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Will Your Next School Be Net Zero?

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Energy efficiency, up to and including zero-energy status, is a major factor in educational design strategies today.

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Kinder Ranch Elementary School, located in the Comal School District of San Antonio, TX, installed high-performance integrated lighting and controls from Acuity Brands with the goal of achieving cost and maintenance benefits for an energy-efficient campus. The lighting solution achieved 46% utility savings and inspired high-performance energy initiatives in two other schools in the district. Photo: Acuity Brands

Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

Net zero seems to be the buzz in K-12 school construction these days, even though the number of such school buildings is relatively small. This buzz is encouraging considerable activity focused on various levels of energy efficiency that, while they may not reach net-zero levels, are significant nevertheless.

Zero-energy buildings (ZEBs), an alternate term for net zero, aren’t the only game in town when it comes to efficient schools, but net zero is perhaps the most dramatic in terms of the technology and demands it makes of architects, building designers, and budgets. There’s still plenty of room for energy-efficient, green, LEED-certified, and sustainable education-purposed buildings—and an equal opportunity for misunderstanding competing terminology and definitions.

Hunter Douglas RB 500 roller shades minimize the need for artificial lighting and manage solar heat gain to reduce loads on the HVAC systems at Lady Bird Johnson Middle School. Sun-tracking capabilities extend the energy savings and can send status reports for optimal shade positioning.

Hunter Douglas RB 500 roller shades minimize the need for artificial lighting and manage solar heat gain to reduce loads on the HVAC systems at Lady Bird Johnson Middle School. Sun-tracking capabilities extend the energy savings and can send status reports for optimal shade positioning.

Although there are more complex definitions of net zero, or zero-energy buildings, “a practical definition of net zero is a building that produces as much energy as it consumes in the course of a year,” said Paul C. Hutton, AIA, LEED BD+C, principal, Cuningham Group Architecture, Denver, and 2014 chair of the AIA, Washington, Committee on Architecture for Education.

“What that means is that, as a practical matter, there may be individual days, weeks, even months in which the building is not functioning at net zero, but over the course of the year it does average out,” he continued.

“You can easily be net zero one year and not the next; weather patterns can change, operations can change, so it is certainly elusive,” Hutton added.

Recent work at the Hmong College Prep Academy project in St. Paul, MN, included a three-story addition and renovation to the existing school. Energy-efficient lighting fixtures, water-reducing plumbing fixtures, and low-VOC materials were used throughout the entire building. Tubelite, Wausau, WI, provided storefront and curtainwall framing, as well as doors. Designed by the Kodet Architectural Group, the project is currently pursuing LEED certification. Photo: Dana Wheelock/Kodet Architectural Group

Recent work at the Hmong College Prep Academy project in St. Paul, MN, included a three-story addition and renovation to the existing school. Energy-efficient lighting fixtures, water-reducing plumbing fixtures, and low-VOC materials were used throughout the entire building. Tubelite, Wausau, WI, provided storefront and curtainwall framing, as well as doors. Designed by the Kodet Architectural Group, the project is currently pursuing LEED certification. Photo: Dana Wheelock/Kodet Architectural Group

Net zero and LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification shouldn’t be confused. “It’s an important distinction to make,” Hutton said. “LEED has four different levels, and within each of those there can be a substantial range of energy performance. If one has a not very good level of energy performance, one can still get a lot of points in other areas. LEED provides a great deal of flexibility to building designers and owners in terms of whether to emphasize energy performance or other areas of sustainability.

“Simply being LEED, even at the highest level, is not necessarily a guarantee or an indicator of the highest level of energy efficiency. Even at LEED Platinum there may be a significant gap from the energy performance between that building and a net-zero energy building. Net zero is a much tougher standard, but it’s only about energy, whereas LEED does many other things,” Hutton said.

Hutton, at one time, saw net zero as one of the fastest growing trends in school design. Asked if he still felt that to be true, he responded, “I think it’s still the case, but I probably have changed my attitude a little bit since I wrote that two years ago. What I’m experiencing across our practice is that, as the economy has rebounded, construction costs have increased—and that’s inevitable.

Opened in 2011, the $29-million, 150,000-sq.-ft. Lady Bird Johnson Middle School in Irving, TX, was the first net-zero public middle school in the state.

Opened in 2011, the $29-million, 150,000-sq.-ft. Lady Bird Johnson Middle School in Irving, TX, was the first net-zero public middle school in the state.

