First Three LEED Zero Energy Projects Show the Market What’s Possible

First Three LEED Zero Energy Projects Show the Market What’s Possible

Winter 2020 | Written by Heather Benjamin

The Petinelli headquarters in Curitiba, Brazil, is the first building in the world to be certified using LEED Zero.

As the global community continues to raise standards for sustainability, net zero is becoming the new goal for many builders, communities and cities. USGBC announced LEED Zero at Greenbuild Chicago in 2018, as a complement to LEED certification that would recognize net zero achievements in carbon, energy, water and waste.

Signaling a heightened level of achievement for green buildings, LEED Zero certification recognizes the most forward-thinking leadership in the market. The first three LEED Zero Energy certifications represent a variety of spaces and locations: a small office building in Brazil, a historic building in Arkansas and an elementary school in Northern Virginia.

First LEED Zero Energy certification worldwide: Petinelli headquarters, Curitiba, Brazil

The first building in the world to certify using LEED Zero was the Curitiba headquarters of Brazilian engineering and green building consulting firm Petinelli. The 440-square-meter office building in Curitiba is housed in a converted warehouse and was certified under LEED v4 for Operations and Maintenance in September 2018. Before the end of December, it was also certified LEED Zero.

All energy is produced on site, with an energy use intensity of only 25 kilowatt hours per square meter per year. A 15-kilowatt photovoltaic array provides around 125% of the energy needed to run the 25-person office.

Although this was an ambitious project, Managing Director Guido Petinelli acknowledges that the team was lucky in encountering no major challenges. The LEED Zero achievement benefited, in this instance, from “the right elements falling into place,” he says. “A client with the right profile and vision, the right city with progressive building codes, site conditions that made it easy to justify an innovative approach, a project team who bought into the idea.”

Above, left: Guido Petinelli is the managing director of the engineering and green building consulting firm. Above, center and right; below: The 440-square-meter office building has several outdoor spaces for employees to congregate. Petinelli calls the office a living laboratory. Green Building Council Brasil has its own zero energy program, so the challenge for Petinelli was determining the source-to-site energy ratio for Brazil.

Leading clients by example

Want to help push the industry? You can start by setting an example, says Petinelli. All three of the Petinelli office locations in Brazil are LEED Platinum—and the firm has made a commitment to achieve that status on all future client projects.

For Petinelli, a LEED AP who was also named a LEED Fellow in 2018, net zero energy and water had been a goal of his for some time. He calls the Curitiba office a “living laboratory and showroom” of the very performance objectives that the firm encourages for its clients.

“One of our clients challenged us to achieve LEED Platinum on all our projects,” explains Petinelli. “We knew instinctively that if we were going to ‘talk the talk’ with our clients, we’d better ‘walk the walk” ourselves … Such an audacious goal attracted the type of clients that were ready.”

Leveraging data and maximizing site strengths

Green Building Council Brasil has its own zero energy program, under which the Petinelli office building had also certified. GBC Brasil uses site energy as a metric, while LEED Zero uses source energy, so the only challenge was determining the source-to-site energy ratio for Brazil.

As an engineering firm, though, Petinelli had that information available. Plus, the project had been energy positive for over a year and was able to easily assemble the data required to achieve LEED Zero Energy certification.

“Performance is easy to measure, and even easier to certify,” says Petinelli.

Petinelli’s next goal is to pursue certification for net zero water, since the office has been off the grid on water use for almost two years. Brazil offers plenty of sun for Petinelli’s solar array, but it also rains 200 days out of the year in Curitiba. The firm used lessons learned from designing a Coca-Cola plant to create a system for harvesting and treating rainwater for potable water at its own headquarters.

Measured performance changes the conversation, says Petinelli. He feels that green builders now have an impressive new way to communicate to clients a quantified value proposition. “You can’t argue with data,” he says. “LEED Zero brings meaning to that data.”

Driving a greener future with a bolder goal

In Petinelli’s experience, clients get excited about concepts like net zero because it is a simpler way of thinking about performance that also provides a bold, ambitious goal.

“LEED is most effective when it is aspirational,” says Petinelli. “It is human nature to want to do better, and recognition is a powerful motivator. I find it easier to convince clients to go for Platinum, and now LEED Zero, than just to certify.”

