Dutch Dialogues

Originally published in USGBC+
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October 24, 2014

As a young boy, Louisiana native David Waggonner’s philosophy about solving problems and creating resiliency in communities was being shaped as he watched his dad, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1960s and 1970s, deliberate with his colleagues in Congress.

Waggonner and BallJoe Waggonner, a conservative Democrat, sat on two important congressional committees—the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, which focused on the science behind getting American astronauts into space for the first time; and another—the prestigious House Ways & Means Committee—which is in charge of funding decisions for federal projects.

“Those experiences gave me the belief you can do anything if you put your mind to it,” asserts David Waggonner, a well-respected, New Orleans-based architect now in his sixties and a founding partner at Waggonner & Ball, an architectural firm regarded for its expertise in adaptive reuse and historic preservation. “Using science is big in the resiliency projects I’m working on now, but you also have to have a mechanism to pay for it.”

When young David Waggonner wasn’t in Washington, D.C., surrounded by newsmakers and learning how the wheels of government and power worked, he was back in Bossier Parish in northwest Louisiana, soaking up the values of living close to the land. He spent hours playing in the woods, laying in the grass and splashing around in the water with his friends. He described living amid nature, not separate from it.

Fast forward to 2006. Waggonner is now applying those lessons learned as he plays a pivotal role in the ongoing big fix of New Orleans—the Big Easy—in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the broken levee system soon after the storm to keep water out of the city once again. But some locals—including Waggonner—are working on other aspects of rebuilding the city and region to make it stronger to withstand even more calamitous hurricanes and storms that are expected to occur in the years to come.

In Waggonner’s view, a critical factor to solving future problems was overlooked from the start after Katrina. “Understanding the root of the question about water was completely ignored,” asserts Waggonner, who became a staunch champion of reshaping the conversation about repair and was frustrated by some of the early Band-Aid solutions.

Dutch Dialogues enters the American Lexicon of Disaster

Soon after Katrina, the Dutch Dialogues came to play a critical role in jumpstarting an entirely new conversation and approach: looking at collaboration over water management as the best solution. Waggonner, as well as other key players in the region, maintains that beginning that dialogue process in 2006 ushered in a new way of problem-solving for resiliency in communities that would catch fire across the nation.

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Indeed, the Dutch Dialogues initiative in New Orleans got rave reviews among professionals and government officials addressing water disaster issues. Leaders in other storm-hit and flood-vulnerable cities and regions have called on Waggonner and others engaged in the Dutch Dialogues methodology to help them replicate the same process in their locales. In addition, a new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.,—called Designing for Disaster—includes a component about the Dutch Dialogues.

When the devastation of New Orleans and the surrounding region from Hurricane Katrina was seen around the world, there was an outpouring of sympathy and aid from near and far. The Dutch, in particular, had more to offer than most other countries.

People living in the Netherlands are surrounded by water in a delta region and have suffered the harsh repercussions of flooding for centuries. They’ve experienced tremendous loss of life, destruction of land and community infrastructure, and massive disruption of economic activity. As a result, the Dutch have learned how to address the constant threat of flooding, death, and economic disaster from water, says Dale Morris, senior economist at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C., and coordinator for Dutch Water Management and Climate Adaptation in the United States.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Dutch began to change the way they looked at water management, notes Morris. “They just couldn’t keep building higher barriers,” says Morris, an American who served in the Netherlands while in the U.S. Air Force and learned the language and culture while he was there. “They figured out how they can live more naturally with the water.”

Through the Dutch Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Dutch government in early 2006 invited an American delegation, led by U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu from Louisiana, to visit the Netherlands. There, they would meet with local experts and government officials to learn firsthand how the Dutch developed sophisticated, well-integrated systems that have made them more resilient in responding to the constant threat of potential water-related disasters.

Senator Landrieu assembled a group of state and local officials, and water and planning experts who could benefit the most from those meetings abroad. Waggonner was part of that delegation.   “The Dutch are geniuses in urban design and water design,” says Waggonner. “We needed to learn from them how to talk to each other and agree on how to solve our water problem.”

In addition, the Dutch are known for how well they pool money to address water problems because everyone benefits from it. “We don’t know how to do that here,” he notes.   By all accounts, the delegation trip was a big hit. “When David came back his eyes were wide open,” recalls Mac Ball, an architect and Waggonner’s longtime partner at the firm. “He said these Dutch guys have to come over and analyze our problem and start a series of dialogues to help us tease out solutions.”

