Time for Net Zero: What We Learned from the AIA Seattle Getting to Zero Educational Series

by Shaun May, EIT and Matt Woo, P.E., RCDD, LEED AP BD+C

This article is part of Wood Harbinger’s newsletter series.

In October and November of 2015, the two of us attended the AIA Seattle Getting to Zero educational series. This four-part event was presented by local leaders in the race for net zero energy communities. The series was full of innovators who have great ideas and impressive experience in advancing our society’s sustainability profile. It was the most educational and inspirational industry event that this young engineer has attended.

Net Zero Viability: The Proof is in the Projects

Some great examples of net zero projects and initiatives were presented in this series, a few of which are in our own Seattle area:

Westin Building-Amazon Eco District

This innovative energy project uses waste heat from a data center within the Westin building to heat water that is then piped over to the neighboring Amazon campus to provide heating for their buildings. Cooler water is returned to the data center, and the cycle repeats. The collaborative heat transfer effort between businesses creates symbiotic relationship with great energy conservation.

Bullitt Center

The “Greenest Commercial Building in the World,” gets a lot of attention, and rightfully so. It is the first building to receive Living Building Challenge certification. It utilizes a variety of sustainable building design methods to achieve its net-positive energy goals, including a collaborative “all in” culture of committed sustainable building use stakeholders. All tenants are operators and have energy budgets they must monitor and balance with their day-to-day building water and energy use demands.

Some of the design elements it utilizes include radiant heat flooring that is controlled by the slab temperature, rather than the space temperature; indoor blinds that radiate heat into the space during the winter months; tall floors (14 feet, 2 inches) with 40-60% of exterior walls covered with windows; and a strategic decision to forego some solar PV array area on the roof in favor of skylights, which pay for themselves in electrical lighting cost savings and offset the extra energy generation.

The space also connects with human biology and the natural environment. The “building microbiome,” that is, the bacterial makeup of the indoor environment, is researched and aimed to align with a healthier natural (outdoor) style biome. Lighting also plays a role in the wellbeing of occupants. To this end, color temperature shifting LEDs are used to help people maintain circadian rhythms and stimulate natural human hormonal responses.

The Local Movement Continues with Seattle’s 2030 District

The series presenters discussed the Seattle 2030 District and the initiatives this non-profit group is taking to push the city towards net zero:

Architecture 2030 is a non-profit organization that put forth an inspiring challenge to stakeholders in the built environment—building owners, managers, municipal governments, and the AEC community. They envision a local community where “all new buildings, developments, and major renovations shall be carbon-neutral by 2030.” The challenge outlines tiered reductions for all new buildings, developments, and major renovations, with all current new construction designed to consume 70% less energy than the baseline building of its type; by 2020, the reduction should increase to 80% less; by 2025, 90%; and finally, by 2030, all new construction should be designed to be carbon neutral.

A challenge of this ambitious nature requires collaboration and commitment between public and private entities. From this need, the 2030 Districts were born. Currently there are 12 cities with an organized 2030 District. Seattle was one of the first to form a district. There are set goals for existing buildings and new construction for energy use, water use, and transportation-related carbon emissions.

The Seattle 2030 district includes the downtown core and surrounding neighborhoods.

The Seattle 2030 district includes the downtown core and surrounding neighborhoods. Image Source: http://www.2030districts.org/seattle/about

The Seattle 2030 District website features numerous building case studies and “Visionary Award”-winning projects. These new construction and renovation projects range from apartments, office buildings, mixed-use facilities, even the Experience Music Project museum and the Seattle Central Library.

Currently, 30 of the 167 buildings participating in the Seattle District share water consumption data. We argue that they should all make this public information! Performance reviews and comparisons help inform businesses and push them to lead the market in sustainability initiatives.

Here’s a brief look at some of the initiatives the Seattle 2030 District is working on:

Smart Buildings

The Smart Buildings/High Performance Building Pilot Project currently operates in four buildings, utilizing real-time monitoring equipment and software in combination with the buildings’ automation systems to identify inefficiencies in system operations and correct faults before they happen.

Support for Small Commercial Buildings

The Seattle 2030 District has partnered with other agencies to help small commercial buildings achieve more efficient energy and water usage. Services provided include energy assessments to determine savings opportunities, support with navigating the utility rebate process, and help for small businesses in securing funding to make upgrades.

Water and Storm Water

Stormwater management is a current focus element. The City of Seattle and the 2030 District are seeking to make it “greener” by promoting the use of rooftop gardens, on-site vegetation, bioswales, rainwater collection, permeable pavement, and other stormwater mitigation best practices to manage 228 million gallons of stormwater annually by 2030.

The District is also helping members increase their water efficiency by installing low-flow plumbing fixtures, high-efficient irrigation systems, and native/adaptive drought-tolerant vegetation, as well as reusing grey water for on-site needs.


Vehicle electrification is a powerful method of reducing vehicle emissions. The Seattle 2030 District recently produced a video, “Electrify Seattle,” describing the effort to encourage drivers to go electric. The vision is to create a network of electric vehicle charging stations around the city, providing the infrastructure to support wider spread use of electric vehicles. This will reduce carbon emissions and reduce contaminated stormwater runoff.

The Seattle 2030 District collaborates with community partners to promote alternative transportation programs and amenities, including bike facilities, on-site storage, showers, and changing rooms.

Net Zero Design: Thinking Beyond the Building

The series presenters talked a lot about design considerations and strategies. Matt wrote a recap about some of the concepts introduced in the first session. It’s exciting to know that many of the strategies introduced are already familiar to us and we have actually designed before, in some capacity.

