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Will California lead the way to energy independence?

The architecture, engineering, and construction industry will have to make major adjustments in the years ahead now that many state, city and local governments are getting serious about creating a carbon neutral buildings sector.

August 06, 2018 |
Gensler Dialogue Blog

The architecture and design community has been aware of its responsibility to lead the fight against climate change for several decades now. Important industry initiatives like the AIA’s Architecture 2030 Commitment use techniques like voluntary self-reporting from firms to help bring down the energy consumption and carbon footprint since 2009, and Gensler is proud to be a leader in that program.

Changes going on around the world are rapidly shifting the conversation around energy conservation and climate change from a voluntary, corporate social responsibility goal to an actual business imperative. Major decisions to prohibit internal combustion engine vehicles between 2030 and 2040 made international headlines, but there are similar regulatory changes already in place for buildings. These applications will be game-changing for major real estate markets like California.


A Moment of Change

The architecture, engineering, and construction industry will have to make major adjustments in the years ahead now that many state, city and local governments are getting serious about creating a carbon neutral (or net-zero energy) buildings sector. Several municipalities are preparing to shift from incremental energy conservation and efficiency measures for buildings to energy independence.


AltaSea’s Energy Harvesting Tower makes cutting-edge sustainable technologies visible. The project is a nod to local lighthouses in San Pedro. The design reverses the typical lighthouse trajectories. This tower now harvests daylight to power the future instead of using power to emit light. The project will also incorporate wind harvesters, various other energy generation sources, and house the weather-recording equipment for SCMI. The facility is topped with traditional rooftop solar power and makes this laboratory facility have real energy independence aspirations. Image © Gensler.


Few places are more aggressive than California. New single-family residential buildings in Santa Monica are already required to meet these new requirements. Net Zero Energy (NZE) buildings are high performance developments that do not consume any more energy than they can produce by renewable means. This is generally is expected to occur on-site.


The Impact of Building Use Types

Why policymakers decided to start with residential buildings is certainly another worthy investigation, but as we unpack different building uses through the lens of energy demands we find that there are essentially two different types of buildings. Internal load dominated and external load dominated. Internal load dominated buildings regulate the temperature of the building by offsetting the heat from people and equipment contained within them. This application makes up much of the commercial development market. External, also known as skin or facade load dominated buildings, like single family homes, generally have a lesser density of people and minimal equipment so the conditioning of the space is driven by the temperature and other impacts from outside the building.

Skin load dominated buildings are generally easier to design to this level of performance. This is due to advances in building envelope materials and supported by improvements in residential equipment efficiency. Combine this with new smart home connected devices that allow people to control conditioning in a more responsive way, and it’s easy to see how starting with residential buildings will accelerate the development of new economies of scale.


Glumac’s office in Los Angeles is looking beyond energy independence to regenerative efforts by producing nearly three times the energy they need with an innovative waste heat recovery approach. Benny Chan, Image © Gensler.


Leading by Example

To spur the advancement of Net Zero Energy for internal load dominated buildings, the state of California has a plan to lead by example. Half of all new government projects are required to implement NZE design by as early as 2020 and the balance, including existing government building renovations or retrofits, and all new commercial projects, will be phased into the mix by 2030. These code requirements will likely be triggered at the point of permit, meaning that a project that breaks ground in 2020 will have to get started with its high performance design integration as early as 2017. No that’s not a typo, we’ve already started designing for this change.

As the cost of energy continues to rise and manufacturing becomes streamlined on solar panels, making them more cost effective, the financial cost for on-site renewables will become more attractive than simply plugging into the local utility. At that point, the challenge becomes one of space.

Large projects on constrained sites with high energy demands may not have the ability to produce enough to offset their needs. These properties may need to purchase over-generation from other properties.


This timeline maps the aspirational targets of the more progressive urban building codes in a real and actionable way. The rapid scaling of commercial Net Zero Energy building performance will start with government projects leading by example. Image © Gensler.


Much like selling air rights, where one property sells unclaimed usable area to another through a covenant process, low energy consumers may be positioned to do the same. Parking garages and warehouse spaces, with minimal loads beyond lighting and elevator movement, are prime opportunities for over generation sales.

I am excited to see the policy changes we are setting for residential, government, and commercial development as we strive to make the exceptional projects of today into the new standard of care for all buildings tomorrow.

What are you doing to prepare for Net Zero Everywhere?

Gensler Dialogue Blog | Gensler

Published by Gensler, a global design firm with 5,000 practitioners networked across five continents, Gensler Dialogue Blog features insights and opinions of architects and designers on how design innovation makes cities more livable, work smarter, and leisure more engaging. Our contributors write about projects of every scale, from refreshing a retailer’s brand to planning a new urban district, all the while explaining how great design can optimize business performance and human potential. For more blog posts, visit: https://www.gensler.com/research-insight/blog.

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