After the trip to the Netherlands, Waggonner was intent on further engaging Dutch experts. He worked closely with Dale Morris at the Dutch Embassy to develop a patented process that was ultimately named “Dutch Dialogues.” They also had lots of input from the American Planning Association, a nonprofit that provides leadership in community development.

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“Simply put, the model [of the Dutch Dialogues] brings multiple disciplines together to solve vast resiliency and risk mitigation issues,” explains Morris. “As opposed to working in silos, the dialogues allow people to work across disciplines to work on problems as the climate changes. Those challenges could be about drought, flood, or water supply issues.”

Two separate Dutch Dialogues workshops took place in 2008 over several days that engaged Dutch engineers, urban designers, landscape architects, city planners, and soils/hydrology experts and their Louisiana counterparts. In the first workshop, the parties exchanged information to show each other how they addressed water issues in their separate regions. The second workshop moved the conversation further with recommendations about how to improve the way they deal with water with ideas that haven’t been tried before in Louisiana.

When the first workshop began, local players in New Orleans learned that people in the Netherlands faced similar problems living in a delta region surrounded by water, but there was a fundamental difference in their outlook. Historically, New Orleans’ leaders focused on separating people and their buildings from the water, explains Waggonner. Powerful pumping stations are located in strategic points around New Orleans that begin pumping wildly at the first accumulation of rain or any other surge of water. Making the soil so dry has had terrible consequences: the soil is largely composed of sand and because of that, wide swaths of land in the city have been sinking and creating a new set of problems, he says.

“In the Netherlands, they learned how to embrace the water and its deltas, and live with it in a smart way that’s less likely to put them under water,” adds Waggonner.

The New Orleans participants learned the Dutch work closely together to propose solutions for the greater good of society (and not just special interests), because they saw that rising waters don’t discriminate by wealth or social status, says Morris. Everyone was affected by flooding. Their outlook on problem solving was shaped by that knowledge.

The residents of New Orleans—rich and poor—learned those same truths when Katrina forced the levees to collapse and inundated extensive parts of the city with water.

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However, there are real obstacles that get in the way of good collaboration in the U.S., which was discussed in the workshops. Special interests and competing government jurisdictions often obstruct collaboration that could lead to better planning for protecting communities and creating wonderful amenities to benefit everyone too, explains Morris. The Dutch have overcome many of those obstacles, he says.

Also, “the Dutch, by nature, are consensus seekers,” notes Morris. “They try to give everyone a say before making final decisions.”

In the U.S., zoning issues and jurisdiction issues come into play, which is trickier to maneuver when trying to build consensus, admits Morris. “Zoning and pumping are local issues, but dredging and navigation are federal.”   At the federal level, the goal was to look at the outer protection system of New Orleans by rebuilding the levees. Waggonner believes the federal government wasn’t paying enough attention to urban flooding issues, and federal, state, and local authorities weren’t working together to figure out how to move that water around.

“In the Netherlands, flood risk mitigation, zoning codes, drainage systems, road building, and other aspects of urban water management are integrated so they get efficient use of their dollars spent,” explains Morris.

The Dutch Dialogues gave New Orleans stakeholders a framework for constructive discussion, and brought disparate parties to the table to create synergies that otherwise wouldn’t occur, says Waggonner. In addition, Waggonner set an intergenerational element to the discussions so younger professionals and university students could participate in the process and integrate that philosophy into their work ethic as they advance in their careers.

“We have an effective network now,” says Waggonner. “The work transcends the competitive. No one is making money doing this, including the Dutch participants. We’re constantly learning from each other.”

“In the Netherlands, they learned how to embrace the water and its deltas, and live with it in a smart way that’s less likely to put them under water.” – David Waggonner

A new radical plan for water management in New Orleans

Since the Dutch Dialogues, Waggonner and others have been working hard at coming up with funding for designing new plans for water management, and even larger pots of money that will be necessary to implement any of the design ideas that are approved.

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In 2010, state and federal funds were allocated to Waggonner and Ball to lead a team of local and international water management experts to develop a Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan. The in-depth plan, “Living with Water,” calls for a radically different game plan for how water should be incorporated into the city’s infrastructure.

Taking a completely different tack, the Living with Water plan recommends designing a new system within the levees that doesn’t automatically eject the water when it rains. Instead, the new ideas focus on rethinking the use of water and integrating it more into the fabric of the city.