Here are a few examples:

Passive solar design

Passive design strategies, like daylighting, natural ventilation, and solar energy are key components of net zero design as they make use of energy that does not need to be generated. Daylighting includes use of window glazing, skylights, lighting tubes, or fiber-optic cables that allow sunlight into a building and helps to reduce energy consumption as well as provide a healthier environment with full-spectrum lighting.

Natural ventilation

Operable windows and chimney vents help to reduce energy consumption and purge spaces of carbon dioxide, leading to a healthier environment.

PV panels

The economic viability of solar energy has increased for many investors as PV panels have become thinner, more efficient, and cheaper. New solar technology is also pushing the envelope (literally). For example, transparent solar cells could enable windows to gather solar energy. PV panels can be placed in such a way to provide for buildings in hotter climates, such as Arizona, which benefit from passive (or active) shading. Strategically interlocked, modular PV panels and window shades can be monitored and adjusted to optimize building thermal control, daylighting control, and harvest maximum solar energy.

Thermal labyrinth/earth tube

This is a long, large, and turbulent underground air pathway beneath a structure that creates a thermal energy storage space. Typically used for cooling in hotter climates, the tube gathers cool air during the night and releases it during the day. During the winter, warmer air is gathered during the day and released at night. This provides free summer cooling and winter pre-heating.

Wind chimneys

This innovative strategy blends aesthetics and function. Passive airflow (potentially from a thermal labyrinth) through columns of falling water can be utilized to cool indoor spaces.

Energy demand programming

Using a building automation system control, systems are programmed to operate based on when spaces are occupied, which reduces or eliminates energy use when spaces are vacant.

Building skin vs. load driven energy profile

This strategy balances the use of window glazing to increase natural daylighting, visibility, and natural heating, with the use of building envelope methods that increase thermal control. Through this balance we get the benefit of each strategy as an optimized system.

Multiple and renewable power sources

Electricity is delivered over long distances and usually is sourced from limited carbon-based fuels (e.g., coal or oil) or potentially hazardous sources (e.g., nuclear). Electric powerline capacity is also limited and cannot accommodate increased loads without expensive power distribution upgrades. On-site renewable energy helps to offset and can even eliminate purchased electrical power use. Solar and wind power are the more common and more cost-viable options. Geothermal and tidal power can be used on certain sites and are more costly. Waste heat from data centers, sewer lines, or substations in one building can be utilized by another adjacent building in a district utility system, eliminating wasted heat and reducing natural resource energy demands. The Westin Building-Amazon eco-district discussed above is an example of this strategy.

Location-based considerations

Not all sustainable design strategies are created equal or apply in all situations. Truly sustainable design works with the environment to optimize building systems performance based on the conditions and climate of the area. Optimal sustainable system design can look very different in Arizona, for example, than in Seattle. For example solar energy usage is a prime option in Arizona, whereas rainwater harvesting makes a lot of sense Seattle. That is to say that certain geographic regions will tend to be more efficient using one sustainable design method or renewable energy source than another renewable energy source based on local conditions.

Net Zero Advocacy: Driving Investment and Participation

It will take a team effort to meet the current 2030 Challenge goal of 70% fossil fuel energy reduction and increased renewable energy usage. Successful net zero projects require more than energy efficient equipment selection and systems design. They require commitment and collaboration from all stakeholders, emphasizing the interconnected nature of everyone’s roles and actions. To begin, more building owners will need to get on board with investing in net zero project commitments. Concepts like “negawatts” may serve as an incentive: a building tenant pays for their baseline energy plus a small premium for sustainable renewable energy costs; the utility receives extra revenue, and then applies utility credits to the building owner.

Companies should also consider the “human capital ROI” of creating sustainable work environments through net zero goals. Investments in employee well-being and a more enjoyable work environment can lead to gains in work productivity, which increases overall business efficiency, and ultimately can lead to higher profitability.

Current codes, policies, and regulations must also be updated and aligned with higher performance requirements in order to help promote sustainable building design. Law makers must balance increasingly more stringent codes and regulations with advocacy for zoning, permitting, and code policies that advance the Seattle 2030 District goals. Examples include expedited construction permitting, zoning incentives, code improvements, and reduced barriers to rainwater harvesting.

Once a net zero target is set, district planners and builders must coordinate in the early design phase. Designers must coordinate to develop building systems that work well together, not just individually. Systems should have integrated monitoring and control to adjust their various settings in real-time to optimize overall building performance.

Energy savings performance contracts are an example of project team commitment to energy reduction. In this model, the contractor subsidizes energy retrofit and sustainable building system projects, reducing or eliminating the building owner’s initial cost. The contractor’s subsidy and profit come from energy savings over the course of a typical 3-5 year return on investment. After project completion, facility managers and occupants must both take an active role in assuring that their building operates at the high performance levels. This integrated project approach is crucial to meet high performance targets.

Takeaway and Next Steps

It was a truly educational and inspiring experience to come together with other industry professionals who are passionate about achieving the net zero goal. We are ready and excited to combine our knowledge and skills on a net zero energy project! Our overall takeaway is that net zero is a challenging pursuit but definitely possible throughout the nation, in all climate zones, and in a wide variety of market sectors including k-12 schools, higher education facilities, offices, retail, healthcare, and even military installations. Through our combined efforts and commitments, we can reduce and conserve energy and make the built environment more sustainable and resilient, which will become all the more vital as the world copes with climate change. We encourage you to research more via the Getting to Zero conference program and to reach out for more detailed discussion of specific topics and opportunities.

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