Aiming for net zero in public buildings: Eight principles

July 19, 2019

by Jeffrey J. Garriga and Pat ‘Sherman’ Morss, Jr.

Solar panels are one example of an onsite renewable energy strategy to offset anticipated energy use of a building. Photo ©[1]
Solar panels are one example of an onsite renewable energy strategy to offset anticipated energy use of a building.
Photo ©

Buildings account for as much as 40 percent of all energy consumed in the United States according to the Energy Information Administration[2] (EIA). If the country is to address carbon emissions and its contribution to climate change, this needle must move. Recognition of this has led to a growing emphasis on the concept of net zero energy (NZE). NZE buildings generate energy onsite using clean renewable resources over the course of a year that is equal to, or greater than, the total amount of energy consumed onsite.

State and local government programs increasingly promote NZE usage in public buildings as the ultimate in sustainability. The following eight principles would help the project’s design team to meet the challenging goal of NZE.

1. Define goals and establish parameters

The first step is to establish energy use goals for the site. Case studies and reviews of best practices in sustainable design should be assembled to provide benchmarks for the design team.

Tax incentives and rebates offered by the government or utility companies must be identified. These incentives can help offset potential budgetary concerns for sustainable technologies.

Detail and consider factors such as climate, location (urban or rural), orientation, water usage, and occupancy, relative to the established energy use targets.

Once the initial priorities and goals are established, all stakeholders and agencies must agree on the goals.

2. Assess alternative building configurations

Numerous building configurations (orientation, footprint, shape, and massing) must next be considered for placement on the site.

A building’s orientation dictates access to natural light, ventilation, and sun exposure. Conventional wisdom is that a building on an east-west orientation with a shallow north-south depth is best to take advantage of natural light, ventilation, and sun exposure. This configuration may not always be possible due to site constraints, particularly in dense urban areas.

Computer modeling suggests the compact massing of a cube-shaped building with lightwells may be more energy efficient because this shape encloses the most volume with the least perimeter, and the lightwells can direct light in ways that minimize glare.

The building’s function and use need to be considered when developing the interior space plan. For instance, will it be a 24/7 operation with related power and occupant comfort considerations?

3. Set the energy use intensity goal

The design team and building owners must be on the same page regarding expectations for energy consumption. A starting point for determining energy reduction is a comparison of the energy use intensity (EUI) of the proposed building design with a base industry standard.

These standards are accessible through various online portals including the Energy Star portfolio manager that provides baseline EUI information for many building types, including those with mixed uses. Another possible industry standard for an energy-efficient building is the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) 90.1, Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings.

4. Determine strategies for energy reduction

The design team should look at multiple energy conservation measures (ECMs) to reduce energy consumption prior to exploring onsite renewable resources. These may include the following.

Site optimization

Orientation of the building and placement of glazing affect energy use.

Solar shading

Exterior architectural features shade window openings from the sun at specific times. Deciduous trees can be planted strategically to create shade.

Daylight and artificial lighting

High windows with light shelves bounce light deep into floor plans. Reducing reliance on artificial light means less heat is produced by fixtures. Also, energy-efficient light-emitting diode (LED) luminaires with intelligent controls that react to daylight entering the space reduces reliance on air conditioning for cooling.

Natural ventilation

Operable windows and mechanically controlled dampers can effectively move air through spaces, allowing for the removal of hot air during shoulder and cooling seasons, thereby decreasing the loads on mechanical conditioning equipment. 

Façade and roof design

Air sealing, additional roof and wall insulation, double or triple glazing in high performance framing systems such as fiberglass, and reflective or vegetated green roof can reduce energy gains and losses by at least 30 percent and as much as 90 percent in the most stringent designs.

Ground source heat pumps

Liquid pumped through wells in a closed loop from mechanical equipment helps raise indoor temperatures in the winter and lower them in the summer. Subgrade soil temperatures range by location, falling between 7 to 24 C (45 to 75 F), but remain constant independent of changing above grade air temperature changes.

Displacement air supply

Large spaces are more efficiently climate-controlled by providing temperature-controlled air directly to the area of human use in the zone 2 to 2.4 m (6 to 8 ft) above floor level.


Occupants should be educated about the sustainable design of the building and how to inhabit it comfortably while saving energy.

