Net zero construction nets attention

Energy-efficiency is a growing priority for buildings

Brian Pedersen, BridgeTower Media//July 19, 2019

Net zero construction nets attention

Energy-efficiency is a growing priority for buildings

Brian Pedersen, BridgeTower Media//July 19, 2019

Interest in renewable energy is growing, particularly among nonprofits such as universities and colleges that are looking to reduce or even eliminate carbon emissions.

A rendering of the net zero building under construction for Sustainable Energy Fund in North Whitehall Township. (Submitted)
A rendering of the net zero building under construction for Sustainable Energy Fund in North Whitehall Township. (Submitted)

That interest could fuel more construction of net zero buildings, so called because they produce as much energy as they consume over the course of a year.

With reports on the global impact of climate change gaining more attention, some say these types of buildings will become more common. Aside from environmental concerns, proponents also cite the benefits of better productivity and a shorter payback time on the investments made by building owners in green technology.

“The number of net zero buildings in the United States is growing dramatically,” said John Costlow, president of Sustainable Energy Fund, a nonprofit in the Schnecksville section of North Whitehall Township.

The fund is developing what many believe to be the first commercial net zero energy building in the Lehigh Valley. It is under construction in North Whitehall Township.

“I believe a building like ours will spur additional buildings in the Lehigh Valley,” Costlow said.

The fund, a nonprofit that formed 20 years ago as part of Pennsylvania’s energy deregulation, is erecting the building on land it bought at 4250 Independence Drive. The nonprofit, known as SEF, plans to occupy part of the 15,000-square-foot office building and lease the remaining offices to local businesses and nonprofits. Construction is expected to wrap up in December.

Costlow said the organization’s goal is to create a net positive building, meaning the building will produce more energy through solar and thermal panels on its roof than it consumes. The excess energy would go back into the power grid.

Costlow said the average daily energy produced by the building should be around 130 percent of what it uses. On a good, sunny day, it could go as high as 200 percent.

The nonprofit invested about $5 million in the project and plans on using the building to host educational sessions about net zero technology, as well as additional sessions on general sustainability.

Among the structure’s features are solar panels designed to maximize energy production, as well as insulation that minimizes air leakage.

The building will also be a research tool.

“We have all kinds of sensors that are slated to be in the space so we know how much energy is being used right down to the individual office,” Costlow said.

‘A teaching tool’

Spillman Farmer Architects of Bethlehem, meanwhile, recently designed a net zero building for Millersville University in Lancaster County.

The $10 million Lombardo Welcome Center was completed in 2018 and is the first building in Pennsylvania to earn net zero energy certification from the International Living Future Institute, a Seattle-based organization that promotes sustainable construction. According to the institute’s website, it also has certified studios, offices labs and retail centers.

The Lombardo center serves as a model for how a net zero building could work, according to members of Spillman Farmer. For example, the building produced 75 percent more energy than it consumed in 2018, more than anticipated, said Russell Pacala, principal at Spillman Farmer Architects.

The project includes $829,000 worth of sustainable features, such as solar panels on the roof, a ground-mounted solar array and 20 geothermal wells outside on the lawn.

The $10 million Lombardo Welcome Center also included costs related to furniture, information technology and audiovisual items, moving costs, permit and approval fees, architectural and engineering fees and other costs.

The building also sports dashboards inside so users can see how the building is performing.

“The whole building is a teaching tool,” Pacala said.

In addition, the architects interviewed the building’s prospective users to determine how they might be comfortable in the space, but also to help educate them on how much energy they were using, said Heather Rizzetto Schmidt, project designer and manager for Spillman Farmer Architects.

By talking to them about what they could do to avoid impacting the energy performance of the building, such as avoiding plugging in space heaters, the architects were able to create a more sustainable building while encouraging end users to adjust their behavior to enhance the energy performance of the building. A more energy efficient building that’s comfortable for employees also enhances productivity, added Rizzetto Schmidt.

Part planning, part technology

In designing a net zero building, several factors come to the forefront.

Designers have to understand who will be working in the building, what technology they need, and when they arrive at work, said Christie Jephson Nicas, director of marketing for Spillman Farmer.

“That initial planning process is so important,” Jephson Nicas said.

But so is technology.

Larry Eighmy, principal at The Stone House Group, a facilities management firm in Bethlehem, said property owners who focus on energy-saving features can make a dramatic impact on their energy costs.

Today, sensors can control the amount of air that escapes; windows can collect solar energy and make it into electricity and new heat pumps help make buildings more efficient.

And those tools can make a difference even in old buildings like South Bethlehem’s Flatiron Building, originally designed in 1910. Stone House Group has been a tenant there for 14 years. Though it’s not a net zero building, it does have some energy-efficient features.

These include smart window blinds the company manipulates as needed, as well as a concentrated solar collector on the roof, and two new high-efficiency natural gas condensing boilers.

“Even with our relatively old building, we’ve been able to reduce our carbon footprint by 80 percent compared to our base year,” Eighmy said.

It makes sense for nonprofits to become early adopters of net zero buildings, particularly as colleges and universities seek to achieve a carbon neutral status and appeal to eco-minded students, he said.

Though net zero buildings could be tougher to erect for manufacturers, hospitals and other large energy users, they are possible.

“Everything is doable, it’s just how much energy you have available,” Rizzetto Schmidt said.

For those property owners concerned about increases in energy costs, a net zero building could be an effective hedge, said Andrew Schuster, principal at Ashley McGraw Architects of Syracuse, New York, the firm that designed the net zero building for SEF.

“Net zero is pretty straightforward, you make more energy than you use,” Schuster said. “A net zero building allows you to reduce your operating expenses by investing it up front in the building costs. Your savings is what you would be spending on utility costs.”

The payback period for those savings to make up for the extra costs is about 10 to 15 years. But the window has been getting shorter.

SEF is expecting a payback in less than 10 years, Schuster said.