Learning and Living Zero Energy: The Education Sector Leads the Way

by Jonathan Rowe, Zero Energy Buildings Program Manager, Autodesk Sustainability Solutions

Ever since NREL proved with its Colorado headquarters that zero-energy buildings (ZEBs) are achievable at scales far beyond an early set of small demonstration projects, a distinct trend has ensued to “go big.”  It’s especially pronounced in the education sector, where schools and universities—some of the best ZEB candidates around—capture nearly 30% of the documented ZEBs and the majority of Emerging ZEB square footage in NBI’s Getting to Zero 2012 Status Update.  Last month, the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, broke ground on a whopping 169,000 square feet of new space for MLK Junior Elementary, where a new generation of young minds will identify with high performance building through experiential interaction.  When college comes around, they may even attend one of the several universities attracting talent by touting a showcase ZEB.  These budding projects can serve as powerful examples showing today’s industry practitioners and tomorrow’s leaders how to learn, teach, design, deliver and live net zero.

With 673 signatories, the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment underscores the magnitude of buy-in from the higher education sector for targeting carbon neutrality in the coming decades.  A growing number of university ZEBs are initial, tangible building blocks toward realizing such inspired visions.  As physical and functional representations of a university’s values toward sustainability, these projects are meant to attract top talent – from the high-profile teams who deliver them to the distinguished faculty and scholars drawn to teach and learn there.  The first academic building for CornellNYC’s Tech Campus and USC’s Darla Moore Business School, designed by “starchitects” Thom Mayne and Rafael Vinoly respectively, are each well into six figures of usable learning space.  They push the boundary of what’s thought possible for high performance learning environments.

Beyond attracting bright minds, zero-energy school and university buildings can operate as vital instructional tools for elevating awareness of the technical, behavioral and cultural requirements for attaining a future state where ZEBs are common.  If today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, what better place to nurture future practitioners’ expertise than in a zero-net energy living laboratory?  The 230,000 square foot College of Electrical and Computer Engineering Building (ECE) at the University of Illinois is an emerging ZEB with potential for occupants to both learn from their new facility through research and shape the evolving market by sharing their successes and challenges.  Rather than representing an ideal state, buildings like the ECE will be artifacts of a concentrated push toward a low-impact built environment, meant for enough study and experimentation to inform the next wave of ZEB design.  The industry needs this feedback loop to accelerate adoption within the broader commercial market.

One exciting zero-energy education project isn’t just a building.  The UC Davis West Village—comprised of hundreds of living units, along with generous commercial and recreational facilities—takes the idea of zero energy outside the classroom and into a community. By extending the boundary from a building site to a whole mixed-use development, West Village can realize ZEB status by capitalizing on efficiencies of scale often unattainable with one-off structures.  Ultimately, lessons learned here will be influential in driving the industry towards visions of entire zero energy campuses, districts, and cities. A particularly challenging element to making these visions a reality is predicting human behavior, and gently inducing patterns to minimize energy consumption.  For West Village, a mobile app is designed to help residents stay under a defined electricity cap.  With an ecosystem of similar energy consumption management apps growing around the Green Button Initiative, a similar approach may one day scale to the masses. Stay tuned.  It’s sure to be educational.