Chickens. I have been thinking a lot about them recently. 

I guess it’s because now that I am on the back nine of my career, I find myself pondering retirement, and in particular what I might do with myself when that time comes. And for no rational reason I can discern, I seem to think raising chickens sounds like a cool idea. A typical engineer’s career will run somewhere between 30 and 40 years. So barring a lottery win I’ll be heading out to pasture (or to the coop) somewhere between 2020 and 2030.

But as fascinating as poultry farming may sound, something will be occurring during that time frame that will be much more interesting than one man’s entry into his golden years. Not only is it far more relevant for an engineering article, it’s already begun. 

I’m speaking of the transformation of buildings from static usurpers of energy into dynamic entities that produce as much power as they consume. This new vantage on the built environment is commonly referred to as Net-Zero Energy Buildings (NZEB).


Dictates and Decisions

Now, if you have had the pleasure to work with the United States Government, then you are surely aware of the various Executive Orders and Acts of Congress which drive so many designs and decisions. And if you haven’t worked with Uncle Sam … well, you just haven’t truly lived yet.

For the last decade or so, the impact of these dictums on HVAC designers has primarily been in the areas of LEED compliance and beating ASHRAE 90.1 by varying percentages. But there are two directives that are gifts that will keep on giving for at least another 15 years.

In particular, Executive Order 13514 will require that from 2020 onward, all new federal buildings in the planning process must be designed to achieve zero-net-energy by 20301. Further, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) calls for a 100% reduction in fossil-fuel energy use (relative to 2003 levels) for new federal buildings and major renovations by 20302.  

This means that by 2030, the vast majority of the federal building portfolio is intended to be net-zero. And the various agencies in Washington are already marching down the path, albeit at differing paces. If you visit the aptly named Performance.Gov website, you can link to each agency’s action plans and current scorecards tallying their progress towards their net-zero goals3.

And since the private sector follows the public when it comes to buildings (see LEED and the various energy codes over the last 10 years), commercial folks need to pay attention, too.


Eliminate the Negative

So let’s get the bad mojo out of the way.

First of all, don’t let your politics cloud your judgment. It flat out does not matter what the motivation was behind these policies. Whether you’re a small government conservative who chafes every time you renew your fishing license, or a progressive liberal who has a pet name for your Prius, it’s irrelevant.

These acts and orders exist, and even though they amount to unfunded mandates (in the parlance of the politico), we are obligated as licensed engineers to follow them. The talking heads on Fox and MSNBC will argue the policy, so we are free to simply do our jobs.

Second … and this one is aimed at old dogs like me … don’t let pessimism get in your way. On the path to a new NZEB paradigm, we will inevitably come across true believers (probably a hopeful young architect) who will extol the virtues of NZEB as the vehicle by which we will save the Earth. If you allow this illogical naiveté to get you worked up, then you are wasting your own energy.

Building a new building, no matter how efficient it is, is one of the least sustainable things we do as humans. Igloos, teepees, and mud huts are sustainable. Sexy skyscrapers with solar panels and wind turbines pinned to the roof are not. Throw in the fact that the uncooled masses in China and India will soon be demanding their basic human right to air conditioning, and you can see that our country’s NZEB initiative is at best a zero-sum game when viewed on a global scale.

But who cares? Once again it just doesn’t matter what the idealists think or what your common sense tells you re: solving the world’s problems. The reality is that as HVAC engineers, we are always tasked with providing the most energy efficient design possible, so now we are free to do just that.

And here is the best reason to nix the negativity — in the next 15 years, we energy folks get to move from the cheap seats to the front row.

Because while the merits of sustainable design are subjective (see LEED’s infamous bike racks), NZEB is about cold, hard math. This is the domain of the engineer where modeling and meters rule the day, not soft metrics on increased productivity due to one’s proximity to a window. 

This is the difference between ice dancing and ice hockey in the Olympics … and we’re Team USA. Do you believe in miracles?


Getting from Here to There

So how do we pull off this miracle? First of all, we can’t do this through design alone. The New Buildings Institute (NBI) was commissioned to study net-zero viability for the District of Columbia. As part of this study they developed a plausible technological path from today’s ASHRAE 90.1-2007 compliant building to tomorrow’s NZEB for a dense urban environment such as DC.

Their study found that 59% would have come from the design community in the form of energy efficiency improvements; 6% or more from photovoltaic (PV) or some other form of renewable on the building (since the site is limited); and the final 35% would have to come from technology advancement in solar panels and from “jumping to the district scale for energy solutions” (Figure 1)4.

Note that term “district scale.” What the NBI is positing is that a typical building in DC doesn’t have enough open area to support sufficient PV to be a standalone NZEB. Unlike suburban office developments where adjacent parking lots can become PV farms, there typically are no such open spaces in a condensed metropolitan setting. So the “district” (i.e. city, town, campus, or local utility) would need to pursue policies that encourage “scale-jumping” beyond the building site (Figure 2). 

Therefore, a collective major player in the NZEB game will have to be the municipalities, utility providers, and regulators who will be expected to handle the supply, demand, and distribution of NZEB produced power on their systems. Metering, demand forecasting, rates, infrastructure … they will all have to be defined or redefined.

The more you look into this, the more you realize that the NZEB rollout will require a tectonic shift in how buildings are built, delivered, energized, and operated. Everyone will probably still be arguing about the Obamacare website when this bombshell will fly in under the radar. This is big stuff. But don’t expect the media or the public at large to care much, since they just don’t seem to understand what we do anyway.

