Charles Rose Architects

Point of View

ZERO-NET-ENERGY DESIGN

There are many ways to talk about “green” design, but I think the imperative now is to construct buildings that dramatically limit carbon emissions. Zero-net-energy buildings—which generate the energy they use through renewable sources—are an important part of my practice today. I am excited about the zero-net-energy building Charles Rose Architects designed in Massachusetts—a 24,000-square-foot regional transit center in Greenfield. Gov. Deval Patrick and U.S. Rep. John Olver (D-Ma.) were among those who opened the building officially on May 4, 2012. It’s the first zero-net-energy transit center in the United States, and my colleagues and I think this building is the future.

Here is why it’s so important: In the United States, buildings use 39 percent of our energy and account for roughly 70 percent of our electricity consumption and 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the EPA. So often, the conversation around green design tends to focus on the rating system known as LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. To be sure, LEED promotes the use of less-toxic products and local building materials, for example, and raises awareness of environmental issues. Charles Rose Architects has designed many LEED-rated buildings.  But I feel the most valuable contribution Charles Rose Architects can make today is creating buildings that dramatically cut energy use and carbon emissions.

The John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield pushes far beyond LEED. The building, which combines a bus terminal with government offices and a future train depot, will produce the energy it uses in a sustainable way: through solar and geothermal sources, and a boiler on site fueled by wood pellets, a lumber-industry byproduct. It has 22 geothermal wells and a 7,300-square-foot photovoltaic array.

Achieving net-zero, particularly in a large-scale building like the transit center, requires close collaboration between architects and engineers. We started working with our engineers in the schematic design phase of the transit center. In the old days—when energy efficiency was a lower priority for clients—that never happened. A critical piece of our initial design focus was energy conservation—how to reduce the transit center’s electric and HVAC loads. We looked at strategies for super-insulating and at materials for cladding. We developed designs that project natural light deep into the building to reduce the lighting requirements.

Zero-net-energy buildings cost more upfront but prove economical. The transit center, which cost $10.8 million, received funding in part from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Federal Transit Administration. Noted FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff at the opening ceremony: “These investments in energy-savings technologies pay themselves back to the taxpayer often by the third, fourth or fifth year [and] this facility is going to last for decades.” The federal government is demanding more energy-efficiency of new buildings, and that’s providing a key impetus. We also designed a zero-net-energy-capable federal office in Portsmouth, N.H., a commission of the “Design Excellence Program” of the U.S. General Services Administration.

Net-zero projects have had a profound impact on the way Charles Rose Architects designs. We are creating buildings that are highly integrated. In other words, the only way to get to net-zero is by integrating mechanical and electrical engineering into the conceptual design phase. It’s a fundamentally different way of designing. Our engineers are serious collaborators. Once again, architecture is an art and a science.

—Charles Rose, May 2012   PDF