Zero Energy Buildings: Myth Or Must?

As the immediate needs for more environmentally friendly and energy efficient buildings become more and more apparent, a logical question begins to come into focus: Where does it end?

Many in the design and construction community believe the answer is Zero Energy Buildings.  Zero Energy is a term used to describe a building that consumes as much energy as it generates in a given year or net zero.  Conversely, carbon emissions, which are directly related to the energy consumed, are zero. This is not to be confused with the notion that the building consumes zero energy all together.  This would be nearly impossible given all of the HVAC, Lighting, and Life Safety System demands that are needed to operate a building, especially a commercial one.  The key is to reduce the amount of energy consumed to the lowest possible amount and then create that amount of energy on-site by renewable means.

Here is a DOE’s database of Zero Energy Buildings in the US Today:

Science House (Minnesota) is a Net Zero Building Used as A Teaching Tool

It all starts with the building envelope and conservation: 

This encompasses the entire surrounding perimeter of the building including the roof, the walls, fenestration (windows/glass), and the foundation below.  The envelope is the first building system which must be optimized to achieve the most efficient building possible.  Several new building envelope concepts have emerged, most notably the use of air/vapor barriers and insulation on the outside of the building in lieu of the traditional installation on the interior of the building.  Driving this concept is the fact that thermal bridging has been found to drastically reduce the functional R-Value of an exterior wall when substrate and exterior finishes are attached directly to the framing of the building with no layer of thermal protection on the outside.  Not only must a building envelope be well insulated but it must also need to be sealed well enough to prevent air leakage.  Air leakage is one of the top reasons for energy loss in existing buildings today.

Click here for a link to a great resource, the passive haus institute on more information to maximize envelope efficiency:

System Optimization & Proper Sizing: 

The next step to achieving net zero energy consumption in a building is through the optimization of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems that operate the building.  Virtually on a monthly basis new mechanical, electrical, lighting and plumbing equipment are released to the market with increased efficiencies.  Designers are finding new ways to integrate these systems and make them efficient as possible.  Also, these systems need to be engineered to be properly sized and configured based on the envelope and the anticipated demands of the occupants.  After occupancy, the use of building management systems, smart controls and variable settings on equipment have all helped to integrate these systems and provide constant feedback on the amount of energy being used at a given time.  The proper sizing and smart usage can combine to reduce the energy consumption by nearly 50% by using highly efficient systems and equipment.

For more information and great articles on optimizing energy efficiency in buildings:  Check out the M-Files Blog

Studies and energy models have shown that maximizing both the envelope and the major building systems can reduce the energy consumption of a building by 70% (over the baseline energy usage established by ASHRAE 90.1).   Where does the remaining 30% come from?

On-Site Energy Generation:

The final step of achieving net zero energy consumption is through the generation of on-site energy for use by the building or the purchase of renewable energy through a green power provider.  The plausibility of generating your own energy or using renewable energy sources has increased recently due to a heightened awareness and a drop in costs (avg solar array runs between $3.50 and $5.00 per watt).  Systems that incorporate energy recovered from these various systems are becoming more of a common place for those planning to construct a new building: Solar, Geothermal, Cogeneration, Energy Recovery, Micro turbines, Wind and hydroelectricity.  Utilizing this energy locally first, at the building location, is where the remaining 30% reduction occurs.

Whether Net Zero is Feasible or Not, Raising the bar is a Must:

Buildings and optimizing their performance must be a focus for the design and construction communities because they have the single largest impact on the environment today (and the costs of operating our buildings).  Our collective commitment to creating buildings that perform optimally from a comfort, consumption and generative stance is imperative.  Finding creative ways to reduce energy (as much as fiscally possible) and then operating these buildings in an optimal manner is a must.  I am confident that the technologies and the strategies will continue to evolve and netzero will eventually become commonplace.

The Living Futures Institute (Creators of the Living Building Challenge) has now implemented a Net Zero Certification Program, for more information, go here:


Join us for GREENCon – March 15, 2012 – Messiah College

Early Bird Rate is $40 Until 2/22

Join us for a great conference & expo!

USGBC Central Pennsylvania will be hosting GreenCon – A Green Building Conference & Expo on March 15, 2012 at Messiah College.

The day will feature national and local experts on green building technologies, systems and philosophies.  There will be plenty of opportunities to learn, network and witness sustainability up close and personal as Messiah College gives tours of their numerous green initiatives.  There will be several guest speakers discussing exciting, relevant and innovative topics.  You can earn credential maintenance hours and promote your business through exhibiting or sponsorship.

If you are interested in learning more about this conference, please comment below and I will be happy to send you information regarding registration/exhibiting/sponsoring.

Happy New Year!

