Sustainability: Looking Forward


Few will disagree that this is an exciting time for sustainable design. Significant trends emerging include the push toward net-zero energy buildings, material ingredient transparency, and early conceptual performance modeling.

Back in 2003, the year 2030 seemed a long, long way off.  That’s when the Architecture 2030 Challenge was introduced by Edward Mazria in response to rapidly accelerating climate change.  The challenge suggests that to stabilize the global atmospheric carbon balance, by the year 2030 every building designed must achieve net-zero energy, or in other words, meet all its own energy use through on-site, renewable energy sources and have no greenhouse gas emission.  Many design firms, among them SmithGroup, signed onto the 2030 Challenge and its companion program the AIA 2030 Commitment, promising to follow the path towards net-zero energy building.

With only 16 years between now and 2030, the design of net-zero energy buildings is increasing its foothold. Paving the way are advancing photovoltaics and other renewable energy technologies, as well as aggressive energy conservation using strategies such as highly insulated exterior envelopes, triple-glazed windows, exterior sun-shading, daylighting, natural ventilation, high-efficiency HVAC systems, and aggressive plug load management. Net-zero energy buildings are now completing at an unprecedented pace. SmithGroup’s first net-zero energy building certification came in 2013 with the new Phoenix regional office for DPR Construction.

Other SmithGroup projects have been designed with net-zero energy strategies, such as the LEED Platinum Energy Systems Integration Facility at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. The design anticipates the addition of renewable energy on site through the installation of roof top photovoltaics, which would be a significant step towards earning net-zero energy certification. On the east coast, the Brock Environmental Center for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, located in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was designed as both net-zero energy and net-zero water. This was SmithGroup’s first Living Building Challenge project, a strict environmental standard that requires that the building have virtually no impact on the environment.

Material ingredient disclosure and transparency is another sustainability trend that continues to gain momentum.  It asks building materials manufacturers to openly communicate the material ingredients of a product, so smart decisions can be made to avoid those ingredients understood to be hazardous, where there are cleaner alternatives.  The Health Product Declaration Open Standard, developed by the HPD Collaborative, provides a standardized format for manufacturers to document and disclose building product content. It is designed to work with multiple reporting formats, such as the International Living Future Institute’s Declare, a database of green building products that acts as a product “nutrition label.” The focus of Declare is on a specific list of chemicals that are on the “Red List” -- forbidden from use in Living Building Challenge projects.  SmithGroup is one of a growing list of proactive firms that have asked building product manufacturers to complete an HPD or equivalent disclosure tool for each of their products. In response, many manufacturers have responded to the call for disclosure and transparency by issuing declarations to differentiate their products from competitors. Together, we’re making continued progress towards healthier and safer environments.

Early conceptual performance modeling is also becoming more prevalent and useful. While modeling has been around for a long time, faster computing and an increased focus on 3D information modeling has made this technology better, cheaper, faster, and more accessible. Going beyond energy modeling, early conceptual performance modeling involves comprehensive, integrated simulation to evaluate everything from lighting performance and natural ventilation to computational fluid dynamics. It’s allowing an integrated design team – architects working closely with engineers -- to evaluate the performance of a project early in the design process, when there is room for design manipulation and improvement.

New simulation tools, now well integrated into designers’ process, not only allow the physical modeling of a project so clients can have a better sense of what it will look like when built, but allow design teams to test the performance of options early in the design process. As a result, performance considerations play a greater role in design.

From the USGBC’s fourth iteration of LEED to the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge -- now deemed by many practitioners to be the most comprehensive certification standard to meet -- the green building movement has advanced to a new, more mature stage of development.