First LEED Zero Energy certification in the U.S.:Entegrity headquarters, Little Rock, Arkansas

Entegrity, a firm specializing in sustainability consulting, commissioning, energy services, building testing and turnkey energy retrofits, achieved Platinum status under LEED for Building Design and Construction for its Little Rock headquarters in February 2019. It wasn’t long before LEED Zero recognition followed, making the office the first LEED Zero Energy project to certify in the United States.

The right team of experts was already in place at Entegrity to make it happen: Chris Ladner, partner, LEED AP BD+C, LEED Fellow; April Ambrose, business development manager, LEED AP BD+C, LEED Fellow; and Meredith Hendricks, director of sustainability operations, LEED AP BD+C and Homes.
Hendricks recalls when the team heard USGBC’s launch announcement for LEED Zero. “Chris Ladner was at Greenbuild last year,” says Hendricks, “and he sent me a note about a new zero program through USGBC, and I immediately thought, ‘Oh my goodness, we should try this out on our headquarters building.’”

Zero energy was not a new concept for Entegrity—the firm was also seeking International Living Future Institute recognition. Having verified performance recognition is important to the leaders at Entegrity, to enhance the firm’s credibility for clients.

“When you think of getting a certification, part of your thinking … is the marketability of that certification,” says Ladner. “LEED Zero is a very marketable certification that has third-party verification behind it.”

Experimenting before promoting results

Entegrity makes it a practice to test out sustainability technologies and tactics on its own buildings before recommending them to clients, and the company’s headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, has served as a case study in retrofitting a historic building to be as energy-efficient as possible.

Above: Entegrity specializes in sustainability consulting.

“Knowing what to do is helpful,” says Ladner, but “implementing it is the key, really … When you look at LEED Zero, it hinges on the base certification, so we knew what we needed to do. It’s just a matter of what approach you’re going to use, what credits are most germane. Once we knew that, the real challenge was the modeling, and trying to size our solar system to ensure that we met the Zero certification, but without significantly overproducing from our renewables.”

A single-story, 13,000-square-foot office building from 1958, the structure had quirks as well as historic significance. The midcentury modern charm that led Entegrity to seek historic register status also presented unique challenges. For example, says Ambrose, the metal front door, which repeats the design on exterior walls, could not be replaced once the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “When we get a significant rain event, it pushes water underneath that,” she acknowledges. Changing the entryway to include carpet tile helped solve the problem.

Ladner adds that lack of wall insulation and slow drainage from the flat roof needed work to manage. However, on the plus side, the daylighting already designed into the building provides an energy efficiency boon, as well as aesthetic appeal. “Nothing we’ve done is really earth-shattering from a systems standpoint,” says Ambrose. “We have very basic mechanical systems, our lighting is very efficient … There’s ways to do this that don’t have to be expensive.”

Showing that zero is possible for all buildings and climates

Zero energy isn’t an achievement limited to certain climates or locations, the team insists. The project achieved four out of four regional priority credits—for energy performance, renewables, thermal comfort and water use reduction.

Entegrity headquarters was the first LEED Zero building in the United States. Achieving LEED Zero had its challenges with a historic structure built in 1958.

“We do work a lot in the South, where historically, people have said net zero wasn’t possible,” says Ambrose. She believes that those in the building industry “really need to start to demonstrate the ability to do net zero in the Midwest, the mid-South, places that experience a much wider range of temperatures and humidity.”

Occupant comfort is a high priority for Entegrity, and small, individualized controls help staff adjust temperatures to fit their needs. “We have a variety of small, pre-approved energy devices that help every person adjust their space,” says Ambrose. These include small electric heaters, fans, heated floor mats and mouse pads, ergonomic workstations and individual lighting options.

Understanding that operations is everything

Ladner has realized that “making sure that we’re running the building the way we intended it to run to meet our net zero usage requirements” is a continual high bar to meet. “If you look over a year, solar produces pretty much what the models say it will produce. So, the only challenge is operating your building such that it uses less than you modeled it to.”

Transitioning the emphasis of the building industry away from initial design and first-year occupancy data into an ongoing assessment is “a big switch for a lot of design teams,” says Ladner. “[It means] moving into more of a performance-based situation … It really emphasizes the need for a strong transition and a well-educated, knowledgeable operations and maintenance team.”

Meredith Hendricks is Entegrity’s director of sustainability operations.

Making it normal, but investing the time

Entegrity’s experiment has been successful, and now Ladner wants to help spread adoption of zero and lower the risk for clients of making the effort. “We have some clients that are very interested in understanding the financial schedule impacts of doing net zero,” he says. We are working on … a turnkey design-build package that would guarantee net zero for a client.”

