How Architecture Can Help Achieve Net Zero

With recent technological advances and environmentally conscious buyers, Net Zero homes are on the way 

By KRIS WHITE

It’s always a fun challenge when a client approaches you with a goal of net zero energy or net zero water. Advancements in both technology and our design process have allowed architects to expand the formerly limited boundaries of what people imagine could qualify as “green building.” We have been able to successfully integrate great design with a sustainable attitude and package it into a modern, clean looking, and attractive building. After all, if the building doesn’t look good and speak to the universal language of beautiful design, then eventually someone is going to try and tear it down. What good is designing with sustainability in mind if it’s all going to end up in the landfill anyway? 

Gone are the days when building sustainably created “ugly” buildings and excluded beautiful ones. But the correct design attitude, on both the client side and the design side, needs to be implemented in order to make the building successful. Building sustainably is not a kit-of-parts. A truly green building should be site-specific, and the design should be all encompassing. 

Every successfully designed building begins with the climate and the site. It is from here that you know how to capture your breezes, or where to keep the sun out (or oppositely, in colder climates, where you need to let the sun in). Your passive building techniques, alternative building practices, and insulation methods will all fail if you don’t take care of proper site analysis first. 

The idea of Net Zero Energy is really a basic question – how do we overcome heat gain and heat loss in a building? Different answers to this question create unique building methods, but the notion remains same: you are either trying to retain heat in your building or keep it out of your envelope, and you are always trying to do this in the most efficient way to offset and equal out the amount of energy it takes to overcome this loss/gain. 

In Texas, where I design and build my projects, we are concerned about heat gain more often than heat loss. So it is imperative that we use the sun’s angles on the site in order to calculate the depth of our overhangs. This requires very precise planning. For nine months out of the year, we need to keep the sun out of our projects, but if we design it correctly, we can also have the sun warming up a nice concrete slab floor in the wintertime as well. 

Only after using the architecture to do the majority of the work first, can we start to look at technology to help offset the rest. Using a separate dehumidification device is an option that is often overlooked, but is a powerful tool to assist in achieving human comfort. From here, renewable sources of energy can be used to equal out the energy drain from the building’s most efficient operation. 

Analyze your locale to see what renewable sources work best, such as wind, solar, geothermal, etc. In our hot and sunny area of Texas, solar is almost a no-brainer. With all the sun we get, the ROI is quick on the payback, especially when averaging in the cost of energy increases. Plus, now that A/C equipment has become so much more efficient and cost effective, there has never been a more cost effective time to obtain Net Zero Energy. This should not be excluded to Texas; many homes in many states can see benefits from a Net Zero Energy project. 

By far the most exciting projects for me are Net Zero Water projects. As our climate changes, the world’s population increases, and our infrastructure ages, we all face the looming problem that our fresh water supply is depleting. Analyzing the annual rainfall with some quick calculations of roof size can be used to measure the potential rainwater collection. However, if I have a client that wants to use rainwater as their sole potable water source, then they are ready to make some real change through architecture. And even practicing in a place where drought is all consuming and wells run dry, with the right measurements and the right mindset during design and construction, I have yet to have a client run out of rainwater. 

We are at a critical time period. Building and construction is the biggest industry affecting our changing climate. I suggest that you immediately take the items needed to achieve your Net Zero goal out from the design budget and place that money aside in your mind or you’ll spend it elsewhere. 

I also can’t stress enough that the only way to successfully get a Net Zero Energy or Net Zero Water home built is to have a client that is fully onboard and dedicated to the process/result. In Austin, we have the Green Building Program on a five-star rating. It’s our axiom that you can design or build a five-star house, but it can’t overcome a one-star client. 

 Kris White is an associate at Dick Clark + Associates. He may be reached at white@dcarch.com