“That’s putting a different kind of pressure on budgets,” he continued. “In 2007 to 2010, and even 2011, when the economy, and construction in particular, was still depressed, we were able to get a lot done with our budgets. Now budgets are straining to meet all the objectives. I’m seeing, although there is the desire, budget pressures are making it at times harder to achieve high energy-efficiency goals.”

Another factor is that the production of natural gas has increased drastically in the United States, causing prices to stabilize and drop, Hutton noted. “While that is a good thing in many ways, as energy costs decline there is, frankly, less motivation to pursue more aggressive energy-conservation measures.”

Nevertheless, Hutton is still confident that the trend toward net-zero schools will continue. “I see an increase but maybe a slower increase than I had hoped for,” he said.

Many paths

Kinder Ranch Elementary School, in addition to high-performance lighting, installed nLight controls from Acuity Brands to provide customizable lighting for different room usages throughout the school. The control technology uses harvesting and occupancy sensors to achieve optimal lighting in each space based on the amount of natural light entering the building. Photo: Acuity Brands

Kinder Ranch Elementary School, in addition to high-performance lighting, installed nLight controls from Acuity Brands to provide customizable lighting for different room usages throughout the school. The control technology uses harvesting and occupancy sensors to achieve optimal lighting in each space based on the amount of natural light entering the building. Photo: Acuity Brands

Others are not as enthusiastic about net zero, but net zero or not, energy efficiency is, without a doubt, a significant trend in school design. “As I work with school districts and school designers across the country, there is one common objective, with an infinite number of paths toward the goal,” said Tim Hogan, vice president, education market, Acuity Brands, Atlanta. “The common objective is to build school facilities that consume fewer resources while also improving the learning environment.

“Districts take a lot of different paths to reach that challenging goal. The baseline of energy improvement is being set and increased through more strict building codes, like the California Building Code Standards (Title 24), the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), and the New York State Energy Code,” Hogan said.

At the same time, he continued, “It’s the voluntary standards like LEED and CHPS (Collaborative for High Performance Schools) that raise the bar to ensure the efficient building also is effective and healthful. Together, the codes and standards are a great way to establish comparable metrics and achievement levels. The reality is that most districts and institutions establish their own best practices and strategic plans, which comply with the codes and set up standards that are aligned with the local community’s values.”

Resembling a mini college campus on 23.4 acres, George V. LeyVa Middle School, San Jose, CA, has 12 separate classroom buildings, a baseball field, and track, tennis, and basketball courts. Mitsubishi Electric VRF zoning systems were selected because they operate efficiently at partial-load conditions, which occur frequently in California’s mild climate.

Resembling a mini college campus on 23.4 acres, George V. LeyVa Middle School, San Jose, CA, has 12 separate classroom buildings, a baseball field, and track, tennis, and basketball courts. Mitsubishi Electric VRF zoning systems were selected because they operate efficiently at partial-load conditions, which occur frequently in California’s mild climate.

“The major energy-saving measure employed by schools should be conservation,” said Rob Winstead, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, principal/director of sustainability, SHW Group, Charlottesville, VA. “It will always be cheaper to save energy than to generate energy. Some experts suggest that 10% to 15% of energy use is waste. Schools should focus on conservation measures first, beginning with behavioral modification and demand/load control, and then building-envelope improvements, high-efficiency lighting systems, and high-efficiency HVAC systems with advanced controls.”

“The trend,” as Steve Gille, education market manager, Wausau Window and Wall Systems, Wausau, WI, sees it, “is to start at a high level of expectation of net zero/LEED Gold or Platinum and then the project budget leads to sustainable goals. The terms heard most are energy efficiency and sustainable.”

Often-repeated term

For many schools, alternate energy sources have become a learning resource, in addition to a practical energy supplement. Students at Gloria Marshall Elementary School, Spring, TX, designed by the SHW Group, Plano, TX, check out a photovoltaic panel installed at the school. Photo: Luis Ayala, SHW Group

For many schools, alternate energy sources have become a learning resource, in addition to a practical energy supplement. Students at Gloria Marshall Elementary School, Spring, TX, designed by the SHW Group, Plano, TX, check out a photovoltaic panel installed at the school. Photo: Luis Ayala, SHW Group

Sustainable is an often-heard term, agreed Wes Thorpe, Dallas architectural sales representative for AGC Glass Co. North America, Alpharetta, GA, “but what seems to vary is how one defines a sustainable school. Whether trying to meet code or achieve LEED certification, there seems to be agreement on the importance of energy benchmarking. Essentially, this entails choosing specific focus areas such as energy savings, water savings, daylighting, etc., and then setting goals that are measurable through processes such as metering,” he said.

