Packard Foundation Achieves Goal of Operating Its Headquarters at Net Zero Energy

Its official – The David and Lucile Packard Foundation Headquarters is the largest certified net zero energy building in the world. Once the clinking of the celebratory champagne glasses settles down, let’s consider what this accomplishment really means.

Let’s start with “net zero energy.”

EHDD’s goal was to design, build and operate a building that uses no more energy than could be produced on site over the course of a year. The metric by which we measured this target was “energy use intensity” (EUI) in kBTU/sf. Between July 2012 and July 2013 the building used 22 kBTU/sf – which is 58% less than a similarly situated, code-compliant building and 76% better than what a typical American office building uses per square foot. In that same time period, the roof-mounted PV system produced the equivalent of 26 kBTU/sf, so we actually came out net positive which allowed the Foundation to charge electric vehicles owned by their staff with carbon-neutral electricity.
The numbers alone are impressive, but perhaps most impressive is that we actually have the numbers at all. In 2013, it is still a small miracle when we retrieve trustworthy measured data on how our buildings are performing. The most powerful result of the quest to reach net zero may be how it shifts our focus towards real, measurable results and away from promises and abstractions.

What does it mean to be a “certified” net zero energy building?

The Packard Foundation earned its certification through the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) who is the sponsor of the Living Building Challenge program and the only certifying body for net zero energy buildings. Only a handful of buildings have been certified to-date, including EHDD’s IDEAS Z2 Design Facility. Their process required verification through review of metered data, as well as a host of supporting documentation demonstrating that the project is: a good neighbor (doesn’t block access to sun), location efficient (counteracts urban sprawl), inspiring and beautiful. Having a program that provides building owners with third-party verification of their accomplishment is an important milestone for net zero energy buildings. The ILFI is currently seeking out other building owners who may have certifiable projects to add to the list. In fact, the New Buildings Institute will release their 2013 survey of NZE buildings at the U.S. Green Building Council’s Annual Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in November in Philadelphia. I’ve seen a preview and it includes the Packard Foundation headquarters, but more importantly, they list more than 100 others that are “emerging” – meaning not yet operational or not yet verified including EHDD’s Exploratorium at Pier 15. These efforts illustrate the important and growing movement towards performance verification.

In this case, “largest” is not just a matter of bragging rights.

Zero energy buildings need to scale up – and fast – in order for us to achieve the economy-wide carbon reductions necessary over the next two decades and avoid the worst climate change scenarios. Both the State of California (through Assembly Bill 32 and the California Public Utilities Commission’s Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan) and the Federal government (through Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007) have heeded Edward Mazria’s 2030 Challenge and enacted legislation that requires all new commercial buildings to reach net zero energy by the year 2030. Therefore, the challenge before us is not just to design net zero buildings over the next two decades, but to figure out how to transform a building industry so that all buildings are built net zero by then.

For more information review the International Living Future Institute’s case study, the Packard-commissioned report “Sustainability in Practice: Building and Running 343 Second Street” or attend my presentation “Year One: The True Story of a Net Zero Energy Building” at Greenbuild 2013.

Brad Jacobson, AIA LEED® AP BD+C
Senior Associate