“We want to make New Orleans consciously a water city by using surface water in the landscape,” says Waggonner. “In Louisiana, water has not been something we valued and we want to change that. Our new paradigm regarding water is to drain it, store it, and use it when we need it.”

These designs are intended to first promote safety for residents, but also establish amenities that improve the quality of life by living close to water. For example, one component of the plan reworks the canals, which currently are walled in, aesthetically unpleasing, and mostly hidden from residents, explains Waggonner. They’re used primarily as a place to push water away from residents. The new plan calls for a flattening of the canal walls, cleaning up the water, and making the edges of the canals more like a promenade for residents and visitors to have a place for walking and communing with the natural environment, he says. “What we’re trying to do is get people not to turn their backs to the water’s edge but to embrace it.”

To illustrate those ideas, Ball created a wonderful series of drawings that are intended to foster buy-in from the community because they’ll be able to visualize how these canals can transform their surroundings and draw tourists to the region, much like the High Line transformation did in New York City, he says.

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“We were hired to do this study, but it took longer and cost more than any of us thought because it was very exhaustive and grounded in science,” notes Ball. “We’re hoping funding will come soon so this project can start.”   As of late summer, city officials and others were working on tapping potential funding sources, including the federal Rebuild by Design program, which was created as an initiative of the President’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2013.

Waggonner, a natural leader, great networker, and sincere cheerleader for the city, was the best choice to head up the New Orleans team that collaborated with the Dutch in the workshops, concludes Morris. Aside from his fierce determination to rethink the fundamentals of water’s role within New Orleans, Waggonner knew how to tap the right experts for the local team.

“He told me there were people in New Orleans who were skeptical or were too busy to participate,” recalls Morris. “But David has a strong commitment to the city, he doesn’t give up easily, and adversity won’t stop him. The Dutch participants couldn’t succeed without the true local knowledge and participation that David brought together.”

Dutch Dialogues Beyond New Orleans

Since its inception in New Orleans, the Dutch Dialogues process has taken on a life of its own in the U.S. and elsewhere. Both Waggonner and Morris participated in a Miami workshop in August that assembled many local players to discuss how to build a team for addressing water issues. The first formal Dutch Dialogues are expected to begin there next year.

Indeed, many believe the principles and framework adopted by the federal government’s Rebuild by Design program after Hurricane Sandy was modeled after the Dutch Dialogues format.

After Hurricane Sandy, city leaders in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a coastal city hit hard by the storm, invited Waggonner as a consultant to facilitate a Rebuild by Design workshop for key stakeholders to figure out how to begin repairing its devastated infrastructure and nearby waterways. They’re moving along in the process, but will face funding challenges once they’ve devised a rebuilding plan, observes Waggonner.

“There can’t be any resiliency in Bridgeport without economic revitalization because there’s so few revenue sources there,” he notes. “You have to approach resiliency with an economic approach in mind.”

One of the segments at the National Building Museum’s “Designing for Disaster” exhibit includes a video of the Dutch Dialogues format in action as it was employed in Bridgeport during the workshop led by Waggonner. That inclusion in the exhibit is expected to give even wider exposure of the Dutch Dialogues methodology to a broader audience and spread the word further.

More city leaders around the U.S. have contacted the Dutch Embassy and are eager to engage in their own flavor of Dutch Dialogues, says Morris. Some potential cities and regions in line for future collaborations include Norfolk, Virginia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta in California. However, none of those will move forward until the right people are selected to lead the charge locally, notes Morris.

“We have to make sure there are good local partners,” says Morris. “We have to find the right David Waggonners in those places and we don’t have them just yet.”

Despite Waggonner’s considerable contribution to facilitating the Dutch Dialogues in New Orleans and elsewhere, he’s humble about his place in the important conversation bubbling up around resiliency in our cities and communities. “The scale of this ship is bigger than me; I’m just trying to be a voice in the chorus,” he insists.   “We don’t have the luxury of a 20-year feedback cycle,” he continues, with a tone of urgency in his voice. “If you want to combat climate change and be more resilient, we need to experiment at a much faster rate and the Dutch Dialogues can help us do things the right way the first time. I’ve learned that it’s always better to spend more time planning upfront—measure twice and cut once.”

Integrated Living Water Systems

The integrated living water system is the basis of the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan. It is a new model for managing stormwater, surface water, and groundwater collectively, rather than as isolated phenomena. It works to slow, store, and use stormwater in order to reduce the region’s dependence on pumping, and it provides for the circulation and recharge of surface water and groundwater. The Urban Water Plan describes seven characteristic elements that join together the capacity of existing systems with those of the region’s open spaces, soils, plants, and wetlands.