The Future of Green Building… The Living Building Challenge

Last month in New York City, I was fortunate to attend the first east coast workshop for the Living Building Challenge. The challenge was created in 2006 by The Cascadia Green Building Council (, one of the three founding chapters and pioneers of the US Green Building Council. The Living Building Challenge has now become part of the Living Futures Institute and has no specific affiliation with LEED. It is a stand alone program that looks to push the boundaries of design, material usage and building efficiency all while focusing on true beauty and being one with nature. I wanted to introduce you to the challenge and give you some insight as to where things are headed in the world of green building.

The Living Building Challenge is exactly that… a serious CHALLENGE. For even the most savvy of green builders and designers it will serve as a formidable foe… The benchmarks are far beyond LEED… Far beyond where any of us think about when it comes to conventional design and construction. This challenge will force you to abandon your comfort zone, your means & methods and think outside of the box. For this, I love the challenge. The challenge has two large hurdles in my mind: Net Zero Water Consumption and Net Zero Energy Consumption.

It is certainly not for everyone. In my estimation, the upfront costs are significant, projecting anywhere from 10-50% more than conventional buildings, but there are virtually no utility costs and you will be among the few, the proud, the pioneers. There is something to be said for being Net Zero both from an efficiency and technology standpoint. It is not easy but just imagine all those dollars saved throughout the lifespan of the building.

There are 7 major Categories within the Living Building Challenge which they call petals. Within each petal category there are imperatives which must be met, 100% in order to receive the petal. If you are able to receive all 7 petals for your building then you will receive the Living Building Challenge Certification. They have just unveiled a lower tier of recognition which is the Petal Recognition for achieving 3 of the petal categories. My impression is this has been well received because of the rigorous and almost impossible demands of all 7 petal categories.

Here are the 7 petals and their imperatives (requirements):

I.) Site

01 – Limits to growth

02 – Urban Agriculture

03 – Habitat/Land exchange

04 – Car Free Living

II.) Water

05 – Net Zero Water

06 – Ecological Water Flow

III.) Energy

07 – Net Zero Energy

Note: No combustion allowed

IV.) Health

08 – Civilized Environment (fresh air and daylight are priorities)

09 – Healthy Air

10 – Biophilia (Reference –

V.) Materials

11 – Red list (DO NOT USE List)

12 – Embodied carbon footprint

13 – Responsible industry

14 – Appropriate Sourcing – FSC Pure, Salvaged or Timber from on site

15 – Conservation + Resource

Note: Only petal which currently requires significant documentation

VI.) Equity

16 – Human Scale + Humane Places

17 – Democracy + Social Justice

18 – Rights to nature – Do not impede others access to natural light, water, etc.

VII.) Beauty

19 – Beauty + Spirit (Nature, delight, joy)

20 – Inspiration + Education

A New Horizon:

I am extremely encouraged by this challenge and the fact that there is someone raising the bar on the design and construction industry. USGBC did this with LEED some 15 years ago. When LEED first arrived, people complained about how hard it was to have 5 different material containers on-site for recycling and how it was impossible to get people to sort their waste. Now it is virtually impossible to find a job that doesn’t recycle its waste. We must continue to push for net zero and challenge people to think outside of the box to get it accomplished. We have a tall task ahead of us and limited resources which are being depleted more every day… let us not forget this.

Photo Of Omega Center, NY

More Information:

For a more in depth look at the Living Building Challenge imperatives/requirements, please go here:

For a look at the cost comparison of a living building vs. LEED Gold, please review this extraordinary cost matrix:

If you would like a presentation, please contact me for more information and we will be sure to assist you with this.

Campus Square Building Wins National Award

It was truly a pleasure to be involved in the design and construction process of one of the most sustainable buildings in the region. Campus Square is located in Midtown Harrisburg which has undergone a complete revitalization in the last 5 years.  The revitalization has been the vision of GreenWorks Development and their commitment to responsible development has definitely paid off. Campus Square has gone on to win a USGBC Central Pennsylvania Project Of The Year Award, ABC Keystone Chapter Project of The Year Award and most recently an ABC National Pyramid Award. These are all landmark achievements for this project.

Campus Square is a great example of blending high performance technologies, urban revitalization, flexibility and sustainable building products.

Some of the green building aspects of Campus Square include:

  • Geothermal (Ground Source) Heating & Cooling – 46 Geothermal Wells Under The Building – Designed & Installed by McClure Company
  • 42kw PV Solar Array with battery backup for emergency power – Designed by groSolar and installed by GR Sponaugle
  • White TPO Roofing by Carlisle Syntec Roofing installed by Houck Group
  • Energy Star Windows provided by Pella installed by Wohlsen Construction
  • Over 30% of all the materials used in the building is recycled content
  • Over 40% of materials were made within 500 miles
  • Over 98% of the construction debris was recycled

The Green Center of Central Pennsylvania is located in Campus Square as well. The Green Center is open to the public and teaches people about the various aspects of sustainability.