Christopher Hagen, regional sales manager, Hunter Douglas Contract Window Coverings, Poway, CA, noted that sustainable is mentioned more frequently than net zero. “In the school construction I am bidding on, net zero is the most rare, while sustainability and/or LEED certification is less rare, but not quite popular. The term green is often abused in our industry because it is not easily definable. If you see a project that is net zero, they are typically pursuing a LEED Gold or LEED Platinum certification. However, the reverse is not necessarily true; a LEED Gold or Platinum project may not necessarily pursue net zero today,” he observed.

“Creating schools that are healthier, more energy and resource efficient, and have decreased operating costs is a major trend,” observed Edward Kodet, Jr., FAIA, CID, LED AP BD+C, Kodet Architectural Group Ltd, Minneapolis. “Only initial costs seem to restrain the amount of conservation that can be incorporated.”

The terminology varies, Kodet said, but the goal of energy conservation remains the critical outcome. “Green and sustainable are some of the most common terms, and LEED seems to be the verification tool with which people are most familiar. At the current time, there are a number of ways to address conserving resources. No one right or dominant way exists. Each school district needs to research and talk to their architect about what resource to use,” he said.

While LEED is a well-known verification tool, CHPS is another third-party verification tool that is growing in popularity and creating standards for specific states, according to Kodet. Some states, such as Minnesota, have created benchmark tools, and energy companies may have rebate programs that promote designs and technologies that are energy efficient.

In addition, each school district may have different sustainability goals, according to Dr. Brent Protzman, manager, energy information and analytics, Lutron Electronics, Coopersburg, PA. “There is some consistency with K-12 schools on the West Coast with CHPS. This organization is attempting to expand their program across the United States through design guidelines, but their primary influence is still on the West Coast,” he said.

Different priorities, terms

Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, Chicago, anticipates 1,200 students through phased enrollment and LEED Gold certification through the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Contributing to the school’s design, Wausau Window and Wall Systems, Wausau, WI, provided high-performance windows and curtainwall systems emphasizing daylighting, views, interior comfort, recycled-material content, condensation resistance, energy efficiency, and thermal performance requirements. Photo: Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing Photographers

Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, Chicago, anticipates 1,200 students through phased enrollment and LEED Gold certification through the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Contributing to the school’s design, Wausau Window and Wall Systems, Wausau, WI, provided high-performance windows and curtainwall systems emphasizing daylighting, views, interior comfort, recycled-material content, condensation resistance, energy efficiency, and thermal performance requirements. Photo: Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing Photographers

Coby Jones, of Peerless Products Inc., Fort Scott, KS, said, “We see different primary trends in educational facilities in different parts of the country. Trends also vary depending on the type of educational facility—public, private, K-12, and higher education—and budget allotment. The terminology varies depending on the architect, contractor, facility manager, and their geographic location.

“In general, educational facilities are striving to have facilities that are more energy efficient and green enhanced, but that can also show a pay back for the investment. Some architects are more focused on LEED, but there is still a perception that getting a building LEED certified is very expensive. You hear the term green used as kind of a catch-all term for the terms—energy efficiency, net-zero energy, sustainability, and even LEED in our industry,” Jones said.

“In the K-12 marketplace, energy efficiency (for utility cost savings) is the dominant trend. Some clients are moving away from broader sustainability measures, like LEED, to focus resources on efficiency,” commented the SHW Group’s Rob Winstead. “Sustainability is still a complex term that means different things to different people, but net-zero energy seems to be gaining traction. It’s an aspirational goal with measurable outcomes that’s easier for people to understand and support.”

Lenawee Intermediate School in Adrian Township, MI, incorporated Solatube daylighting systems into its Center for a Sustainable Future to help the facility achieve LEED Platinum status and net-zero goals.

Lenawee Intermediate School in Adrian Township, MI, incorporated Solatube daylighting systems into its Center for a Sustainable Future to help the facility achieve LEED Platinum status and net-zero goals.

Perhaps the formal name or certification given to energy-conservation efforts is less important than the final goal, Michael Sather, commercial marketing manager for Solatube International, Vista, CA, suggested, “LEED still seems to be setting the standard in sustainable school design. However, many schools are designed to LEED standards, but may not necessarily go through the formal LEED certification process. The LEED movement has definitely been the dominant factor in pushing schools to incorporate green and sustainable features into their buildings, whether they go through formal certification or not.”

