• Better Buildings by Design Conference explores cutting edge of energy efficiency
     | January 19,2014

    Photo by Efficiency Vermont Last year's Better Building by Design Conference was packed with builders, architects, advocates and many others with an interest in building energy-efficient homes.

    It may seem impossible — a building that produces more energy than it consumes throughout the course of a year.

    This “net-zero” building is designed not only to minimize energy usage, it also integrates renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal.

    In fact, net-zero buildings have progressed far beyond the realm of possibility in recent years — and they are coming soon to a neighborhood near you. In some places, they have already arrived.

    Many states, municipalities and some federal agencies have set ambitious goals to reduce the energy requirements of their buildings. The practical aim is to rein in energy costs for taxpayers by ensuring that buildings are insulated against the increasing costs of energy and are cheap to operate in the long run.

    One consequence of these efforts has been to spur a resurgence of interest in sustainable design among architects, builders and developers.

    This growing trend will be explored in detail Feb. 5 and 6 at a regional event hosted by Efficiency Vermont in Burlington. The Better Buildings by Design Conference will mark its 11th year with the theme “Net Zero by 2030.”

    The conference is bringing international experts in green building to Vermont. On the table for discussion are: the science behind net-zero buildings, sharing innovations in design and building trends, and considering the benefits and implications of net-zero projects that already exist in Vermont and elsewhere.

    A common myth is that net zero is not attainable in a climate such as Vermont’s, where cold winter days and lack of sunlight can pose a major challenge to building designers. But Vermonters’ interest in these types of projects is growing — with some notable success stories.

    In 2012, Gov. Peter Shumlin cut the ribbon on a new state office complex in Bennington that incorporates advanced energy-efficiency features along with renewable energy systems, such as geothermal heating and cooling and solar hot water.

    These systems, combined with the 78 percent reduction in energy consumption compared to the old facility, mean that the complex needs no on-site fossil fuel combustion for space heating or cooling.

    Net zero is also an increasingly attainable standard for homes. This year, Efficiency Vermont, the nonprofit statewide utility, introduced a new category for “high-performance homes” to its programs. These homes can be up to 75 percent more efficient than homes built to code, and they are optimized to include renewable energy systems — making it easier for homeowners to achieve net zero.

    Another local development is the collaboration between Efficiency Vermont and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to design net-zero manufactured homes.

    This effort began as a result of the devastation that Tropical Storm Irene brought to manufactured-home parks throughout the state. The goal is to build a sustainable, durable home that is affordable to purchase and to operate throughout the long term.

    The homes are now being built at the Vermod factory in White River Junction. With insulation, high-efficiency air source heat pumps and roof-mounted solar panels, they are anticipated to require only $16 per month in utility bills.

    Despite these recent developments, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about where the industry is heading and how much effect the net-zero trend will ultimately have in Vermont.

    Granted, most home and business owners would be glad to reduce their annual energy costs to zero. But lining up the financing and funding to support the increased up-front cost of advanced efficiency and renewable energy features remains a major challenge.

    The Better Buildings by Design Conference offers an important opportunity to explore these questions in detail and consider how progress toward a “Net Zero by 2030” goal could actually develop during the next 16 years.

    To bring the net-zero theme into focus, the conference will begin with a keynote address from renowned architect and green-building expert Eric Corey Freed, a recognized pioneer in the tradition of organic architecture first developed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

    Freed is optimistic about the future and predicts that net-zero buildings will become increasingly commonplace.

    “Think about the cellphone, and how the first cellphones were big and clunky and expensive — and now they give them away for free,” he said. “That’s essentially what’s happening with renewable technology, and it’s just going to keep happening … It’s an exciting time to be an architect and builder.”

    Freed points to several trends that are converging toward greater accessibility and affordability of sustainable and high-efficiency design.

    Beefed-up state and municipal energy codes are driving innovations. At the same time, local building energy-disclosure requirements are enabling prospective property buyers to more fully understand how high they can expect their energy bills to be.

    “We believe that every building should be a green building,” Freed says. “In the future, we won’t even use the term any more. Green building will simply be the way it is. This is inevitable.” 

    Elizabeth Gibson edits the Environment page and lives in Pawlet. She can be contacted at egib@vermontel.net.

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