Here is a great video which tells the story about the building and the transformation of Midtown Harrisburg:

If you have questions or comments, feel free to post them.

What is green architecture?

Green architecture is definitely not black and white.   Green architecture is inherently organic and integrated.   There are currently many varying approaches and schools of thought behind this.   I am no architect but I do have a huge appreciation for the art.  I thoroughly enjoy the very few times in my day job as a construction manager when I’m able to sketch out details in the field or use my architectural drawing skills to get my idea across to the team.

I have started to notice the following trends in the green architecture arena.

1.) Passive Design – Orienting the building so that it is able to use the natural warmth and light from the sun. Just as important is the proper insulation of the building so comfort is preserved throughout the day.  Another critical item is to make sure that the most efficient windows are used on the exterior of the building. The passive house (haus) system has become widely popular and they are able to use these methodologies to save over 80% energy usage when compared to conventional design. Here is a link to their website: .

  • Trombe walls
  • Thermal bridge free construction
  • High efficiency glazing
  • Conserving resources through design

2.) High Performance Design – High performance design includes pushing the limit in all areas of the building. This includes the most efficient and typically most expensive envelope (exterior skin of the building), mechanical system, the electrical system, the lighting system, and even the plumbing system. ASHRAE publishes a truly great resource called High Performance Magazine which spotlights these types of buildings throughout the world, for more information visit here:

  • Geothermal (Ground Source) heating & cooling
  • Chilled beam technology
  • Integrated design
  • Technology pushing performance

3.) Smart Design – Smart design refers to the proper sizing of the building and it’s systems to fit the needs of the occupants. Traditionally buildings and their systems have been grossly oversized when compared to their actual needs and functionality. We are starting to see more homes and commercial buildings being built with this simplistic approach which can have major benefits for the environment and energy usage. My favorite local example of this is the Lofts at 909 – . They used an old abandoned school and converted it into ultra modern, compact urban apartments. They look really awesome.

  • Shared spaces
  • Multi-Functional spaces
  • Easily convertible spaces
  • Emerge Alliance
  • Feel Free To Share Others!


Where to begin?

This is often the first question I receive when I speak to people about sustainability.  Whether they are planning a new building, greening their business or changing some habits at home… They are never quite sure of the proper steps or the first step.  My reply to them most generally is start small.  Sustainability can be an overwhelming concept at first glance.  Even the word itself is a bit of a mouthful.  There are literally millions of companies are now bombarding us with their green marketing. It is easy for people to become confused and unsure.  Hopefully these few suggestions can help you on your way to ‘green’ baby steps.

Start with Energy – Any measure you take with regards to conserving energy will pay off dividends in both the short and long term.  This will also free up some extra dollars in your budget to implement some more drastic measures later on.  Here are some very easy, low cost (under $100), every day items which you can implement to reduce energy usage.

  • Change One Lightbulb – Chances are that you have already started to do this in your home or business.  Changing out the old incandescent bulbs for new compact fluorescent or if you are really an early adopter, LED Lightbulbs.  LED bulbs have come down in price drastically in the last year because more manufactuers and big box stores are beginning to carry them.  This is very encouraging!  There are several advantages to switching out incandescent bulbs including: longer life and lower energy usage… This means changing them less often!   Home Depot has LED Bulbs for $17.97 which will last for 46 years and save you over $200 over the life of each bulb

  • Buy & Install a programmable thermostat – They boast up to a 33% energy savings if installed and implemented properly which would result in an average savings of at least 20-30 dollars per month.  Here is a link to a honeywell 7-day programmable thermostat which costs $81.69 on amazon. Estimated payback on your investment in 3-4 months (payback).

  • Unplug – With our homes becoming more and more technologically advanced electronics seem to be piling up in every room.  TV’s, Computers, iPads, Portable Phones, Video Game Systems, Baby Monitors, DVD/CD Players, Radios, Appliances, and more.  Most electronics today constantly draw electricity when plugged in.  This is often referred to as phantom loads or plug loads.  The more we can unplug these items, the more we will see a savings in energy each month.  Here is a fantastic product from Belkin to help you do just this – The Belkin Smart Plug turns off the power strip when the TV is turned off. is 6 months (money in your pocket every month after that)

  • Turn off AC/Heat in Fall and Spring – No one likes to be uncomfortable so I don’t suggest doing this in the summer or winter.  If the weather is pleasant enough for you to be walking around the neighborhood in a t-shirt and shorts, try opening the windows and turning off your air conditioning and/or heat in the house.  This will save a lot of energy and allow you to get tons of fresh air which is always a great thing.

These are a few quick and easy steps to conserving energy.  Look for more tips on integrating sustainability into your life. If you have others , feel free to share