Ladner advises others interested in getting to zero, “Don’t be scared of it. If someone tells you it’s going to cost a lot, question them. Invest in operations, invest in monitoring, measure your performance, track your performance, and if it’s not performing, figure out why. If we just had that, our energy use nationally would probably go down 20%,” he says.

“It’s really opened our eyes to the importance of operations,” Ladner says. “These projects that we’re dealing with have a team of people, engineers, contractors, architects, consultants, that are there to help design and build it, but when the building’s completed, they all kind of disappear, and at that point … really it’s the operations, making sure it’s functioning as best it can. That’s where we’re emphasizing our time on our building, and where we’re emphasizing our time with our new clients.”

Above: Discovery Elementary School is designed to use every possible space for student learning. Its wide variety of collaborative, comfortable and customizable learning environments facilitates personalized learning and innovative teaching practices and lesson designs.

First LEED Zero Energy school: Discovery Elementary, Arlington, Virginia

Learning can be most effective when it’s hands-on, and Arlington Public Schools’ Discovery Elementary School makes reaching sustainability goals a colorful and immediate educational experience for its PreK–5 students.

Earning LEED Gold certification under LEED for Building Design and Construction: Schools in 2018 and LEED Zero Energy certification in 2019, the school was completed under budget and saves about $117,000 annually in utility costs, compared to a school of the same size in its district. In addition, since 2017, Discovery has actually been net positive, sending a surplus of 100,000 kWh back to the grid per year, which Arlington Public Schools can then credit to power consumed at other schools.

Built to address rapidly growing student enrollment, the school was designed to meet a larger goal—to prove what can truly be achieved with a new public school facility, says Wyck Knox of VMDO Architects, who designed the school. The project was under scrutiny, as the first new building in a capital improvement program adding over 500,000 square feet of new school construction to a rapidly growing county.

Wyck Knox is the lead architect at VMDO Architects.

Teaching by doing with green data

Green features like the building energy dashboard and rooftop solar lab, with which kids can interact, allow them to be part of data-gathering and experimentation with green strategies on a daily basis.

The Discovery project earned full points within the LEED Innovation credit category and includes the School as a Teaching Tool credit, which helps project teams integrate sustainability features of a school into the educational mission.

“I think the biggest thing is the dashboard,” says John C. Chadwick, assistant superintendent, Facilities and Operations for Arlington Public Schools. “As someone whose job it is to build and operate schools, what goes on inside the school is the most important aspect. The kids can see it’s right there, they can ask questions like, ‘Why did we generate more energy today than we did yesterday?’ It’s very authentic.”

Data from the rooftop solar lab is continually fed into the energy dashboard, allowing students to conduct experiments with real-time building updates and to engage in ways that make creating a greener future a more concrete reality for them.

“With the right administration of the school and the right approach from the teachers, you’re creating environmentalists,” asserts Chadwick.

Verifying achievements through third-party oversight

VMDO Architects suggested aiming for zero energy early in the school planning stages. “Achieving zero energy wasn’t ever something that seemed unattainable to us,” says Knox, who was also the lead architect on VMDO’s work for Arlington Public Schools.

“We had already produced elementary schools with energy use intensities (EUIs) in the low 30s, and Discovery’s goal was to get the EUI down to 23 or less,” says Knox. “With the right team, we knew we could replicate best practices that had achieved that kind of energy consumption elsewhere. By keeping the focus on designing a great envelope and making sure we had enough roof space for PVs, we were able to get there.”

After the successful LEED Zero certification of Discovery, Arlington Public Schools is also targeting LEED Zero certification for Alice Fleet West Elementary School, which opened in fall 2019, and for the new elementary school at the Reed site, scheduled to open in 2021.

Chadwick is committed to pursuing zero energy for future schools and verifying the results. “We think it’s important to actually have the certification, to show that you’ve really done it, and that it’s done by a third party. Then, we need to keep doing it,” he adds.

“I think the third party certification is key,” agrees Joan Kelsch, LEED AP BD+C, Green Building Program Manager for Arlington County. Kelsch is also involved with the DMV Net Zero Energy Coalition in the D.C. area (see sidebar) and appreciates the way zero energy is catching on.
“Discovery, Fleet, Reed—it’s all just becoming the norm, which is great,” says Kelsch.

