Could zero energy buildings be easier than we thought?

Welcome to the new Building Evidence blog.  In it, I plan to share evidence-based tools and ideas on reducing energy use and carbon emissions in buildings.
Exciting things are happening in the world of energy use in buildings.  Things we did not expect just a few years ago.  Heck, things I did not expect even a few weeks ago.
Recently, an architect friend in the Hudson Valley asked me to look at energy bills for a new high-performance office building he designed and built.  “How close it it to net-zero energy?” he wanted to know.  After I looked at the bills, turns out, it’s not close to net-zero.  It’s way past net-zero.  Through both a mild winter and the much colder winter before, the building has been a net generator of energy.  A lot of it!  More on this project another time.
ecovillage-afterThen, just a few weeks ago, billing data came in for the Ecovillage TREE common house, a four-story 15-apartment building at the wonderful Ecovillage neighborhood.  They did not even target net-zero, but they did plan an efficient building. We only have about six months of data, but on a projected annual basis, this building is using almost 90% less energy than the typical apartment building.  90% less!  And, get this:  At a construction cost less than the average apartment building!  And it’s BEAUTIFUL, with a stunning facade, wonderful balconies, accessible apartments, and much more.  Its laundry machines and community areas that serve not just the 15 apartments in the building, but an additional 25 houses.  And, despite this, it’s STILL close to a net-zero energy building.
But it’s not just new buildings that can approach or go beyond net-zero.  Increasingly, we are seeing examples of existing buildings that have reduced much of their energy.  Our old office building at 109 S. Albany Street has seen its energy use reduced by over 70%, and we continue to make improvements.  The total investment to date is not much more than it would cost to put a new kitchen in a house, and is less than any of three siding quotes I got for my house.
We are starting a project to examine a program in the Netherlands, where whole-building retrofits are targeting net-zero energy use, along with providing new building facades, AND new kitchens and bathrooms.  Imagine that!  Entire building transformations.  Oh, and by the way, the renovated buildings are designed to not use any energy. Oh, and the cost is paid for out of energy cost savings.
And, at the synagogue I belong to, Taitem Engineering did an energy audit last year.  The energy committee took our energy audit, and basically decided to do much more than we even recommended.  They want to simply eliminate carbon emissions, and by golly they are digging deeper and finding a way to do it.  Insulation and air-sealing is complete, lighting work is under way, heat pumps are being evaluated as a replacement for gas furnaces, and a solar PV system is being examined to eliminate any residual energy use.
Could eliminating energy use in buildings be easier than we thought?  Could we be holding ourselves back by not looking deeper?  I will explore these questions more in future posts.
Over just a few exciting weeks, I’m beginning to think that the future has really arrived for slashing energy use and carbon emissions in our buildings.  Hang on tight, we’re in for a great ride!



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