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1. Small Scale Retrofits. Interceptor streets on high ground (backslope neighborhoods) are a critical subset of small scale retrofits. Running perpendicular to the flow of water, interceptor streets function as speed bumps, absorbing and slowing water as it moves downslope, in order to alleviate localized flooding and lessen the load on drainage systems downstream.

2. Circulating Canal. In the region’s bowls and lowlands, circulating canals sustain local habitats and recharge groundwater. During wet weather, they continue to serve as drainage conduits. Circulating canals with flowing water and improved banks can be beautiful public spaces, as seen in this example from the Netherlands.

3. Strategic Parklands. Strategic Parklands are multi-acre areas located at key junctures of the integrated living water system that are designed to contain vast quantities of stormwater during heavy rains and provide invaluable open space and recreational amenities. Wally Pontiff Park in Jefferson Parish is an example of an existing parkland.

4. Waterfront Development Zones. Waterfront Development Zones around key waterways and parklands anchor the development of higher-density, multi-use districts defined by urban water assets. Shown is a multi-use development along the Industrial Canal.

5. Integrated Waterworks. Integrated waterworks are the water treatment plants, drainage pumps, siphons, sluices, and gates that draw, redirect, and filter stormwater, surface water, groundwater, drinking water, sewage, and industrial wastewater. They are the engines that establish the flows of the living water system. Shown here is a weir in City Park.

6. Integrated Wetlands. Wetlands located within strategic parklands and distributed throughout the region store and filter both stormwater and dry weather flows. Existing wetlands are restored with treated wastewater and filtered stormwater.

7. Regional Monitoring Networks. Surface water and groundwater provide system managers with real-time data that are necessary to address immediate drainage needs and long-term trends in water levels and water quality, and to maintain higher water levels without compromising safety.

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Mission Accomplished

Originally published in USGBC+
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October 1, 2014

The architects and builders of the Department of Energy’s new Research Support Facility (RSF) in Golden, Colorado, were confident they could design and build the world’s largest net-zero energy building. The new structure, within the campus of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), was expected to be a trailblazer for the green building industry and a model for others to follow when the project got underway in 2008.

“Part of our mission is to be national leaders in energy efficiency,” says Shanti Pless, top efficiency champion at NREL and one of the facility’s project leaders. “Costs and efficiencies of many energy technologies have improved significantly in recent years, and we had the opportunity to walk the talk and show the industry how to do it.”

Still, they held their collective breath. They had to wait until the first full year energy consumption data was tallied with all systems up and running to see if they could really achieve net-zero energy. That way, they could verify whether the total energy the building produced through its own renewable energy sources was greater than the energy the structure consumed over a 12-month period.

The verdict? Mission accomplished. In April 2014, the Department of Energy announced it had collected real-time verifiable data demonstrating the Research Support Facility produced more energy than it consumed between April 2013 and April 2014.

Even though the first 800 occupants of the building moved into the 220,000-square-foot building after construction of Phase One in 2010, the ambitious project wasn’t fully completed until 2012. That’s when an additional wing was added for a combined total of 360,000 square feet and 500 more NREL and Department of Energy staffers moved their operations to the new building.

The primary source of renewable energy was drawn from the building’s 2.6-megawatt solar photovoltaic (PV) system that blankets the roof and stretches onto a canopy over the adjacent parking areas. What’s more, the building was designed with a multitude of energy efficiency features—some high-tech and others pretty basic—so the structure could operate using at least 50 percent less energy than most other Class A buildings of the same size.

Of course, operational efficiencies have to occur year after year for a true net-zero energy success, compared to sustainability design goals that are measured as a one-time accomplishment, Pless notes. The RSF also was awarded the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) top Platinum rating for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for each completed phase of the complex.

“Net-zero energy is the holy grail of all targets on the sustainability side of creating large-scale buildings,” asserts Pless, who spent the first decade of his 25-year career in the commercial sector as a mechanical engineer meeting energy goals for high-performance buildings, including the Lewis Center at Oberlin (Ohio) College. “It’s only in the last five years that large-scale buildings can be thought of as a realistic goal.”

Climate Change—a Catalyst

Concerns about climate change have been mounting in both the public and private sectors and many experts point to buildings as a major contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the U.S., buildings account for 30 percent of all GHG emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That should come as little surprise, considering buildings are responsible for about 36 percent of total energy use and 65 percent of all electricity consumption domestically, the EPA says. Since NREL aims to be at the forefront of energy efficiency ideas, administrators there figured attaching aggressive criteria for energy reductions to its planned Research Support Facility was a way to combat the growing threat of climate change as well, says Pless.

