Developers and building owners are striving to reduce fossil fuel use and create more efficient and sustainable facilities. Here’s how to get to the next level.
For building owners and developers, the push to net zero energy and carbon neutrality is no longer an academic discussion. Government regulators are increasingly requiring that buildings perform more efficiently. Investors are focusing on meeting environmental, social and governance standards. Tenants are demanding sustainable facilities. At the same time, the American Institute of Architects has declared that global warming is the greatest challenge of our generation, with building operations currently responsible for more than 25% of global carbon emissions.
In recent years, the building industry has made strides forward. We are working with clients to demonstrate the value proposition for high-performance design. Efficient projects don’t have to be dramatically more expensive; the payback on many projects for energy-efficient systems and renewable energy is often years, not decades. The return-on-investment includes more-resilient, flexible facilities that generate higher occupancy and customer satisfaction.
In 2021, LPA reduced the aggregate predicted energy use (pEUI) for our projects by 75.8%, the best performance in the firm’s history. The numbers were reported as part of the AIA 2030 Commitment, the industry’s program to move projects to net zero energy by 2030. In 2018 and 2019, LPA was the only firm with over 100 employees to reach the AIA 2030 Commitment target of a 70% pEUI reduction, across a portfolio of more than 11 million square feet of commercial, education and healthcare projects.
Yet, there’s also an understanding that it’s not good enough. Conservation and smart design strategies will only get buildings so far. The AIA 2030 Commitment target is now an 80% average pEUI reduction from set baselines, an important step toward the ultimate goal of carbon neutrality. The average of the 378 firms reporting data for the AIA 2030 Commitment in 2020 was a 51.3% reduction in pEUI compared to baseline. Clearly, as an industry, we have a long way to go to help clients reach the net zero energy target.
The questions facing the industry: How do we continue to get better? How can we take the next big step forward? How do we get the next 10% and 20% in energy reductions?
Architecture 2030 Global Emissions chart.
A New Approach Achieving an industrywide net-zero building portfolio will require more rigor by designers, collaboration by project teams and a moon-shot-like focus on renewable energy.
LPA’s design process is based on the foundation that the old way of approaching projects won’t achieve the goals. As an integrated firm, LPA believes it is essential to involve engineers, landscape architects and interior designers from the earliest stages of the design process. Early in its history, the firm made solving for energy performance a core value of every project, regardless of scale or budget.
“It is a culture of commitment where no project gets left behind,” LPA President Dan Heinfeld says. “To have any real effect on climate change, we need to be effective at scale; it can’t just be a few special projects.”
Over the years, LPA has refined its approach to focus on education and empowering project teams to better understand the performance of their design solutions. In recent years, new software tools were introduced to bring performance analysis into earlier phases of the design process to support informed design decisions. Responsibility for tracking and reporting the results of the performance analysis was transitioned from project managers to the project designers using the tools.
On every project, the process starts with an exploration of passive strategies to reduce a structure’s energy use, including orientation, building proportions, façade design, shading and natural ventilation. High-performance envelope systems, glazing, lighting and HVAC technology can also reduce energy loads. Smart design can improve operating efficiencies and reduce energy use by 50%. But there are limits to the effect of passive strategies alone.
“All of our projects need to tell a complete story that includes passive strategies, building systems and renewable energy,” says LPA Chief Design Officer Keith Hempel. “To reach the 80% threshold, not to mention the 90% threshold or hit net zero energy, you need to be incorporating renewable energy.”
The recently completed Edwards Lifesciences expansion project uses PV panels to shade outdoor collaborative areas on the third floor deck.
While various renewable energy technologies are emerging, photovoltaic (PV) panels are typically the most viable solution at the moment. The economics of PV systems — aided by falling prices, government tax credits and rising utility energy prices — have improved dramatically in recent years. As government regulators push toward all-electric buildings, PVs will provide inexpensive on-site electricity. Simple payback on PV systems can often be achieved in six to seven years.
“For the vast majority of building owners, including a PV system in their project makes plenty of financial sense,” says LPA Director of Engineering Erik Ring. “Achieving net zero energy buildings at scale is going to be the shift of going from big PV systems on some projects to significant renewable energy systems as a normal part of designing most buildings.”
Taking that next step will require design teams to work with their clients to set building performance goals and include discussions of renewable energy in the early planning and budgeting process. In general terms, for a building with a moderate energy load — for example, an office or classroom building — a PV array around half the area of the gross square footage of the building is necessary to offset the annual energy use. In other words, each 100,000 square feet of enclosed space requires 50,000 square feet of PV to generate enough energy to power a building’s annual energy consumption. But many project factors, including building use, energy efficiency and climate, will impact these calculations.
For many projects, finding space for effective PV use will require innovation and a different approach to basic design, working with clients to cost-effectively integrate systems into designs. Parking structures and shading systems are often ideal to support PV arrays. Consolidating rooftop mechanical systems, or moving them off the roof completely, can free unshaded roof area for PV systems.
“On many of our projects we’re trying to preserve that fifth façade, the roof area, to support renewable energy,” says LPA Design Director Matthew Porreca. “Especially on the mixed-use projects, we’re often locating all the mechanical equipment off of the roof.”
Finding space for the mechanical at the ground level or in underused setback areas can add value to a project. It’s also easier to maintain equipment on the ground. Roof equipment screens and other costly support equipment can be eliminated from the roof. “These are savings that can be reallocated back to renewables and other aspects of the project to add value,” Porreca says. “Going forward, it will require looking at every element of the project to get to that next level.”