Net-zero buildings have two basic components—an energy-efficient envelope and some form of renewable generation. The good news is that focusing first on maximum energy efficiency keeps the door open for adding renewable energy and achieving net zero at a later date, noted Paul Valenta, vice president of sales and marketing for CAL-MAC, Fairlawn, NJ. “Even if net zero is postponed or never attained, the school district still has a low-energy-intensity building that will save money for its entire life,” he said.

In other words, net zero isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. At the very least, it’s a goal worth striving for and one that can pay dividends.

Is Net Zero Feasible Today?

Many of those who responded to CBP’s query feel that net zero is achievable, although with challenges, and if not now, in the future. Because there are two components to net-zero buildings–an energy-efficient envelope and a renewable energy-generation means–the net-zero goal can be approached in stages: Constructing a low-energy-intensity building that will save money for its entire life and adding the generation capacity at a later date. Here are some of their responses:

We have worked on a number of net-zero school projects. While it is a challenge for all of the project participants and building systems, it is achievable–and is a great learning experience for all involved. Many of us believe net-zero buildings will be practical and commonplace in the future. When the building is completed, the ongoing operations come with their own challenges.

*Tim Hogan, vice president, education market, Acuity Brands, Atlanta.

I am aware of net zero being achieved in small, single-room buildings such as Project Frog in California. However, today school districts appear more focused on low-cost solutions that offer maximum long-term value, such as adding a low-e or reflective coating to tinted glass on the exterior of a school to improve solar control and reduce HVAC costs.

*Wes Thorpe, Dallas architectural sales representative, AGC Glass Co. North America, Alpharetta, GA.

It is supposedly achievable but not very practical or economical. Many schools want net zero, and some build new schools “net-zero ready” with the ability to add solar and or wind generation in the future. Community desire for net zero is often overridden by limited funding.

* Rob Rosenberg, general manager of energy, Climatec-Texas, Dallas.

Net zero is achievable, most simply in new-construction projects. Although often requiring more funds to initiate due to the cost of technologies needed for solar panels, alternative-fuel implementation, and HVAC alternatives, payback can be achieved. Schools tend to have more flexibility in the payback cycle as their loans have extended terms.

*John Casadonte, product marketing manager, lighting, Cree Inc., Durham, NC.

Right now there are not more than a handful NZE (net-zero-energy) schools because of the sticker shock. More than 30 are NZE-ready. First, for a NZE-design, the school district must construct a very efficient shell. The roof insulation, for example, might cost $0.20/sq. ft. more than standard design practices. Good wall insulation and windows add to the cost. The goal is to create a building design that achieves a building-energy-use intensity of 20 kBtu/sq. ft./yr. or better, roughly a fourth of the energy use of the average K-12 building. That’s the threshold where the first cost for renewable systems is within reach for some school clients. But, after paying for the better building, many budgets are over stretched and the renewable generator is sometimes unaffordable. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they have a low-energy-intensity building that will save money for its entire life. The renewable generation can be added later.

Fossil Ridge High School in the Poudre School district in Fort Collins, CO, is not net zero, but the school’s design has a very low energy intensity of less than 2 W/sq. ft. Back in the 1980s, that design would have required about 400 sq. ft./ton or about 650 tons of cooling. The well-designed building for Fossil Ridge high school only has a cooling load of 250 tons. Partial thermal-energy storage, using ice, was included in the design, so the installed chiller is only 140 tons. This kind of strategy will make NZE schools more feasible in the future.

*Paul Valenta, vice president of sales and marketing, CALMAC, Fairlawn, NJ.

Net zero is definitely achievable, but questions of practicality and economic feasibility would have to be answered by the offset. For example, Lady Bird Johnson Middle School, Irving, TX, spent an extra $4 million to achieve net zero and LEED Gold status. If this school is expected to operate for the next 40 years, but it only takes five years for the school to earn back that $4 million by not having to pay monthly energy costs, then net zero is exceptionally practical and feasible. Today, not many schools are pursuing it, but the trend is changing and the popularity and awareness is on the rise.

*Christopher Hagen, regional sales manager, Hunter Douglas Contract Window Coverings, Poway, CA.

Net zero is definitely achievable, but at this point it is not economically feasible. Even schools, which have higher acceptable payback requirements than most commercial buildings, cannot afford the costs related to complete onsite generation, full storage capacity, and advanced demand-reduction technologies. I do not see many schools pursuing it, nor do I hear it even a consideration very often.

*Dr. Brent Protzman, manager, Energy Information and Analytics, Lutron Electronics, Coopersburg, PA.

