Seven Steps to Design a Net-Zero Energy Building

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By Emily Newton

The commercial and residential building sector produces significant amounts of pollution. As global organizations like the United Nations establish sustainability goals, countries develop emission regulations. Developed countries like the U.S. are holding corporations responsible for their carbon footprints.

Companies are responding by minimizing their buildings’ emissions. They’re developing net-zero manufacturing, production, office, and living facilities to eliminate energy-related emissions. There are seven steps individuals can take to design a net-zero-energy building.

How Do Buildings Achieve Net-Zero?

Buildings achieve net-zero status by producing as much emission-free electricity as they use. They reach net-zero emissions by generating renewable energy and high-efficiency systems and appliances. Before assessing the seven elements of eco-conscious building designs, individuals must evaluate the critical causes of energy loss.

A building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system consume nearly 40% of its energy supply. Lighting systems use the second-largest amount of power. Inefficiently designed buildings contribute to excessive quantities of HVAC and lighting-related energy waste.

Buildings with poorly sealed envelopes use HVAC systems more frequently. When architects place few windows in a building, it also uses more energy for artificial illumination. Installing high-efficiency systems and appliances helps to reduce unnecessary power waste.

About 80% of the global energy supply comes from fossil fuels, contributing significantly to climate change. Adopting renewable energy sources can reduce a building owner’s fossil fuel reliance. Seven systems, appliances, construction techniques, and power sources can help individuals develop net-zero emission buildings.

1. Install a Smart Thermostat

Installing an autonomous thermostat is the first step in reducing emissions. Construction professionals can use the technology to lower an HVAC system’s power consumption. Smart thermostats contain sensors that divide a building into different temperature zones.

The technology also autonomously monitors local weather conditions in real-time. When the smart technology detects similar outdoor and indoor temperatures, it automatically turns off the HVAC system. The thermostat also detects motion and adjusts indoor temperatures based on occupancy levels.

Altering an HVAC system’s energy consumption can significantly shrink a building’s carbon footprint. Connecting a thermostat and HVAC system to solar power may eliminate energy emissions and reduce a building’s reliance on the energy grid.

2. Purchase PV Solar Panels

Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels also help buildings achieve net-zero energy emissions. PV cells absorb sunlight, using the energy to move electrons. Loose electrons create a current of energy, which transfers wires turn into electricity.

Designers can also optimize buildings for high solar power production rates. South-facing roofs receive the highest amounts of sunlight, increasing their compatibility with PV panels.

Builders should also consider a structure’s location when creating new designs. Some regions can produce more solar energy than others. Areas with high precipitation like Washington are less compatible with solar power.

Builders may also develop net-zero-energy buildings using smart lighting systems.

3. Install Smart Lights

Smart lights contain monitoring sensors similar to programable thermostats. They can autonomously turn off in vacant rooms to minimize energy waste. Construction professionals may install light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs in smart lighting systems to further decrease a building’s energy absorption.

LED lights use nearly 75% less electricity compared to incandescent bulbs. They also last about 25 times longer, producing less waste over time. Targeting light-related emissions are essential to building net-zero-emission buildings.

4. Build With Low-Impact Equipment

Builders can also shrink a structure’s carbon footprint by using electric equipment throughout the construction process. Electric machines like excavators release zero tailpipe emissions, improving environmental conservation. Heavy machine manufacturers are creating advanced electrical equipment.

Caterpillar designed an excavator with a 300 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery. Construction professionals can charge their equipment with renewable electricity, further minimizing emissions.

They may also produce power on-site using generators to charge electric machines. Powering construction sites with portable generators reduces one’s reliance on the conventional power grid. Some independent generators can remotely produce up to 2,000 kilowatts (kW) of energy remotely. Builders may also rent generators to reduce surface-level and atmospheric pollution further.

Using alternative power supplies significantly shrinks a building’s initial carbon footprint. The conventional power supply generates 33.1 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

5. Use Low-Impact Building Materials

Manufacturing some materials requires significant energy, contributing to a building’s carbon footprint. Using recycled materials can decrease energy waste and promote net-zero construction. Some eco-conscious builders use recycled cellulose insulation instead of fiberglass.

Producers manufacture the cellulose from reclaimed newspapers. They treat the paper with borate, reducing its flammability and susceptibility to pest damage. Other construction professionals minimize material-caused energy waste by 3D printing building components.

Professionals can 3D print wood substitutes such as concrete and precisely size the beams. They may also create walls, floorboards, doors, and other significant architectural features. The material development practice reduces transportation emissions from sourcing building components from afar.

6. Install a Geothermal Heat Pump

The sixth step to developing net-zero-energy buildings is installing a geothermal heat pump. Geothermal energy is a renewable resource, relying on Earth’s natural temperature gradients. Earth’s core is significantly warmer than its surface.

Geothermal heat pumps move a high-pressure refrigerant through subsurface pipes to capture heat. The pumps reclaim cool air and send it back underground to increase indoor temperatures. Geothermal heat pumps produce zero production-related greenhouse gas emissions. They also reduce a building’s reliance on the conventional energy grid.

7. Add Solar Windows and Smart Shades

Solar windows contain transparent PV cells. They look like conventional windowpanes, and they produce emission-free electricity. Solar windows are compatible with most buildings because they capture otherwise wasted solar energy.

Unlike solar panels, these windows can absorb different levels of radiation. Solar windows absorb ultraviolet (UV) rays, which panels cannot. Eco-conscious builders can also pair the technology with intelligent shades to increase the energy efficiency of HVAC systems.

Reducing overheating prevents HVAC systems from working hard and overusing energy. Bright shades also reduce a building’s reliance on artificial light. The technology detects optimal natural light cycles and autonomously opens throughout the day. Smart shades also change height settings to prevent glare.

Over time, these seven building features can decrease a building’s reliance on the conventional energy grid. They also shrink a building’s carbon footprint, improving ecological conservation.

The Environmental Benefits of Net-Zero-Emission Buildings

Net-zero-emission buildings may be the future of construction. As sustainability regulations become stricter, builders must develop less ecologically degrading structures. The net-zero approach benefits the environment by minimizing the enhanced greenhouse effect.

It significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, protecting the global ecosystem. Most sustainable buildings also reduce natural resource exploitation by installing more efficient appliances that use water and electricity. As more construction professionals build net-zero structures, the built environment may achieve carbon neutrality in time.


Emily Newton is a journalist with over four years covering the environmental sector. As Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, she also covers the many ways technology is changing our world.

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