On November 8th the American Institute of Architects, Los Angeles, organized a roundtable discussion moderated by TPR editor-in-chief, David Abel. The room featured prominent figures in Southern California’s architecture scene. TPR is excited to present excerpts from the conversation, “Net-Zero Energy: What Does It Really Mean?” Discussion centers first on whether a net-zero energy building even exists. Later, panelists question whether the topic is too limited to address environmental change. What barriers prevent architecture from being fully sustainable? What role can architects play in larger conversations about energy and the environment?
"We are most skilled at maximizing the building’s efficiency, but the building as a power plant is a different discussion." -Kenneth Lewis
David Abel: Mahmood and Ben, is there a mandate for net zero that architects should pay attention to in Los Angeles County and City?
Mahmood Karimzadeh (Principal Architect, Bureau of Engineering, City of Los Angeles): Right now, we don’t have such a mandate. We are not concentrating even close to net zero. The City just had the ordinance of the LEED Silver level buildings, but the net zero conversation is not on the table yet. Of course, the economy is one of the factors that has taken the attention of policy makers, and the big players in city hall are focusing on other things. I should note that the city staff continues to develop policies that could be very beneficial. However, net zero is not on the table.
Ben Saltsman (Planning & Land Use Deputy, Office of Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky): Under the name ‘net zero’, no. The debate that we’re going to have at the county right now is whether we should go another 15 percent below the new Title 24. Like the City, we mandate LEED Silver for big new buildings in the County, as well as our own. The net zero we don’t have.
The other push we have relates to what we do with our existing building stock because that’s the vast majority of the buildings that we will have for the foreseeable future. Should we be pushing for a rating system? Should we be pushing for new investments in alternative energies, like solar? Or do we simply try to find ways to grant people more funds to add insulation or seal the door jams on their homes. These are not grandiose net zero ideas. They deal with what we can do on a day-to-day basis to lower the amount of energy we are using.
David Abel: Thinking internationally, what’s the global scene here? Is there anywhere where this is becoming a mandate?
Nick Antonio (Associate, ARUP): In the UK, there was a political drive for residential information to try to get to very good standards. We’re not even close to that yet. It’s an aspiration.
At the end of the day, if people want to save energy, they will. They won’t leave the heating on; they won’t overuse the air conditioning. Then the building becomes almost irrelevant in terms of its carbon footprint and the environment. Part of this is actually engaging with people. This is actually a change for society.
Richard Hansen (Director of National Engineering, AECOM): Buildings are a great opportunity, in our experience, for the very high performing designs that we’ve been involved with. The clients, the end users of the building, really become enthusiastic about its potential. The more you can showcase the advanced technologies and good aspects of design, the more we are increasing awareness in society as a whole. That, we find, is a positive instrument to help advance the whole program. This is a long hall; it is not something you can do overnight. You need things like the energy performance buildings directive, the EU labeling program, which is seen as one of the more intrusive ways to highlight the building’s performance. It’s gaining limited traction in most European governments. There are a lot of people stepping back from it. Real time data is very powerful when it is put out there for public consumption.
Virginia Tanzmann (VP, PB Architecture Inc., Parsons Brinckerhoff): The thing I’m most aware of within Parsons Brinckerhoff is our activity in Australia. In general, the situation in Australia has been one of high awareness. We have a whole division there concentrating on these kinds of buildings. I think it’s taking a lead in saying this is the right thing to do and why; I think it’s about having the skills to prove the point.
It’s not that long ago that we had clients saying, “I don’t know about that LEED stuff; it’s got to be way more expensive.” This became the excuse. I think we’re moving past that, but it’s going to be a slow journey.
Brenden McEneaney Brenden McEneaney (Green Building Program Advisor, City of Santa Monica): We’re talking about what the next step we can make is. Show me some net zero buildings. What does that look like? Cities do not build regular buildings. They build jails, animal care facilities, things that might be more difficult to get to net zero.
David Abel: How do you push this agenda?
David Herd (Principal, Buro Happold): Certainly in the successful projects that I’ve worked on you’ve had a client who’s had a very clear mandate, usually working through a regulatory body in the UK and Europe. This happens in a state or area where you have a high tax on energy, so there’s a financial will. I wouldn’t underestimate the role of taxes.
Peter Zellner (Principal, ZELLNERPLUS): I’m going to be controversial, but I think cities need more energy, not less energy. If you look at what a lot of scientists project about urbanization, demographically and in terms of infrastructure, we’re growing as a planet. We’re not going backwards. I think buildings actually have to put energy back into the grid. I think the notion of entropic cities, which is we’re going to roll back to some 19th century, non-energy-dependent culture is not realistic. For visionary thinking, we need to be thinking not just about repealing the way current buildings behave but designing buildings that generate their own energy and put more energy back into the system. I can’t image an economy that’s based on rolling things back. If you look at China, they want to generate more energy. They’re looking for clean ways to do it. We have to think about how we’re going to be competitive as a culture.
