Achieving Net Zero Building Status Requires Occupant Engagement

All zeros: Net zero building requires occupant engagementOn February 26th, about 100 people gathered in San Francisco to discuss the world’s greenest buildings and the future of green building.  They discussed strategies that spawned a revolution in net-zero building as well as the frontier of new techniques and innovations.

Net-Zero, for those not familiar, is a term used to describe the net energy consumption and energy footprint of a building.  Whether a one-story garage or a skyscraper, a net zero building theoretically produces as much or more energy than it consumes.  Additionally, a net zero building does not produce carbon emissions.  This is often achieved through a combination of highly efficient design, carbon sequestration and offsets.

The February 26th convening came to an interesting conclusion: the future of green building is in the occupants, not the construction.  This doesn’t put the entire responsibility on the occupants.  Rather, it integrates behavior into the energy saving strategy.

An example of this can be found in the David and Lucille Packard Foundation in Los Altos, CA.  Occupants refer to a dashboard in the offices that shows a green or red light.  When the light is green, conditions are optimal to open windows and doors.  When the light turns red, energy would be saved by keeping them shut.  This is a simple yet effective choice given to occupants that can impact the overall carbon footprint of a building.

Molly Miller of the Rocky Mountain Institute found there to be a lively discussion around topics such as this.  Green building experts concede there is no magic bullet to achieve a net-zero building.  However it is a balance of the right equipment, training, people and motivation.

The matter of net-zero construction is further complicated by the size of the building.  Larger buildings, housing more occupants, may require larger design changes, but smaller individual responsibility.  For example, a 200 person building may require a small shift in behavior from all 200 people in order to achieve net-zero status.  Conversely, a 10 person office building may require that all 10 people more actively attend to their energy consumption.

Another key contributor to a building’s energy footprint is directly related to energy behavior.  That’s the matter of “plug load” or the typical energy usage by an individual in the building.  A net-zero strategy almost always needs to include a strategy for measuring, reducing and then monitoring plug load in order to put a realistic but effective cap on energy usage.

This can be seen in the typical workplace.  Just today I noticed a co-worker that was using a small space heater, a fan, a white noise machine and one of those scent machines.  This was in addition to her standard office equipment.  The moral: achieving net-zero status is all in the behavior folks.

Dusty is a social scientist and consultant in Vermont.

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