But again, instead of focusing on what we cannot control, let’s focus on what we can: That pesky 59%.


Doing Our Part

Old engineering joke –

The pessimist sees the glass as half empty.
The optimist says it’s half full.
The engineer simply observes that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

At the risk of abusing the metaphor, the glass can be seen as the amount of energy a building consumes. It doesn’t matter if we are naturally pessimistic or optimistic, as engineers our job is simply to reduce the size of that glass by about 60%. 

But getting to a viable NZEB will require a truly integrated design approach because an NZEB is a machine and not just a structure enclosing various MEP elements. All of the building components will have to work in unison in order to operate, respond, and adjust in order to optimize energy use and power production.

Architects will have to rethink the form and envelope of their buildings. Electrical engineers will provide systems that are less energy intense and more responsive to occupancy and demand. And mechanical engineers will continue to do what we do best: Transfer heat and fluids by the most efficient means available.

But good news: the process has started. There are a number of advanced energy design guides that are out there. ASHRAE has developed a number of design guides for multiple building types that beat ASHRAE 90.1-2004 (unfortunately not 2007) by 50%. These can be downloaded for free5 and can provide a head start of sorts. And the DOE has estimated that ASHRAE 189.1-2007 averages a savings of about 25% when compared to 90.1-2007.

That’s a lot of percentages, but the high-level take away is that based on existing approaches, systems and strategies, our industry is about 40% down the road. But that means we have about five years to make up the 60% difference. 


Tick.Tock. 60 in 60

So we have about 60 months to make up the 60% difference. You’re not alone in the world, but my gut says the industry as a whole is not going to be waiting for us with 60% Design Guides on January 1, 2020. So if you want to be prepared for a design charette on a federal building at the dawn of the next decade, you and your firm probably have some work to do.

Now, let me preface the following suggestions by acknowledging that the urgency and the ability to meet this challenge will be unique to each firm. If you are with a large firm with a great deal of government work comprising your portfolio, then you may need to dial this up to 11. If on the other hand you are a small- to medium-size firm with limited resources and a workload with more diversity, you’re likely at DEFCON-4 versus DEFCON-1.

Regardless of the exact approach taken, consider gathering a team of your best and brightest. I would suggest a good mix of young and old. Grab the eager and unjaded engineers who are around that five-year mark professionally. Throw in those at 15+ years, who may be a bit curmudgeonly but have the experience to guide the process away from the rocky shores of the unrealistic. If you are a standalone consulting engineer, team with a smart architectural and civil firm.

Now, consider the following two examples as the theoretical ends of the approach spectrum, from urgent to less so.

First we can look to Google. For years they have allowed their employees to use up to 20% of their work week to pursue special projects. That means for every standard work week, employees can take a full day to work on a project unrelated to their normal workload. Google claims that many of their products in Google Labs started out as pet projects in the 20% time program.

The biggest risk associated with a part time approach like this is that without a strong leader and hard and fast action items tied to a schedule, the team can devolve into a distracted and discontented mess.  We’ve all been on those committees that start hot, but one day it dawns on you that they haven’t met in months.

Another path that may be tougher to accommodate financially and resource wise in the short term, but will likely be more productive in the long, would be to turn this working group into a dedicated and funded Design Center of Expertise. By setting up an independent market sector, the time, deliverables, and expectations would be easier to track and manage. Yes, it would mean more “unbillable” time than the 20% approach, but the investment would likely have a quicker ROI.

With a five-year horizon, you could set incrementally increasing billability requirements for the group. This transition would take place as their efforts evolved from research, to project shadowing and design guide development, and then ultimately to subject matter expertise with the team members assigned to the first NZEB project as designers or as facilitators for multiple projects.

Both approaches require front loaded investment. But to quote the mechanic in the old Fram oil filter commercials, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.”

If you aren’t prepared in 2020, there may be some painful write downs on projects as you work your way through the learning curve on a live project with real budgets and deadlines. And I for one don’t want to be the PM on a project who when cornered by the client tries to seek cover under the lame excuse, “Well you understand of course that this is our first NZEB design.”


Change can be a Good Thing

Time and money: Two limited resources in the engineering game. Both have to be managed wisely. And while we have focused on the challenges facing the designers internally, we can’t forget that we will have to be good stewards of our clients’ time and money. Meaning we have to develop solutions that are buildable and financially viable. The challenge is daunting, but doable.

Most of my experience is in the mission critical sector, and I have witnessed a revolution in design. Things have happened at a pace I would have never imagined. The biggest difference I can see between the data center evolution and NZEB is that the data center efforts were market-driven, and the market drives things faster than mandates. But incremental change is possible.

I started this article ruminating on retirement. And when I started researching NZEB for the article, I was sort of thankful I might be out of the game by the time this stuff rolls around. But as I read more, I started to see that the goal, while ambitious, wasn’t wholly ridiculous.

Yes, the nasty politics, raw emotion, and titanic industry implications are intimidating and inseparable from the initiative. But our piece of the puzzle is actually rather comprehensible — and, dare I say, achievable.

We are at the dawn of a major advancement in the built environment like nothing we have ever seen or experienced before. Maybe the young pups can help old dogs learn new tricks, and by 2030, NZEB will be mundane instead of menacing.

I, for one, am a little excited. Maybe the chickens can wait. 


works cited

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