LPA was early signee of the AIA 2030 Commitment and has averaged a predicted energy use reduction of 67% on more than 37 million square feet of space since 2013.
New Technologies Any attempt to reach net zero energy will require buy-in from the client and the involvement of engineers, contractors and building operators from the start to find value in the process. The goals won’t be achieved unless they fit the project’s budget.
“We need to go through a strong visioning process with the client from the beginning,” Porreca says. “Part of it is education and demystifying any questions or concerns they might have.”
Part of that analysis includes looking for opportunities to decrease the building’s energy load by reducing the amount of air-conditioned square footage. That translates to activating more outdoor spaces and moving circulation outdoors whenever possible. On several projects, including the expansion of the Edwards Lifesciences campus in Irvine, California, outdoor walkways reduced the energy demand and freed up space for other programming.
“It’s about creative thinking and thinking differently about how people will experience our projects in the future while still creating those vibrant social connections,” Porreca says. “In many projects, it could be an outdoor space instead of an indoor space.”
Technological advances will also help move the needle. Improved batteries will play a key role in allowing storage and flexibility to renewable energy systems, helping projects to operate more cost-effectively, especially during peak demand periods. Although they are expensive and bulky now, batteries will certainly improve, and current projects can plan for flexibility to add storage in the future.
Passive conservation measures and efficient systems can help buildings meet the 2030 Commitment target.
“Just like with the electric vehicle industry, batteries are the Achilles’ heel of a lot of what we’d like to do,” Ring says. “As they get cheaper, lighter, more compact and safer, we’ll start using them in all sorts of creative ways that will help optimize the energy use of our buildings.”
On many projects, designers are thinking out of the box, exploring technologies that are only starting to affect projects. For the City of Tracy Multi-Generational Recreation Center, which is targeting net zero energy, the process includes an analysis of the potential for mixed-mode ventilation strategies. On residential projects, designers are analyzing high-performance technologies for domestic hot water, including solar thermal, central air source heat pumps and wastewater heat recovery.
“Every project has those unique moments, especially early in the design process, when opportunities exist and decisions get made, and that sets the course for the project,” Porreca says. “It’s really about identifying all those opportunities early in the design process to maximize their potential.”
Achieving net zero energy buildings at scale is going to be the shift of going from big PV systems on some projects to significant renewable energy systems simply as part of designing the building.
In 2021, LPA reduced energy use 75.8% on 6 million square feet of space.
Real Progress LPA continues to make progress toward achieving the net zero energy goal. In 2021, the number of the firm’s projects that met the AIA 2030 Commitment target of an 80% pEUI reduction increased to 16, up from 9 in 2020. The number of projects with PV panels doubled, from 10 to 20.
“The fact that we’re seeing more and more projects incorporate PV is a great sign that our portfolio is going to continue to improve,” Hempel says. “We’re going to be able to hit higher and higher thresholds with projects that incorporate renewable energy.”
LPA also has 21 projects in development targeting net zero energy, ranging from an Early Childhood Education Center for the San Bernardino City Unified School District to supportive housing projects in San Diego. The firm had only completed one net zero energy project by 2016; now there are five in service.
The trend is moving up, as more clients embrace performance goals. “Our clients are becoming more interested and engaged in the challenges,” Hempel says. He believes the firm is on track to meet the 80% pEUI target, proving that a large firm working on a wide variety of projects can achieve the 80% AIA 2030 Commitment threshold.
“I’m optimistic,” Hempel says. “When you look at the number of projects that are targeting net zero, you can see that attitudes are changing. These goals are not aspirational; they are achievable if we work together.”
Q & A: Ellen Mitchell, Director of Sustainability, LPA Associate Principal
Veteran sustainability advocate Ellen Mitchell joined LPA in September as Director of Sustainability and Applied Research to help advance high-performance and research-informed design.
What do you feel is missing in the process to get better performance results? There are a number of things missing. So often the old business as usual was that architects would design the building however they felt the need to design the building. Then they would toss it over the wall to the engineers and say, “Okay, make it pass code, and make it energy efficient if you can.” That’s changed, and I think that’s another place where LPA is toward the front of the pack — the notion that the engineers and the designers work together and the architects have just as much control over the performance of the building as the engineers do.
What can the industry do better to reach the 2030 targets? In some instances, it’s going to have to be us as an industry getting more conversant in how we demonstrate the business case so that our clients see value in moving beyond code minimum. There’s a perception in our field that high performance is more expensive. But there are plenty of studies that suggest that you can design incredibly high-performing, if not net zero, projects within a traditional budget. You have to come at it in a different way. You have to look at it as a whole system versus a bunch of piecemeal components that can be more or less expensive. Until we can get better at that across the board, we’re going to have a hard time getting all the way up to net zero as our baseline.
How does the Inflation Reduction Act affect the discussion? I think it changes the business case. It changes the return-on-investment calculus. The Inflation Reduction Act is going to supercharge [acceptance of things like heat pumps, solar panels and geothermal systems] because it’s bringing down the barriers to adoption in terms of cost premiums. It’s going to allow manufacturing to scale up, which is going to be sort of a cyclical self-fulfilling prophecy that allows technologies to be adopted much more broadly and maybe even codified in some instances.