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“Decisions made today in building design will impact emissions of our buildings for the next 30 to 40 years,” he observes. “You’ve got one chance to get it right because once you have an existing building it becomes difficult to change.”

The team that designed and built the new facility factored in operational carbon emissions as part of its definition for the net-zero energy goal because minimizing GHG emissions was just as important as the energy efficiency component from an environmental standpoint, asserts Tom Hootman, director of sustainability at RNL Design, a global design firm specializing in sustainable, integrated design, and one of the partners on the team that won the competitive bid for designing and building the new facility. “It forces you to think through the design problems in terms of operational carbon emissions, which can influence design strategies and energy sources,” he explains.

To that end, the designers opted for onsite generation of clean, renewable energy and passive design strategies as the primary sources for powering the building’s operations and keeping energy needs at a minimum, says Hootman. “These strategies add resilience to our built environment, which can help mitigate future impacts to our changing climate,” he adds.

What’s more, one requirement for the design/build team was to guarantee all materials used met the criteria of a 50-year life span to stretch the time that a major renovation or demolition would be required, says Brian Livingston, a senior project manager at Haselden, the Centennial, Colorado, general contractor that was awarded the design/build contract for the project with RNL Design. Life span requirements for buildings are typically 30 to 40 years.

“A building with a 50-year requirement rather than a 30-year would have stricter structural requirements because concrete deteriorates over time,” explains Livingston. “We had to prove either through examples of in-place construction or through a testing data mechanism that materials would meet that durability standard.”

Livingston adds: “When you demolish a building, you emit carbon dioxide with equipment that’s used and some of those materials end up in a landfill,” which produces methane, a potent GHG. “This requirement was about being mindful to the future and not contributing to climate change.”

Performance-based

The project leaders at NREL knew they were raising the stakes in their quest for a net-zero energy structure on a scale that hadn’t yet been achieved, so they took a dramatically different approach in the criteria for the request for proposal (RFP) they put out to the green building industry. They sent out a performance-based design/build RFP that placed energy criteria for the building’s operations as a required top priority requirement alongside cost and schedule, explains Pless. For example, the RFP said they required design and construction that results in a building that uses 25,000 BTUs per square foot for the first two years.

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“What we learned is that when energy efficiency is a requirement from the beginning, energy efficacy decisions can be made early on and integrated cost-effectively,” asserts Pless. “That wasn’t really done before. Early energy efficiency goals can inform the design delivery process, rather than extra efficiency measures that are bolted on after the design has been developed.”

In addition, NREL for the first time wanted a design/build team to create the building instead of the typical two-step process. In this instance, a partnership of architects and a contractor design the facility and begin building it in an integrated manner instead of first having one team design the entire structure and then soliciting RFPs for the building phase, explains Pless. The integrated team saved money and slashed about 18 months off the total project’s start-to-finish time, he estimates.

“Performance-based design/build with energy efficiency integrated into the design is the one key replicable strategy that we’ve used in nine of our own projects since then,” he says.

Hootman, who was one of the main designers of the RSF and authored a book about the process, notes there was a requirement for LEED Platinum in the project, which was not new for his firm. However, it was the first time the energy goal was expected to be a deliverable as well, instead of having it on the wish list of hoped-for outcomes, he recalls.

“It changed the dynamic and seriousness of the project,” he says. “It aligned the entire theme of energy efficiency in a more profound way because now it was a contract requirement instead of a goal. Goals sometimes get lost when suddenly the budget gets tight or you’re running out of time. Here it wasn’t allowed to happen.”

Mix of New and Old

Improvements in some newer technologies and dramatic reductions in cost inspired Pless and others at NREL to view a net-zero energy building as a realistic possibility. Cheaper LED (light-emitting diodes) lighting, which requires far less energy than standard lighting, suddenly made that an option building-wide. Less expensive PV panels also enabled the design team to add solar as the primary renewable energy source. Colorado is known for its days of sunshine year-round, so that energy source was a good choice for a building there, he says.

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In addition, some of the energy efficiency solutions were passive strategies based on simpler technologies that have been employed for hundreds of years. Those elements also are expected to contribute to the improved health and productivity of employees working there.