My personal opinion is that net zero is kind of an arbitrary benchmark. It may or may not be the most energy optimal place to be if it takes you an incremental 20% of upfront cost to get that last 2% to get you down to net zero. That’s probably not a good investment. On the flip side, squeezing as much energy out of the building as your first step toward net zero is almost always a good and economic first step. Evaluating whether the addition of alternative energy or really extreme energy-conservation measures to get you to that final step is practical needs to be looked at with a bit of skepticism to ensure you are doing something that is truly going to add life-cycle cost value instead of just hitting an arbitrary standard

*Mark T. Kuntz, P.E., LEED AP, vice president, marketing and engineered solutions, Mitsubishi Electric U.S., Cooling & Heating, Suwanee, GA.

To achieve net zero, you need the right client, the right project team/partners, and some good incentive or rebate programs, but it is achievable and there are a significant number of net-zero schools in operation and under construction. SHW Group has two net-zero energy or net-zero-energy ready projects under construction and is discussing the goal of net-zero energy with several clients. What exists is possible.

*Rob Winstead, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, principal/director of sustainability, SHW Group, Charlottesville, VA.

It is achievable, and is becoming more practical as advancements in materials and technologies are becoming more commonplace. Forward thinking school districts are realizing the advantages of net-zero schools, not just in terms of energy savings, but in terms of using the school as a learning lab, educating the students who will inherit the planet. Teaching sometimes begins with the classroom, not just in the classroom.

*Michael Sather, commercial marketing manager, Solatube International, Vista, CA.

Net zero is proving to be practical and economically feasible especially with new construction and major renovations where this can be designed in to the project at the beginning. Also, with improvements in technology and products, the cost differential between more efficient products and standard building materials is smaller or may even result in a savings. For example, better windows or insulation result in being able to use less HVAC and therefore the new HVAC systems can be sized smaller and cost less initially.

*Bruce Ryman, LC, ESCO/education market segment manager, Osram Sylvania, Danvers, MA.

Ken’s View

Net zero, green, energy efficient, sustainable are all commonplace terms these days, embraced by some, looked upon with skepticism and even hostility by others.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe we’ve made any progress since that long-ago energy crisis, marked roughly by the Arab oil embargo of 1973. After all this time, it seems we still can’t quite agree what to call energy-saving measures, much less what those measures should be or whether they promise sufficient return on investment to be worthy of our consideration.

Truth be told, some folks were looking for alternate or more efficient energy even before 1973, along with ways to reduce the environmental impact of that energy use. There were demonstration plants for something called fluidized-bed combustion, which promised to burn coal more cleanly; hydrogen fuel cells; as well as plans to harness the wave motion of the ocean to produce electricity.

Obviously, not every energy-saving scheme became a reality, especially as energy economics and supply for a time became less worrisome. But some of those schemes didn’t die. Photovoltaics in the 1970s was an emerging technology, but most folks back then used solar collectors to heat water for domestic use, not to generate electrical power. Now, photovoltaic prices are dropping and electrical efficiencies are increasing.

LEDs? They were once a novelty used for indicator lights on control panels and Christmas tree decorations. Now they are being implemented everywhere, from hospitals to warehouses.

Controls? BacNet and LonWorks still have to be tricked into working together–like PCs and Macs–but for the most part some arrangement is usually worked out to make it happen.

Hydrogen power? Let me get back to you on that.

According to the recent Washington-based U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2014 the reference case (business-as-usual) energy consumption projections to the year 2030 have declined each year since 2005, even taking into consideration the fact that we will add about 60 billion sq. ft. to our building stock from 2005 to 2030. When you think about it, that’s kind of remarkable and challenges the notion that progress is not being made on the energy front.

Of course, more progress could be made, one could argue. Europe is generally ahead of the U.S. in terms of mandatory energy standards–because they have to be, as Chris Hagen, Hunter Douglas Contract, Poway, CA, points out. Energy simply has been more expensive in Europe than in the U.S. However, the level of regulation common in Europe would not sit well in most of the U.S.

Voluntary standards, LEED being just one of the more well known, unlike the earlier open-ended and fuzzy designations of “green,” quantify and verify just what it is they are certifying. They’re still controversial, but progress has been made.

The ongoing controversy is healthy and not a reason for pessimism. Technology has achieved levels of efficiency only dreamed about back when we first realized energy use was a matter of some concern. In fact, advances in energy efficiency and dropping prices for the technology have combined to make net-zero buildings more than just an idle fantasy.

*Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor, CBP

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