Designing Net Zero Buildings


If you haven’t heard the word “Net Zero,” it’s safe to say you’ve been living under a rock. A quick Google search of “Net Zero” results in over 31 million articles; that’s a lot of information to digest. However, if your concern is “How does Net Zero impact my business?” you’re in the right place.

Net Zero is defined as achieving an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere. All commercial buildings will emit emissions. The goal is to reduce energy consumption to decrease the impact of climate change. Reducing a building’s energy load starts with the owner and architect. Exemplary building design will minimize energy requirements.

Net Zero In New Construction

The good news an energy efficient building isn’t more expensive to build; it’s about how you arrange the parts for greater efficiency. According to Energy Star’s website, energy-efficient buildings sell at higher prices, have higher rental premiums (3-16%), and have 10% higher occupancy than traditional buildings. 

Today, there is a plethora of energy-saving and sustainable products on the market to lower building energy load. However, the design of the building plays a more significant role in achieving Net-Zero. Designing an energy-efficient industrial building is easier, especially with limited warehouse windows.* The challenge is lowering energy consumption in a floor-to-ceiling windowed office building. 

technique concrete net zero

SEA’s design for Technique Concrete’s 16,000 SF Corporate Headquarters faced challenges. The facility is in the southeast of Atlanta, with a climate zone of high humidity and temperatures hitting upwards of 100° F in the summer. Therefore, it was crucial the design block direct sunlight and radiant heat. 

The orientation of the building plays a significant role in the design. Cardinal points dictated the layout of the interior floor plan. The north-facing building is flanked with floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing natural light to flow through the workspace. 

By using the geometry of the building, deep balconies are on the west and south side of the building. They block harsh summer rays while providing passive heating during the winter months. Maintenance and toilet rooms are on the southwest corner. Insulated metal panels block direct sunlight while clerestory windows bring in natural light. 

Another architectural detail includes a feature wall extending through the midsection of the building. The wall performs double duty by providing shade at the entrance while separating the offices from the social area. 

vertical fins

Vertical metal fins are placed on the windows to block direct sunlight and radiant heat.

The building envelope is integral to achieving an energy-efficient building. Better insulation, larger wall to window ratio, energy efficient windows with low emissivity glazing and high shading coefficients, and LED lighting make a huge impact. An efficient building envelope combines highly efficient HVAC systems working in tandem with exterior glazing, lighting levels, and fixture types. For businesses, this translates to significant savings on equipment and power bills. 

Achieving Net Zero in Existing Buildings

Retrofitting an existing building is nearly always more sustainable over time than new construction. The first step is understanding where energy is being consumed within the building. Hiring an expert to evaluate the facility will be the biggest bang for your buck! 

Performing a walk-through at midnight or off-peak hours when little to no occupants are in the building will give the best results. After receiving the inspection, you may be surprised at quick fixes that immediately lower energy consumption. 

Easy Fixes To Lower Energy Consumption:

–  Ensure lights are off during non-occupied hours (Today’s electrical codes require sensors on almost all spaces to turn off lights when the area is not occupied for a specified period of time.)
–  Ensure all systems within the building are running efficiently
–  Retro-fitting existing fixtures with LED lights

RNDC Indianapolis

In an adaptive reuse project, the goal was to lower emissions while maintaining the integrity of the building. Original tongue and groove wood flooring (part of the original 90 year old warehouse) was sanded and refinished to restore its original beauty.  An external industrial window system hidden in a gypsum board wall system was rediscovered and re-purposed to become a magnificent steel and glass wall system bringing natural light to the new 250-seat auditorium.

Bringing natural light into the interior of the building was a high priority. A fiberglass translucent Kalwal© system replaced the ninety-year-old industrial clerestory windows. Replacing walls with glass in the corridor. sides of interior offices, and conference rooms allowed natural light to flow throughout the space. By painting the ceiling and walls white, it creates a reflectance, thereby helping daylight penetrate deep into the workspace.

The design focuses on reducing environmental impact; the design used existing furniture, low VOC adhesives, and recycled carpet. In addition, with lighting consuming the most energy, all fixtures were replaced and LED lighting was installed. LED ‘s make a significant impact on reducing energy consumption. 

Solar panels have been a topic of discussion for years. However, they haven’t been a cost effective solution for businesses. One solution is selling harvested energy back to the power grid to reduce the cost of the panels. (Not all zones allow selling energy back to the grid.) 

The good news is that solar panels may be feasible for corporations soon. In the last five years, solar panels have dropped by 50% with speculation they will continue to drop an additional 50% in the next two years. Should your business wait to purchase solar panels? The answer is Yes. In the meantime focus efforts on lowering energy consumption. Less energy consumed in a building translates to fewer solar panels. Lower energy consumption translates into needing fewer solar panels. 

Everyone Has To Be On Board

Kim Shinn, PE, LEED Fellow, BEMP with TLC Engineering, stated, “There are no Net-Zero buildings without Net-Zero minded occupants.” Research shows that buildings certified as “high efficiency” can consume more energy than traditional buildings. Therefore, the occupants have to do their part to control energy consumption. 

Shinn says the number one rule of lowering energy bills is, “If it isn’t being used, turn it off”. This includes lights, computers, coffee pots, printers, heating, and air-conditioning. “Automation can ensure items are turned off, but you would be surprised how many times I find occupants defeating these systems.”  

Getting end users on board is key to lowering energy consumption. It helps if they understand they have “skin in the game” and how their role positively impacts the building’s Net-Zero goals. Spreading awareness is the first step; sending an email or one-page flier with energy-saving tips is a great start. 

It all just sounds… overwhelming!

Small steps make a massive impact on lowering energy consumption. So not only is having a low emissions building achievable, but it’s affordable. 

If you’re ready to lower emissions, we’re here to help guide you through the process, from initial inspections to sustainable designs.  

To find out what incentive programs are within your area, check out:  


*The International Energy Code discusses daylighting and skylight requirements for warehouses.

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