Steve Glenn (CEO, LivingHomes): I think the hardest problem to solve is government policy. If there aren’t good incentives on the generation side, there’s no way to make this work. There are some good house designs, but you still have to use power. There are mixed policies in the States concerning tax credits that make our job either impossible or just hard. Title 24 raises the bar.
Ken Lewis (President, AC Martin Partners): To just say this blanket, net zero for everything is not a rational statement. In a sense we damage ourselves by approaching it that way. Certainly, there are some ways of maximizing the level of efficiency of the building you’ve designed in terms of the way it operates. Then there’s always the delta of how much the building has to produce to make up the difference to get to zero. There are applications where it is relatively straightforward to pull that off. But there are a lot of applications that do not work or do not even come close.
We are most skilled at maximizing the building’s efficiency, but the building as a power plant is a different discussion. When you talk to the utilities, the guys in Burbank will tell you that they can buy coal power wholesale at 5 cents a KW, and they’re going to sell it at 15. They’ll say that they can buy wind power in Wyoming at 8 cents a KW, and they’ll say they can buy solar at 12 to 15 cents a KW at an industrial scale. If I put it on a house, it’s asking for 20 to 25 cents a KW.
The utilities will argue against covering Burbank residential zones with solar. They’ll say, rather, that they’ll buy into a plant in the desert that is far more cost effective at an industrial scale, and they’re going to put it on the same transmission lines that are currently being used.
Michael Lehrer (President, LERHER ARCHITECTS LA): The value of incremental projects is not the increments but how we change the culture. Smaller projects and metrics are important. The culture change is where design matters.
David Abel: Are LEED standards a blessing or a curse?
Richard Hansen: LEED doesn’t help for naturally ventilated solutions, which in many climate regions could arguably be the best solution.
Peter Zellner: When you ask a question about LEED it’s like asking if seismic regulations are good for architects or bad for architects. I think you have to take this up to a level where we think about the commons. Where does this all filter up to? And what does this society set as its standard? It’s an ethical decision that has to be made about our future as a culture. Specifically, this can’t happen without regulation. I don’t think you can just leave it to architects to figure it out. We have to push our legislators and we have to push our cities to make enactments and commitments to a better future.
In some ways, this should be second nature to us. It should not come endless, bottom-up solutions. I agree with Michael that it’s great to do case studies, but as long as there are no incentives or regulations for developers to actually make good on their commitment to the cities they build in, I don’t see this happening holistically.
A large industrial manufacturer or retail distribution center in the Inland Empire, for instance, which has a million square feet probably, should have solar on its roof. Should your average suburban home? If they can’t afford it right now, then maybe not.
David Herd: LEED has raised the discussion. 30,000 people going to the USGBC is phenomenal. Having come from the UK here, it’s phenomenal to watch the growth in a very short period of time. Things like LEED have some rough edges to iron out, but as a platform to start raising the issue to a higher political level, I think it should be commended.
David Abel: The reason why I said ‘blessing or curse’ is because it is a complicated answer. It’s a great branding tool, but there’s some drag on what you’re trying to accomplish. The public sector is picking up on the branding and is using LEED as a benchmark. What’s the blessing and what’s the curse of having that as a brand?
Mahmood Karimzadeh: It’s becoming like a code. Of course it certainly helps. You have a standard to look to as a minimum, just like a building code. It creates a good platform to start from.
The term sustainability has a lot more into it than LEED. Ten years ago most people didn’t know about sustainable design. I lobbied the council members to run something small in the City to get sustainably design going, and nobody wanted to take up the issue. Then three years ago, they were calling us to raise the LEED standards. They felt ready.
Brenden McEneaney: We’re already having this conversation in Santa Monica. Is it worth it to do LEED anymore if we feel that we already build sustainably buildings? It’s good in one sense but it’s also scary. Who is setting that standard? We answer to a public that understands the LEED brand. They’re not technical experts. It’s tough to communicate what sustainability is if you try to move away from that standard.
Every architect I talk to claims to be a green architect. But when you look around you see that we’re not surrounded by green buildings. LEED started a conversation that culminated in a green building standards code. There are about 2,000 LEED buildings in California since LEED started. This year every single building we built, whether residential or commercial, reduced their water usage by 20 percent. That’s real scale in a way we have never been able to achieve.
Katherine Spitz (Principal, Katherine Spitz Associates, Inc.): I think it’s interesting that we’re talking about this in terms of buildings because there is a bigger landscape there. Perhaps somehow the net zero can expand into the landscape and from the landscape into the buildings. I don’t do much public work with the City, but we do a lot with the County. This is a City and County driven by visions, and it’s top down. So when the supervisor says it’s going to be LEED Silver for the parks, then every single person in the department says it has to be LEED Silver. But this hasn’t trickled down to the level of people who actually have to approve the process. With net zero we have a long way to go, and it should start from the top. It should address landscape, infrastructure, and urban design as well. It’s a big scale.
