Net Zero by 2030: A Conversation with Architects Eric Corey Freed and Bill Maclay

by Jon Floyd, Better Buildings by Design Conference Chair

Left: Eric Corey Freed. Right: Bill Maclay accepting a Best of the Best award at Better Buildings by Design 2013 from Efficiency Vermont's Paul Duane.

In his upcoming keynote address at Efficiency Vermont’s Annual Better Buildings by Design conference Eric Corey Freed will address the future of Net Zero buildings and how energy efficiency professionals can work to create demand for sustainable design. Eric Corey Freed is an internationally recognized architect and a leader in sustainable building design.

To delve into this topic, and how it relates to Vermont, I invited Eric and a leading Vermont architect, Bill Maclay, AIA, LEED-AP, of Maclay Architects in Waitsfield, to discuss Vermont’s ambitious goal of Net Zero by 2030, which just happens to be the theme of this year’s conference.

Here are just a few highlights of the conversation with Eric and Bill. Stay tuned for part 2 coming soon.

Q: What do you see as some design trends that are moving the world toward Net Zero?

A: (Eric) The good news is that it’s an exciting time to be an architect and a builder.  And there are multiple design trends on multiple fronts all converging at the same time.  On the municipal side we’ve got changes in policy that you’ve seen across the nation.  You’ve got states like California where essentially by 2020 every new house has to be Net Zero, and that’s already on the books.  But then you have places like Boston doing amazing things with benchmarking and disclosure.  You’ve got cities like New York doing incredible things with energy reporting.  Basically in every state there is, if not statewide at least on a municipal level, there are these incredible things just on the policy side.

Then of course on the device side you’ve got whole new solar systems that are higher efficacy than we’ve ever seen before, combination solar thermal with PV, and then even on the financing side you’ve got power purchase agreements and solar leasing programs.  And now basically every single project we’re doing, we can get solar for you on whatever structure you want that makes sense.  Where you just buy the power or you buy the panels outright, it doesn’t matter.  And then of course on the design side wrapping all this together is this beautiful coordination where we’re seeing solar being used in aesthetically pleasing ways, which is good to hear finally!  So all these things are just happening, all converging, and it’s a beautiful thing, and really it’s driven by the fact that our energy for so long has been a commodity.  And like any commodity, it’s just going to keep getting harder and harder to get and more and more expensive.

But solar, wind, geothermal--those are technologies--and like any technology, they’re just going to keep getting cheaper and smaller and more affordable and easier to get: Think about the cell phone and how the first cell phone was big and clunky and expensive, and now they give them away for free.  That’s essentially what’s happening with all the other renewable technology, and it’s just going to keep happening.  And it’s inevitable; you can’t stop it.

Q: What are the trends, on the national and international level that are starting to come to Vermont that your firm or other firms have started to incorporate in your design approach?

A: (Bill) Well, I think one of the biggest is the shift to Net Zero.  It really is transformational in terms of people really saying, "Oh, we really can be net energy neutral or positive on projects".

I think the other piece of the Net Zero that has really changed things has been with power purchase agreements (PPAs) and the lowering price of PV panels. These advancements have made a huge difference where it really is beginning to be competitive in terms of with fossil fuels.  And even more when you start looking at heat pumps, where the energy efficiency is two and a half to three times greater than electricity.  This boost makes it competitive with oil and even closer to being competitive with natural gas and definitely with propane.

I think another newer and more emerging trend is biophilia, which is the notion that humans, for millions of years in their evolution, have been connected to nature.  And that in our buildings, it makes a huge difference to people to see plants, to look out at nature and to have views and connections to nature, as well as thinking about the use of daylight in the design of buildings and doing things that go back to more natural processes opposed to an artificial system.

I think those are the two big trends.  Biophilia is more emerging than Net Zero, which I think really, particularly in Vermont, people are beginning to see we can do this and it doesn’t have to cost us or be a big deal.

Q: Are there many biophilia or Net Zero projects that your firm has been involved with?

A: (Bill) Well, we have been in Net Zero buildings that are completed and actually have been documented.  So that includes the Putney Field House is the first major public building at the Putney School in Putney, Vermont, and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens over in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.  

Also, the State Office Building down in Bennington, which had indoor air quality issues and now is a healthy building, we were able to design to our Net Zero ready standards.  It didn’t originally get built with photovoltaics providing the energy, but it’s at the energy conservation levels that make it appropriate to consider photovoltaics.  In fact, the client has had discussions about putting in photovoltaic, which I think is likely, so that it may become the first State Office Building in the country to be Net Zero.

On the Bennington project, we were able to get the building Net Zero ready versus being a code compliant building for $5.00 a square foot more for the project, which is a fairly small amount of money.  We were able to demonstrate the cost savings to the State of Vermont, and it more than made sense for them to put in that additional level of investment.

Q: Is the approach to reaching Net Zero different between residential and commercial sectors? And if so, how is that?

A: (Eric) The approach is slightly different between residential and commercial mostly on the utility side, because utilities are charging differently for commercial versus residential; different rates, different tiers, different opportunities.  The actual systems aren’t different.  The big push is for energy efficiency and lowering the base load as much as possible and then sizing an appropriately-sized system, usually solar, but could be wind, could be geothermal, could be some hybrid of the three and that’s the same: commercial or residential.  Commercial also has bigger systems, and as a result with bigger systems, we get bigger opportunities for financing.  So with a commercial building, I can do a power purchase agreement where basically my clients get the panels for free and they just agree to buy the power.  I can’t do a PPA for a house; it’s too small.  You know a house is maybe three to five kilowatts, you know a big house maybe seven, but no more than that.  For a PPA I need 100 kilowatts, so it’s really on the utility side of things. 

But financing, you know we have things in place now.  We’re looking at doing power purchase agreements for abstract ideas like energy efficiency where essentially I could go in and add to the efficiency of a building and have it be paid for by investors and the investors get paid from the savings every month, and that’s really what we’ve been pushing for.  You know instead of doing it for an actual solar system, you’re doing it for this abstract concept of more insulation and better air sealing.  And that’s taking place across the country. 

A: (Bill)  That’s a good question.  I focus my Net Zero work on the commercial and institutional section because the residential market is really becoming pretty established and actually fairly common place. There are beginning to be lots of residential homes which are becoming Net Zero.

So I think residential is easier.  My firm has been involved in Net Zero homes or ones which may have some wood, which either may be carbon neutral or Net Zero depending on how you define the terms.  There are more people who I think are beginning to look at residential and say that they want to do Net Zero.  I think particularly older people who are closer to retirement age look at it and say, “Gee, I can put in a little bit of additional money now and never have any energy bills ever in the future.”

I want to give a big thanks to Eric Corey Freed and Bill Maclay for their contribution, stay tuned for more insights in part 2 of this blog post, coming soon!

Learn how to make your home net zero here. 

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