5. Determine renewable energy strategies

The design team should assess onsite renewable energy strategies to offset anticipated energy use. The degree to which energy can be produced onsite, as opposed to being drawn from a utility grid, will determine the project’s success. Here are some renewable energy resources.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels

Cost has fallen at a dramatic rate since systems produce more energy per panel thus reducing cost and at the same footprint projects produce more energy.

Solar thermal panels

These panels use solar energy to pre-heat domestic hot water. Tube arrays may also be tied into a hot water heating system.

Unglazed transparent collector

Collectors pre-heat outside air and deliver it to air-handling units (AHUs) of the heating system. The collectors are highly efficient in cool climates.

Biomass boilers

Solid, liquid, or gaseous biofuels can be derived from biological materials such as feed stocks, wood, and algae. Boilers serving the HVAC system would be conventional.

Biofuel tri-generation plant

Cogeneration efficiently produces electric power and heat from natural gas or a biofuel. The waste heat from generating the electricity is recycled to provide heating for boilers or cooling for absorption chillers.

Cross section diagram of possible renewable energy and energy reduction strategies for a public building.
Photos courtesy Finegold Alexander Architects

Wind turbines

Wind turbines may be connected to the electric utility grid and provide credits when producing more power than the building is utilizing. Considerations include access, available wind, shadows, and noise.

Hydro power

It is a traditional source of electric or mechanical power for buildings. This is particularly effective in older manufacturing cities with canal systems. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the benefits of local hydro power at a district level.

It is important to note, incentive programs for these renewable energy strategies vary by state and utility company.

6. Assess energy generation options

Assess all renewable energy options based on long-term costs and viability. When planning building systems, the design team must view the complete picture including initial construction and operating costs, evolving technologies, site design impacts, and energy delivery reliability.

The team should focus on the selection of balanced systems for building occupancy that support each other regarding the energy needed daily, seasonally, and year round. The anticipated near term development of new technologies (such as biofuels), and the logistics of obtaining and storing fuels should be considered.

7. Assess feasibility and adopt options

Will the energy produced onsite offset the building’s remaining energy needs after maximizing the site and building energy reduction? Site, building design, occupancy, and cost constraints may preclude achieving NZE. However, setting the goal creates a highly energy-efficient project that can adapt to changing needs, technologies, all the while helping the planet.

8. Commission and verify

During design and construction, the team must pay close attention to maintaining the goal through project design and occupancy. A commissioning agent should be brought onboard early to provide feedback on maintaining energy conservation integrity. The agent should review design submissions, bid specifications, contractor checklists, functional performance test procedures, building system submittals, monitor building system installation and operation, prepare a final commissioning report and systems manual, verify staff training, and conduct post-occupancy reviews before the end of the warranty period.

Commissioning is an important safeguard for ensuring an energy-efficient building is built and operates in accordance with the design goals. The performance verification process should continue indefinitely, including education of occupants about the energy-saving features and optimization guidelines for passive and active controls. Maintenance staff must understand energy conservation goals and operating procedures to meet the systems’ design parameters.

To be certified in NZE, building owners collect and submit the building’s energy use and generation data for a year, and also get it verified by a third party. The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) is one overseer.


The preceding principles is a solid starting point for design teams seeking NZE certification, enabling them to understand how to balance three primary interrelated elements—function, strategy, and cost. Here are some final considerations.


What purpose will the building serve? Function influences design, site orientation, building accessibility, and occupant use.


The design team must develop an early strategy for ECMs that balance with the needs of the building’s occupants.


Designers must assess the most cost-effective path to functional design for the occupants, efficient operations, and maintenance.

Designers and owners, in partnership with municipalities, can achieve the goal of NZE, or come close, when designing projects. NZE is quite a challenge, but one that can be met through close coordination of designer, owner, and a real commitment to sustainability.

Jeffrey Garriga is a principal at Finegold Alexander Architects and oversees the firm’s public project work. He has managed a variety of restoration, adaptive use, and new construction projects. Garrga is also the firm’s director of technology, and has been instrumental in implementing building information modeling (BIM) technology. He can be reached at[4].

Pat ‘Sherman’ Morss, Jr. has led and served on architectural design teams at Finegold Alexander Architects for 46 years. He has worked on projects for many building types and brings special expertise in developing solutions for design and engineering challenges associated with renovation, historic preservation and restoration, adaptive-use, and integration of new additions. Morss is also a long-time advocate and expert in sustainable design. He can reached at[5].

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