an event on the Net Zero topic. Shaun had even just written a newsletter article about Net Zero energy’s potential to become the “next big thing.”

This session, “Preparing for Net Zero,” first focused on the current state of energy reduction. The current goal of Architecture 2030 and their 2030 Challenge is for buildings to operate at 70% less energy consumption than the national average for a building of similar type. Then we also explored the planning, design, regulation, financial, and operational factors related to taking us where we want to go – carbon neutral, “net zero” energy usage in buildings.

More of a Good Thing

So far, the design and engineering concepts discussed as methods for reducing energy consumption are things that we at Wood Harbinger have experience in and can definitely handle for any potential new projects. These include concepts such as heat pumps (ground, water and air), natural ventilation, radiant floor heating, daylighting and controls, solar water heating, solar photovoltaics (PV), phantom/plug load control, task/ambient lighting and high efficiency LED lighting.

We have designed these systems for many of our projects. For Lower Columbia College’s Health and Sciences Building, we included photovoltaic solar panels and Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV). We designed radiant floor heating and fan-assisted natural ventilation (Big Ass Fans and smaller circulation assist fans) at Federal Way School District’s LEED Gold Certified Support Service Center, and for Centralia College’s TransAlta Commons, which started construction in July 2015. We designed an air-source heat pump system for the CSDS-5 Lab Expansion out at Naval Base Kitsap, and water-source heat pumps at Issaquah Middle School. We’ve also commissioned a number of projects using heat pumps, such as the Hamilton International Middle School, which has a water-source heat pump systems, and Valley View Middle School and Redmond High School, which both use ground-source heat pumps.

The catch is that we have not yet had the opportunity to implement many or all of them on a single project. We’re ready though!

Interestingly, other sustainable systems like chilled beams, air or water side economizers, evaporative cooling, heat recovery, and other sustainable ideas weren’t mentioned, though they have great potential for energy efficiency and conservation. We have successfully utilized chilled beams in a few project applications, including North Seattle College’s Health Sciences and Student Resources Building, the Washington State Public Health Labs in Shoreline, and at Virginia Mason Medical Center.

Find your Baseline

We also heard in this session that the keys to a quality, cost effective design include assessing existing building MEP system efficiency and performance to determine base-line conditions before much effort and cost is put into design and construction. This is an important part of project planning regardless of whether high performance is the project’s main goal. Systems which are exceeding design guidelines and wasting energy can be tuned or right-sized to match operational needs. Systems which are not properly calibrated or in need of maintenance will under-perform, use more energy to try and match operational needs, and may prematurely fail, resulting in unplanned down-time and expense.

There are many ways to establish and understand an existing building’s performance, from an energy audit, to benchmark testing, to a comprehensive Existing Building Commissioning program. Check out my colleague Paul Greenwalt’s blog post about benchmark testing. My other colleague Jeff Yirak has written and presented extensively about the benefits of Existing Building Commissioning. Here’s links to a few of his publications:

Avoid Surprises with Existing Building Commissioning

Existing Building Commissioning: “Surprise Management”

Can Existing Building Commissioning Solve All of Your Current Facility Headaches?

The Benefit of Standard Metrics

Greater standardization of sustainability rating system criteria as well as more broad based and defined standards in the energy and building codes will help push the sustainability goal and fuel new net zero designs. With the variety of different metrics, like LEED, Green Globes, Energy Star, and so on, it’s difficult to discern from a certification alone if a building is really “sustainable,” particularly in operation and not just as modeled. This is another topic Wood Harbinger wrote about this year, in a newsletter article over the summer, “Are ‘Green-Certified’ Buildings Actually Sustainable?” It’s good to see we’re thinking ahead with the industry.

Looking Forward to Session 2

Shaun and I are looking forward to the next session of the AIA Seattle Getting to Zero series, on October 23rd! If you’re there, come by the Wood Harbinger table and say hello.

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