By Sophia Beavis

At the end of April, I had the opportunity to present and attend the Getting to Zero National Forum in Pittsburgh. This conference brings together thought leaders from across the country to discuss pathways to carbon neutrality. I always come back from conferences reinvigorated with new ideas for project goals, and the GTZNF was no exception.

I kicked off the 3 day conference with an 8:30am presentation with my co-presenters, Heather Jauregui and Katie Herber from Perkins Eastman. Together we gave our presentation entitled “How Do You Measure Up? New Ways to Evaluate Project Success”. It was a pretty lively 1.5hour session. We first gave a brief presentation covering what high performance means, and the types of metrics used to measure its success in pre and post occupancy studies. We then broke out into 3 groups that rotated every 10 minutes, allowing participants to learn about and use all the tools we’d discussed. Overall our audience was very engaging and had lots of questions about how to start Pre and Post Occupancy Evaluations at their own firms. I think it was a good opportunity for people to get hands-on experience with tools they may have heard about, but not had the chance to use. I’m hoping we inspired people to start their own office toolkits and studies.

Once our presentation was over I was able to enjoy the rest of the conference. One of the conference events was a happy hour at the Phipps Conservatory which has two Living Building Challenge Buildings on its campus. I had seen photos of the buildings, but it was cool to see them in person and peek into their mechanical rooms.

Philips Conservatory

Philips Nature Lab Mech

One of the keynote speakers was Andrew McAllister from the California Energy Commission. Being from California, I found his talk particularly interesting as he showed how the CA code is going to step up to become carbon neutral – including in 2 years how new homes will be required to have solar panels. It was interesting hearing from him how CA has these efforts within the state code, but in the end it’s up to the local jurisdictions to enforce it. This was a theme that came up in a number of sessions – how do we ensure that the entire hierarchy from the state level to the local building inspector are pushing the same goals towards carbon neutrality?

Paired with the keynote session, I heard from David Kaneda at Integral Group who talked about the “duck curve” in Net Zero Energy Design. The duck curve is the graph which shows power production over the course of the day and shows the imbalance between energy production and peak demand. At the “belly of the duck” we have an over generation risk that causes the grid to become overloaded and the energy to go to waste. Ideally the curve would look flatter, and more like a duckbilled platypus.

One way to solve the duck curve is by using batteries that can release energy during peak demand, often in the evening when there is no energy being produced. An interesting example of the duck curve causing problems is that for 14 days in March, the state of California paid the state of Arizona to take our extra energy produced during the daytime because our grid couldn’t handle all the production power. California even ordered some solar plants to reduce their production during this time. To me this means wherever we are installing solar panels, we should be installing batteries for on-site storage so that we do not further the grid being overloaded with energy production.

Another great session I attended was by Chelsea Petrenko who lead a study of CA residential homebuyers and owners to evaluate their interest in and understanding of a Net Zero Energy (NZE) home. The study found that less than 50% of homeowners knew what a NZE home was, yet people rated energy efficient design as a very important attribute when searching for a new home. I found it interesting that most people would pay a 2-4% higher price for a NZE home. This is interesting because studies have repeatedly shown that construction cost for a high performance building is less than 5% higher than a typical one. So if people are willing to pay 5% more, why aren’t we spending less than that in construction to build an energy efficient building? I think people often have issues with increased upfront cost, but the gains in profit seem to outweigh the upfront cost in almost every case.

I went to many other interesting sessions, but these were the highlights for me. They almost left me with more questions than answers, and triggered my brain to think about how I as an individual, and those of us in the architecture profession can be doing more to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. In the United States, 39% of energy is consumed by buildings, so as architects we have have a lot of influence over our energy future.