News Article
March 29, 2011

Net Zero Buildings: Form Follows Performance

Gerry Faubert, Director of Integrated Design,

HOK Group

Net Zero Court: “Form follows performance” in creating a zero carbon emission office building prototype

Net zero buildings are hot topic as California mandates net zero for commercial buildings by 2030 and as a U.S. Department of Energy Building Technologies Program initiative explores net zero buildings in the U.S. Gerry Faubert, director of Integrated Design at the HOK Group planning and design firm, talked about the Net Zero Court Project in a February 2011 podcast interview with Julia Currie, Sustainability Programs Manager with the Institute for Building Efficiency.

Faubert is a leader in innovative green design, technology and operations, and a LEED Accredited Professional and Certified Energy Technician. Net Zero Court, (, a project of HOK and The Weidt Group software and sustainable design firm, is a prototype design for a net zero carbon emissions office building that, if built, would be the largest such building in North America. The project demonstrates that a net zero emissions or net zero energy goal must be integrated with the building design, and that a design team must commit to a performance-driven solution at each step of the process.

Highlights of Faubert’s comments follow. The entire podcast is located in the “Resources” section above.

Design Team Takes on a Stiff Challenge

Faubert: “The Net Zero Court Project is a commercial office building of just over 170,000 square feet. The mandate was to design in the U.S. market an affordable net zero emissions building in a Class A category with off-the-shelf technology that demonstrates a high level of energy efficiency, would be attractive for developers and tenants, and could be replicated in many jurisdictions. We didn’t want to purchase green power. We didn’t want to buy renewable energy credits. We wanted to generate renewable energy on site. In order to make a really strong business case for affordability, we selected a city (St. Louis) that had much lower electricity prices than the average across the U.S., and quite a high emissions factor, as over 80 percent of the electricity is coal-fired.” 

Architecture and Technology Both Play Critical Roles

: “As we went along, we discovered that in fact we could go deep into energy efficiency measures and demonstrate very high value and affordability while adding virtually no cost to the project. The greatest cost saving was our focus on daylighting and our balance of the thermal performance of the building. Daylighting was the single largest measure to reduce emissions related to electrical consumption. So it was actually through architecture and not through systems that we achieved the greatest reduction in carbon. That was simply a matter of looking at issues of siting and massing and appropriate window-to-floor ratio. We believe you need to analyze both approaches, from a technology standpoint and a passive design standpoint, and you need to do both very, very well. I think in terms of affordability, it is the passive design features that will bring you the greatest return over time.”

Integrated Design Plays a Critical Role

: “If we were going to expect a different outcome in this approach to what we call performance-based design, we needed to behave differently. We needed to look at how we made decisions. We didn’t pressure ourselves to make decisions too hastily. We applied a discipline to ourselves so that we didn’t jump to any conclusions. An intuition on what we felt we knew, and what would be the right direction, was only the starting point. The analysis had to inform the design: Form follows performance.

Another point was all things relate to each other. When we’re in a room working with diverse groups of consultants and clients, we still tend to act and behave in silos. Instead, we set out with the idea that no one single entity makes a decision that does not impact everyone at the table in some fashion. To get to 75 to 80 percent energy reduction, we really had to understand that. We had the general contractor on board, and we also had a developer on board. This integrated design process imposes on the team an understanding of the connectedness of each efficiency measure—that if you pull one out, it could be a house of cards, and your efficiency measures as a whole could collapse.”  

Design Integration Leads to Right-sized Systems

: “By going deep on energy efficiency, we reduced the demand in the building. We made the equipment choices smaller. The capacities did not have to be as large. We saved about a million dollars in the MEP budget just because the equipment was smaller – because its demand was not as great. So the notion of saving energy by optimizing system sizes ended up in the systems costs being less than for a conventional building.”  

Occupants are a Critical Part of the Equation

: “We describe our process as model, measure, manage. The manage part of the process is where we realize that with all the best intentions of design, the facility managers who would operate this building, and the building occupants, need to play a key part in maintaining the performance objectives. Therefore, our modeling and analysis, and ultimately our entire plan, includes occupant engagement and education programs. For landlords – and tenants in this case because it’s a commercial office building – there is a plan in place, helping people understand that they can influence energy use in the building, so that we can maintain a high level of energy efficiency and carbon reduction.”  

It’s Not All Up to the Private Sector

Faubert: “I don’t think the market entirely bears the responsibility to foot the bill when it comes to solutions. I think we need a level playing field, and policy and decision makers should create an environment to have all of the boats rise in the harbor. I think they should impose restrictions and make policy as a means to drive to change. Then I think the market will say, ‘Hey, we’re on board, and we want to be on the forefront of that change.’ So it’s a team effort, a collaborative effort.”

March 2011


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