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home : blogs_old : eco_logic October 03, 2015

By Catalyst Architecture, Prescott, AZ
Your Common $ense Guide to Going Green
Tuesday, December 04, 2012

What is a "Net-Zero" Energy Building?

 Matthew B. Ackerman, LEED-AP AIA

The Net-Zero Energy San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center designed by Prescott-based Catalyst Architecture.

Some of you may have heard the term "Net-Zero Energy" building. But just what is a Net Zero Energy building? Simply defined, a Net-Zero Energy building is a structure that produces as much, or more energy than it consumes - as calculated and averaged over a 12-month period [1].

As you might expect, the monthly utility bill savings for such a facility can be significant. Preposterous you say? It's more than just a theory. Net-Zero energy buildings are a reality - though admittedly, still somewhat of a challenge to design. Currently there are only 21 recognized Net-Zero Energy buildings in the US, though several more with the potential of achieving this rare distinction [2].

In one sense, designing a Net-Zero Energy building could simply be a matter of loading up an otherwise conventionally energy-inefficient building with power-producing photovoltaic panels. If the energy produced by those panels over a year is greater than the net amount of energy consumed by the building over the same year, then voila, you've got yourself a Net-Zero Energy building. Fortunately, that's almost never done, as the cost of installing the photovoltaics needed to offset such careless, high-energy use would be prohibitively expensive.

In most cases, Net-Zero Energy buildings are designed to consume as absolutely little energy as practicable from the start. All possible no-cost 'passive' strategies for energy-savings are explored first. Concepts such as optimized building orientation; properly placed, sized, and specified windows; natural daylight and ventilation opportunities; the incorporation of thermal mass, etc. are all low-to-no cost green buildings concepts. Once these low-cost ideas have been incorporated, then more sophisticated strategies can be considered. Energy-saving options such as higher-performing insulation products, better quality double (or even triple) glazed window systems, heat and electricity-saving lighting components, high-performance heating and cooling systems, as well as light shelves and other architecturally-based solar management strategies can all be evaluated for their life-cycle cost/benefit applicability.

Finally, when all of these energy-saving options have been incorporated (or rejected) into the building's design, then and only then is the total net energy load for the building modeled and calculated, and a corresponding renewable energy system (typically solar photovoltaics) engineered to meet the remaining net electrical and power load requirements of the building. My company, Catalyst Architecture, is proud to have designed what we expect will be the 22nd Net-Zero Energy facility in the US - the 17,000-square-foot San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center [3] located in the central valley of California. Despite the oppressively hot climate of the central valley, we were able to design this facility as Net-Zero Energy structure utilizing a 55 kW photovoltaic array. Not too bad for a building of its size. This building is also expected to achieve a LEED-Platinum rating - the highest rating possible from the US Green Building Council. It is already recognized as the highest-performing facility in the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

With news stories of climate change, superstorms, and rising sea-levels appearing in the news almost daily, it only makes sense - environmentally and financially - to press our design, development and construction industry professionals to strive for Net-Zero Energy facility design whenever possible for our future building needs.

Related Links:
• [1] Achieving Net Zero Energy
• [2] New Buildings Institute: Getting to Zero
• [3] San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center

Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Article comment by: Stone Barrington

Mr. Ackerman,

There's a reason many people associate green building with higher costs -- because in the vast majority of cases it is true. Of course you can cherry pick certain projects that came in under budget, but their savings were not achieved through green building standards.

Posted: Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Article comment by: Matthew B. Ackerman, LEED-AP AIA

Mr. Barrington: Thanks for your comment, and bringing up what many folks associate with green building- higher construction cost.

As a matter of fact, the San Luis project pictured above came in a quarter of a million dollars under the US Fish & Wildlife Service's original $9.75M budget.

When a client's financial resources are considered to be as worthy of sustaining as the material and energy resources that go into their buildings, green building is comparable in cost to conventional construction.

You might be interested in the following links:


Posted: Monday, December 24, 2012
Article comment by: Stone Barrington

What is a "Net-Zero" Energy Building?

It is a foolish and unecessary way to dramatically drive up the cost of your construction project.

Look at the government building projects budgets that are having to be increased to meet LEED certification standards so we can feel better about ourselves.

Posted: Monday, December 24, 2012
Article comment by: Debra Kudelka-Beavers

There is one Prescott grown - Net Zero - construction! It was invented by my husband James Beavers with Global Building Systems right here in Prescott. His patented building thermal envelope is what the United States needs. It has both residential and commercial applications. Several homes in Chino Valley and Prescott as well as outside the country have been built with this technology. The best example of a net zero home - is theirs in Scottsdale - where the electric bill for the hottest month on record in Scottsdale - air conditioned a 5000+ square foot home - and heated swimming pool was less than $45. Now SRP pays him! In addition to the energy efficiency it is hurricane, earthquake and fire resistant. Why do we continue to build structures that cost the country so much when there is obviously better technology out there?

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2012
Article comment by: trickyrick smith

The best building material for zero energy construction is Hemp crete.

too bad all the drug warriors have made this plant illegal. We should be growing it instead of cotton in Arizona and building zero energy houses with hemp crete.

What a shame we cannot do this because we do not think the police are smart enough to distinguish between two very different looking plants.

The reason always given for keeping the single most useful industrial and food crop illegal in this country.

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2012
Article comment by: Tom Steele

As a conservative I am pleased with these efforts. America been in a low cost energy mode for a long time. however, the "true" costs of producing electrical power could be lower with nuclear power if the unreasonable costs of litigation were lowered. France has a high capacity nuclear program that uses reprocessed fuel rods and that eliminates 99% of the spent fuel rod storage problems we have in America.

Posted: Thursday, December 20, 2012
Article comment by: Rich Peterson

The referenced Habitat house, also known as the "Purple Sage House", has proven itself to be Net-Zero Energy and is a tribute to what students achieved under the knowledgeable and enthusiastic direction of former YC Program Director Tony Grahame. A series of photos and captions of this home can be viewed at this photo-sharing website link:

Posted: Thursday, December 06, 2012
Article comment by: Peter Eldridge

We toured the San Luis Refuge building - not only architecturally pleasing to the eye, but very comfortable. We would not have known that this was such a marvel of engineering and design if we had not known about it first - in other words, there is no sacrifice of artistic excellence for the sake of energy conservation. Keep up the good work Catalyst!

Posted: Thursday, December 06, 2012
Article comment by: Matthew B. Ackerman, LEED-AP AIA

YC Grad: Yes– I remember that house and got to take a tour of it with Tony Grahame before he left the area. Thanks for your comment. It's truly a great example of what can be done on a residential scale, and proves that Net Zero is really possible- large or small.

The New Building Institute listing of Net-Zero facilities referenced in the article is for commercial buildings, so the Chino Valley project wouldn't be listed among them. If you've got any pictures of the home on-line, would you be willing to post a link to them here, and highlight some of its energy-efficient features?

Posted: Thursday, December 06, 2012
Article comment by: YC Grad

I was disappointed to not hear you mention the Habitat For Humanity House that was built by Yavapai College Students. It is a Net-Zero Energy Home and also won several national building awards for energy efficiency. The house is in Chino Valley. The article in the paper said it was Arizona's first Net-Zero Home.

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