by Steve Sanderson
A lot has happened in the world of sustainable design since my last post, all the way back in April. I had the pleasure of attending my first AIA National Convention, in my second favorite city in the US, New Orleans. In between my time sampling the local culture with the Davids (don’t let the prep school attire fool you, these guys know how to throw down), I managed to attend a number of sessions, all of which strongly adhered to the theme of Regional Design Revolution: Ecology Matters. One of the unexpected threads that emerged in nearly all of the sessions that I attended was the role that architects can, and should, play in energy conservation by more accurately predicting and measuring building energy performance. As a topic that has enjoyed scant attention outside a relative fringe audience since I’ve been alive (I came on the scene just in time for the second oil crisis), it was pretty exciting to see it so prominently featured. It appears the relentless efforts of organizations such as Architecture 2030, USGBC and the AIA, are finally beginning to pay off, with many architects becoming aware of their role in averting (or contributing to) greenhouse gas emissions. Politicians (from both sides!), are even beginning to pay attention. Without a doubt, this confirms it… the Mayans were right. The world will end in 2012.
All joking aside (I hope), this is a long overdue turn in the spotlight: architects will have to address this issue. Increasingly, they won’t be given a choice.
This situation was most clearly articulated at the Convention by William J. Worthen, the AIA’s Director and Resource Architect for Sustainability. Bill is a licensed architect, with years of experience as a green building consultant, who knows all-too-well the sea change that is about to wash over the profession in response to the introduction of high performance building codes, like the IgCC and California’s CALGreen (which became effective at the turn of the year), among others. The codes will push ambitious energy reduction targets onto all building projects, not just high performance projects aiming for green certification, changing the standard of care for the profession in the process.
Many of these changes have yet to sink in with a vast majority of the profession (the focus of my last post), a topic that Bill has drawn attention to in his consistently insightful series since assuming his position at the AIA (here, here and here). For evidence of where the profession is versus where it needs to be, just glance over the Measuring Industry Progress towards AIA 2030 Carbon Reduction Goal report, which was also released at the Convention. This report summarizes the first year of reporting from firms that have committed to the AIA’s 2030 Commitment Program and it was clear, even from statements made by the AIA, that the results are underwhelming. 56 out of the 125 firms committed to the program (48%) reported data showing roughly 12% of the total projects submitted meet the current goal of a 60% reduction from the national average. Consider that the goal is 100% reduction (site carbon neutral) by 2030, and you can see how far off we are. It’s also important to note (which the AIA thankfully does) that these reduction targets are aimed at Predicted Energy Use Intensity (PEUI) not actual (measured) Energy Use Intensity (EUI), where the difference between these two values can be enormous, even on purportedly high performance projects that utilize energy modeling to simulate building physics. This inconsistency is the subject of an often cited New Buildings Institute report on the energy performance of LEED new construction buildings, and ironically one of the principal pieces of evidence in the false advertisement lawsuit against the USGBC.
Understandably, this gap between predicted or simulated energy use and actual energy use comes up several times in Bill’s articles, as it should with anyone that is genuinely trying to tackle the complex problem of building energy performance. And he makes numerous sound recommendations on ways to potential address this issue: better, more intuitive modeling tools; earlier modeling by architects and consultants; and more integrated and collaborative contract structures. These are all steps that I completely support and would like to add an additional the one: the adoption of rigorous, validated, transparent, and affordable building design and construction standards, best represented by Passive House (I know, I can’t believe it took me this long to reference it either).
As the guys over at Brute Force Collaborative (which by the way, is one of the best sources of information on real high performance design… and I’m not just saying that because they’re Hokies) have clearly noted in numerous posts, Passive House is the most EUI efficient building standard out there, even more so on non-residential projects. As the graph above shows, and this post explains, if the various project types listed were designed to meet Passive House standards, they would see anywhere from 55% source energy savings (residential) to over 96% source energy savings (hospitals) over the national average. Now we’re talking.
These reductions were demonstrated in detail by the guys at Brute Force when they chose to calculate the impact of designing the “the most energy efficient commercial building in the world,” Miller|Hull’s Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction, as a Passive House. What they found, is that if the project had been designed to meet the standard, in addition to the demanding Living Building Challenge, it would have further reduced it’s already low EUI by 30%, which would have reduced the sizable (and controversial) PV array and still achieve the same site energy consumption (or keep it as is and be at or near site carbon neutral). The designers over at Miller|Hull were open enough to share more detailed project information with Roger Harrison, another Seattle-based Passive House consultant, and based on that, he calculated that Passive House would have reduced the EUI even more (34%). These are staggering reductions on an already high performing project, just imagine the impact that the Passive House standard could make on less exceptional projects.