Discovery Elementary is the first LEED Zero Energy school and is now net positive. It sends a surplus of 100,000 KW back to the grid per year.

Making choices for the community interest

Chadwick cautions that zero energy status, while an important tactic in green building, is not the ultimate goal. He believes it is unrealistic to mandate net zero for all buildings when relying on solar arrays, because of the potential complications of building heights with neighboring structures in urban areas.

In his experience, “We need to have other strategies for achieving zero other than putting on solar panels,” advises Chadwick. “People need to be realistic about the type of building and the location where you actually can achieve it.”

Kelsch shares the example of the Long Bridge swim facility being constructed in Arlington. “We’re building a new swimming facility that will use a lot of energy, and you’re never going to get to zero by generating energy on site … there’s not enough roof. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on making the facility as energy-efficient as possible,” she says.

Kelsch and Chadwick emphasize the importance of a building’s intended use when deciding how to achieve zero energy.

“We have to be sure that when we’re doing zero energy, we’re not limiting in any way the use of the building for the purpose for which it’s intended [such as having a high window-to-wall ratio],” says Chadwick. To him, having good daylighting and making schools bright and inviting for the community is an essential component.

County government can model good design and construction practices for energy and stormwater, says Kelsch. This makes a building better for the community as a whole, because it has a smaller environmental footprint.
“It’s a different approach to living in a community than just ‘me first,’” says Chadwick. “What’s best for everybody around here?”

Inspiring people through an experience of zero

One way to advance net zero, says Kelsch, is through making it more visible and allowing more people to experience it.

“I think making zero energy buildings normal is really important,” says Kelsch. “Here you have a school that people can go into [where] they’re not hot, they’re not cold, the learning environment is great … Just being in the building, you notice there’s something different about it, and that it’s cool and fun. You can walk by the dashboard at any time and see how much energy is being used.”

“I think we need good proofs of concept of zero energy buildings,” she continues, “really good examples to make it real for others who may be kind of skeptical about it.”

Arlington County has committed to going carbon-neutral by 2050. “Arlington is growing, with lots of new development,” explains Kelsch. “Demonstrating that building energy-efficient buildings and achieving zero energy is really important for us … It just makes it a reality, instead of some pie-in-the-sky thing that you hear about happening elsewhere.”

Making our communities more sustainable is possible to achieve, she says. “Every building should be built to be as energy-efficient as possible, in any case; that should just be the way it is,” says Kelsch.

Takeaways from the first LEED Zero Energy projects

The first three LEED Zero Energy certifications all had different needs and challenges, with different top takeaways. The team leaders offered these tips for those seeking to certify to zero:

1. Leverage the motivating factor of a high goal.

Whether you’re promoting zero energy to a client or advocating for it at your local level, setting a high bar can inspire.

LEED is most effective when it is aspirational. It is human nature to want to do better, and recognition is a powerful motivator.
-Guido Petinelli

2. Put your money and your faith in operations

With net zero, it’s even more important to focus on continued performance.

Invest in operations, invest in monitoring, measure your performance, track your performance, and if it’s not performing, figure out why.
-Chris Ladner

3. Begin the process with all major stakeholders.

Include as many project participants as possible early in the planning stages.

Make sure that you have the goal from the outset, before you even hire your architect, engineer and contractor. Make sure that you hire a team that is not just experienced, but also committed.
-John Chadwick

DMV Net Zero Energy Coalition formed in the Capital region

By Joan Kelsch

In February 2019, encouraged by the reality of net zero energy facilities like Discovery Elementary, a small group of local government staff from the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region organized a regional net zero energy coalition with the mission to drive the National Capital Region toward zero carbon communities.

The grassroots coalition is entirely volunteer-based and works to support members in making sincere and incremental progress toward the region’s net zero carbon goal. Since its inception, the original group has grown to include nearly 300 members with broad professional experience from across the region.

The coalition envisions a National Capital Region made up of thriving, resilient and equitable communities working hand in hand to reduce atmospheric carbon to achieve sustainability for future generations. The coalition has held a couple of meetings in the past year, with inspirational speakers and tours of local zero energy buildings serving as educational opportunities. Small committee groups have set up a website, a professional directory and a resource page. The group emphasizes sharing experiences so that members learn together and move the region toward carbon neutrality.

Interested in starting a net zero coalition to drive change in your own community? Gather like-minded professionals in your community. Contact your local sustainability office, representative or local USGBC community for ideas on how to join the net zero movement.

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