Two of the best examples are an emphasis on natural daylight and natural ventilation. A hundred years ago when buildings were designed, most were naturally ventilated and naturally lit, says Pless. “There was good shading, good insulation, thermal mass, lots of precast concrete and ventilation and daylighting,” he explains. “Now we’re learning how to integrate these simpler technologies into modern, high-performance buildings.”

At the RSF, the building’s operations will never turn on a light for an employee, except in the restroom, says Hootman. When employees enter their workspace, they decide whether they need more lighting beyond available natural daylight and they have the option of flipping their own dedicated light switch.

“Once the occupant turns a light on, the building finds a way to turn it off,” explains Hootman. “Sensors detect when you leave your space and your lights will be turned off automatically. The same will happen when the sun comes out, and at 6 p.m. there’s a hard lights-off again. This building only uses 15 percent of what a regular building would use in lighting energy.”

An open floor plan also enables workers to benefit from the natural daylight streaming in through the windows. There are no carved-out private offices blocking access to outdoor lighting. In addition, open work areas allow natural ventilation because there aren’t walled-off spaces that interfere with air flow.

Initially, employees had to get used to working in an open-space environment since many previously had secluded offices. The new layout includes private call rooms and conference rooms for meetings, plus a lot of attention was paid to good acoustics to minimize noise travel. Pless notes the way for these passive features to work best is to change office culture and get buy-in from workers.

For example, the building was equipped with operable windows for natural air ventilation that can easily be opened by people working there, says Livingston. “From a construction perspective, we considered the building ‘delicately simple’ because much of the work didn’t need specialty engineers or workers,” he says. “Anyone can install a window that opens.”

In more complex “smart” buildings, numerous problems crop up when sophisticated systems break down, observes Hootman. “Fancy controls eventually stop working and it takes a specialist to come back and recalibrate,” he says. “Or employees don’t like what’s installed so they circumvent it by covering occupancy sensors. Our building was brilliant in its simplicity.”

The passive architecture served another important purpose: Those design features also were intended to maximize employees’ health and improve their sense of well-being while at work. Fresh air from open windows (especially in Colorado) is generally better than sealed-off air that’s continuously recirculated in a building, for example. Happier workers also typically are more productive and take fewer sick days, notes Pless. “We believe everyone has a right to daylight and the right to a good view.”

Air quality was enhanced in the new building by rounding up all the printers and toners, which emit VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and housing them in a separate self-contained ventilated room. At their old workstations, every other NREL employee had his own desktop printer, says Pless. “That was a lot of VOCs to breathe, so we changed our standards (with the new facility) and bought high-speed multifunction devices and put much fewer of them in the closed-off rooms,” he explains. “Now when I go into buildings that aren’t naturally ventilated and day-lit, I feel like I’m in a cave.”

Industry Impact

When the RSF design was on the drawing board, there were no large-scale net-zero buildings standing, recalls Pless. The largest were 10,000-square-foot structures and most were experimental, he says. The objective of the RSF project was to demonstrate the scalability and replicability of the concept so others could follow, he notes.

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“The industry has now recognized that it can be done on a large scale and they’re learning how to do this,” says Pless, who spends time on the lecture circuit sharing his experience with industry professionals. Project leaders also developed a manual with design details that is shared publicly. Hootman describes the experience of this project as “transformational.”

“It changed the way I work and the way I think about design,” he admits. “Given that I’ve always been a LEED AP sustainable designer, this was a far more radical approach to designing around energy. It vaults you to the next level.”

Historically, architects weren’t trained in the details of BTUs of energy and other energy minutiae, notes Hootman. But that’s changing, he says—noting that some architectural programs are even incorporating net-zero energy into design class curricula. For his part, Hootman is pushing other architects to adopt these new approaches and insists the industry is on the cusp of a growing trend.

There currently are a couple hundred net-zero commercial buildings in various stages of design and construction. Many large-scale retrofits with net-zero energy goals are underway as well, says Pless. The majority of new construction is found in the government and education sectors, while retrofits are occurring across the board.

“Net-zero building today is where LEED Platinum was 15 years ago—a few leaders were trying to go all the way and soon after others followed,” he says. “I’m pretty excited to see this happening.”

Green building visionaries like Pless, Hootman, and Livingston applaud net-zero building as a vital component to mitigating the impact of climate change, but they are realistic about what will motivate others to jump on the bandwagon. “When commercial developers figure out how to build it, sell it, and create a marketplace for it like they’ve done for LEED, that’s when you’ll know net zero has become mainstream,” Pless predicts.

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