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Following a summer of intense, global heatwaves, some are predicting 2023 to be the warmest year on record. While this past summer’s high temperatures can be tied in part to El Niño, there is no scientific debate remaining about the significance of human contribution to global warming. Long-term excess in carbon emissions is a major factor. In particular, the built environment is estimated to be partially responsible — 40 percent of annual global carbon emissions to be more exact. When broken down, building operations are responsible for 27 percent of that total.
The AEC industry’s realization of this contribution has caused widespread action, with many organizations committing to long-term sustainability goals and emissions reduction benchmarks. STUDIOS Architecture as a firm is one of many early signatories to the American Institute of Architects, “2030 Commitment” toward a carbon-neutral future, for example.
Local and state governments are implementing increasingly more stringent standards toward these important goals as well. In May, New York passed the All-Electric Building Act, which restricts the inclusion of fossil fuel connections in new homes and buildings up to eight stories high starting in 2026, with requirements for taller buildings coming in 2029. California has also been leading the way with the unanimously passed 2022 Building Efficiency Standards, which took effect in 2023.
For many building owners and developers, there is a perception that being green still feels overwhelming or simply too expensive, but it’s more within reach than many might think. For new construction, all-electric building design represents one of the most promising avenues for a greener building. Beyond the environmental benefits, high-performance designs offer another compelling, and potentially surprising, case: the opportunity to save costs and make a building more economical to operate.
The first goal in high-performance design is to lower the building demands. To do so, you’ll want to optimize several key aspects of the design. First consider the building’s exterior envelope and the orientation of the building on the site: It is ideal if major glass expanses can be limited to north facing facades to reduce the amount of heat gain coming in through the windows. High performance glazing and wall and roof assemblies will provide a great value to the overall energy demand of the structure. Using high U-value (or thermal transmittance) glazing systems, incorporated into ventilated wall assemblies with beyond minimum wall and roofing insulation, all integrated in concert, can offer incredible aesthetic flexibility while really reducing the overall heating and cooling required.
At The Hub at Stanford Research Park, where glass was desired facing south, east, and west, deep roof overhangs were combined with exterior sun shade "fins” to allow ample daylight while reducing solar heat gain and in turn lowering demand to cool the building. As sun shade fins diffuse natural light deeper into the space, they will reduce the need for excessive artificial light, significantly reducing energy consumption. Where required, high-efficiency LED lighting has become industry standard, which also extends to many appliances and electronics as well.
Reduced demands inside the building lead to smaller rooftop mechanical equipment for heating and ventilating the building. The equipment you do use can be ultra high-efficiency, bringing in more outside air when the temperature is right. With less equipment on the roof, there is more available rooftop area to capitalize on for solar, or photovoltaic (PV), panel arrays.
Some owners elect to lease the rooftop to the PV provider in return for the energy. Access, safety, and maintenance considerations should be carefully evaluated. For the City of Fremont, who intends to manage the Downtown Event Center for the long haul, owning the PV system and controlling its integration into the project was advantageous. In that project, a low-profile, weighted “ballast” system was used in order to minimize visibility of the photovoltaic panels near the edge of the roof.
Your design team will guide you through the impacts to the project with additional structural loads, roofing penetration details, and other infrastructure needed such as additional electrical gear and rooftop plumbing for periodic washing of the photovoltaics to maintain their efficacy.
To fully embrace an all-electric facility, there are a few additional considerations. Electric water heaters (heat pump water heaters) are fast and can be two to three times more energy efficient than conventional electric resistance water heaters. A heat pump water heater was installed in The Hub at Stanford Research Park, and combined with the PV array, contributed to an 86 percent reduction of energy use intensity (EUI) from the national average. If there is a kitchen in the building, embrace all-electric cooking; This is something that is becoming increasingly popular even among high-end commercial and fine-dining restaurants. Local restaurant Coupa’s specialty empanadas, as well as popular burgers and fries, are in high-demand come lunchtime at The Hub, and the all-electric kitchen is more than up to the task.
Taking it even further, on-site net-zero energy is a great goal! Installing PV panels over parking areas can not only generate additional energy, but can also get money back. Adding on-site batteries in many cases can actually accelerate the return on investment while reducing impacts on the local utility grid. When producing all energy through on-site solar is not an option, it’s still possible to be carbon neutral — if you choose your source energy carefully. Local utilities are increasingly sourcing energy through renewable means.
Lastly, sustainability is something to be proud of. There are dashboards that allow personnel to graphically monitor building performance, which will also help ensure equipment is running properly or immediately identify where maintenance might be necessary.
Many hear “high-performance design” or “all-electric” or “net-zero energy” and either don’t know where to begin or think only of large upfront financial impacts. These measures are far more accessible than it first seems and in fact they are becoming the industry standard in more civic and institutional projects where the ownership is invested for the long haul. Sustainable design and carbon reduction are not insurmountable challenges; rather, they present opportunities for positive change that is actually within reach. The fact is buildings without gas are cleaner and healthier for both people and the environment, can lower maintenance costs, and are generally less expensive to operate. The transition to all-electric, high-performance buildings is a series of achievable steps toward a more sustainable and economically sound future.
Jason McCarthy is Principal and Managing Director, STUDIOS Architecture.