Richard Hansen: I think there’s a huge potential when one considers the urban realm. There is a tremendous opportunity there. At the end of the day, the buildings have to be as efficient as they can, the connections have to be as efficient as they can, and the power that’s being used in that cluster has to be efficient. Then you’ve achieved the best that you can achieve.
It is unsustainable to tear a building down to build another one that is net zero energy. That just doesn’t stack up.
Michael Lehrer: There’s a museum complex that we completed about four years ago. All its energy use is measured and is remotely accessible. The problem is do you have the protocols that become the life of the institution as opposed to the individuals who happen to be there when the building is finished. How do you institutionalize all of these things? Thinking about the first five years after a building is built, how do you make sure that information is known?
Ken Lewis: On the landscape issue, the urban heat island effect is something we all ignore. Los Angeles is the worst place in the world for the heat island effect, and the Valley tops that. You fix that by planting trees. They shade the land; they cool the air. We had the hottest day in recorded history two years ago in Downtown LA. When it’s hot like that it’s so much harder to cool a building. You can’t naturally ventilate and it’s hard to dispel the heat.
I said that we shouldn’t have black roofs in Burbank. They should be outlawed. When you look at infrared photos, a black roof can be 180 degrees. You can cook stuff on it! The State of California said we’d have to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before implementing such an ordinance. The City ended up doing a cooler roof initiative to give people their permit fee back if they did something other than black roofs. Those are the challenges we are facing.
Katherine Spitz: LEED doesn’t address the landscape, and Title 24 didn’t either. In architecture school everyone probably learned that you put deciduous trees on the west side and the south side of your building. You get winter sun and you get summer shade. Title 24 has no box to check for trees. Nearly every project I do no longer gives any consideration to where they orient their building because the trees don’t matter because they are not in the calculations.
David Abel: Is any jurisdiction doing a better job of integrating the landscape into these regulations?
Katherine Spitz: Santa Monica.
Ken Lewis: Burbank is getting there. We’re reworking their tree ordinance now. Sacramento on their tree ordinance is exemplary. Their parking lots are 50 percent covered, and they enforce the standard.
David Abel: So, Ben, what’s the problem here?
Ben Saltsman: The new building ordinance does mandate the planting of trees. That actually got more pushback from people than anything else. It’s now in our zoning code so there is an enforcement mechanism.
Shawn Gehle (Design Director, Gensler): At Gensler, we’re thinking more from a systems point of view. There are synergies between building types. From a hospitality client standpoint, it’s trying, oddly enough, to get them connected to a data center client. There’s an enormous amount of energy from a data center that can create hot water for a hospitality project. A lot of this conversation is coming down to, “this is my site; what do I do?” The reality is that efficiencies come from coupling projects or tying them to the landscape. How do you amortize this over a larger set of projects?
Virginia Tanzmann: Drawing in infrastructure, in this country there’s been an incredible neglect of our infrastructure. We are, I’m convinced, coming into an era where projects concerning water, power, and transportation are an opportunity over an extended distance to do a demonstration of the right thing.
Richard Hansen: I’d submit that the challenge for Southern California is not energy but water. If you look at the statistics, 20 percent of the power generated is used to pump water around this state.
Ken Lewis: I think that every building should have a cistern, and it shouldn’t have to be below grade because that is way to expensive. The codes don’t allow you to put a cistern in the building setback area. You should be allowed to have a cistern in your front yard. Why not? It should be a new aesthetic. In our climate, you need to store 10,000 gallons at your house. It’s not a small thing. But if you could, and it was above grade and cost effective, it’d be great.
Daniele Horton (Sustainability Manager, Thomas Properties Group, Inc.): Moving back to existing buildings, if all LEED buildings registered today, about 35,000, were net zero, it would only equate to 1 percent energy savings in all the existing buildings in the US. It’s not about net zero because it will affect only a small portion of the market. We need to reach the majority of the market.
Peter Zellner: There’s another side of this where we as designers can participate. The Prius did not only do well in the market because it’s good for the environment. It’s a great product. From a design perspective, that’s the upside for a lot of people. Another thing we can discuss is how we can take the culture of sustainability away from something that’s nerdy, weird, and hard to understand into something that the public says they want.
Virginia Tanzmann: Every time there’s an election there’s an opportunity to support a candidate who comes down on the right side of these kinds of questions. We haven’t talked enough about putting pressure on those who have been elected to step up. If the majority is just going to rely upon the floor—the code—then we have to raise that floor.