Smart Building – Perfectly Separating Inside And Out

An Introduction

Earthships and Passivhauses

Net Zero Building


Building Codes

Potential and Pitfalls

An Introduction

I live in downtown Toronto – a country kid in an urban landscape. In the spirit of embracing city life, I moved into a condo. The place was hip, with a great view and besides, what could be more energy-friendly? Shared walls, each unit surrounded on five sides by other units – surely it would take less energy to heat and cool than a house.

It was not to be. When I first walked into the hallway, my hair was literally blown back. A local bylaw dictates that a certain amount of air move through shared spaces, and the hallway was nothing but a warm-air tunnel: In winter, cold air got sucked in, heated up and blown out again. In summer, warm air got cooled by an air conditioner and blown out. There wasn’t even a decent heat-exchanger to save that energy. My share of the energy bills was more than what I’d paid at my drafty old house. That’s a dumb building.

So, what’s a smart building? Is it a place with lots of high-tech lighting that turns on when you enter a room, has silent air conditioning and automatic doors? Maybe it has a refrigerator that knows when you’re out of butter and walls incorporating digital art that changes with the mood. Sure, that’d be great, but those are toys. A smart building is designed to do one thing really well: Keep the outside out and the inside in.

We’ve already covered solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling systems, and in the last few sections, we’ll look at low energy LED and compact fluorescent lighting, and electrical systems that are hooked up to the Energy Internet. But these are systems within the building. The building itself is an envelope, keeping the elements one step away and the environment inside to your taste. How well it does that tells us how smart it is. My condo building was dumb, its envelope torn open to make the halls breezy.

A smart building can act like a thermos, locking heat in (or out). It can interact with the sun and Earth to take advantage of the energy on offer. It amplifies and stores heat in winter or diminishes it in summer. A smart building integrates with the environment around it, in a way that makes it a lovely place to live. It is not a warm-air tunnel.

Buildings suck up more than half the energy used in major urban centers, and 40% overall. How we build new structures – and change the face of ones that already exist – will be a key battle in the fight to kick our fossil fuel habit.

Most of the ideas that follow aren’t new – they just haven’t been widely adopted yet. There are buildings dug into the Earth and open to the sun. Some are built like a thermos. The very best need no heating or cooling at all. And Net Zero buildings go one step further, generating as much energy as they consume. There’s even a way to “re-skin” existing structures, letting us re-imagine entire cityscapes.

Earthships and Passivhauses

A community in Taos, New Mexico, is sculpted from some very beautiful and unusual buildings. These “Earthships” look like a cross between the creations of Spanish architect Gaudi and something a Hobbit might occupy. The force behind the Earthship project is Michael Reynolds. His mission? To build the most energy-self-sufficient buildings in the world – and to persuade people all over the planet to do the same.

Each Earthship is as unique as its owner, but they’re all constructed from recycled materials – old tires, bales of straw, recycled glass. To get around the need for active heating and cooling systems, Earthships are dug into the ground on one side, with lots of windows on the other. The ground moderates temperature, and dense material like rock or cement store the heat of the sun, making the structures comfortable through long winter nights – no high-tech insulation required. Of course, they’re not for everybody – Earthships are as much a reflection of the community members’ need to live outside conventional suburban norms as they are a bold comment on how we might better integrate with our environment. Earthships go where no building has gone before.

The “Passivhaus,” a new kind of home that appeared in Germany in 1990, is like an Earthship for the rest of us. Like Mr. Reynolds’s creations, the Passivhaus requires no active heating or cooling.1 Instead, it relies on the sun and heat from the bodies of the people living there. Think of it as a giant thermos – but one disguised as a regular looking house. The only way to know it’s a Passivhaus is to take a look at the energy bill.

How does it work? Triple-glazed windows face the equator, capturing solar heat. The windows are small enough not to leak heat at night, yet big enough to capture as much as possible during the day. The sunlight streaming through the glass hits a material with lots of so-called thermal mass – say, concrete – which stores heat during the day and releases it at night. The building breathes through a heat-exchanger, which can capture 80% of the heat before it vents.

Even through Germany’s cold winter months, the homes stay comfortably room temperature. Here’s the best part: They only cost 10% more to build than a regular house and you recoup that in no time, thanks to all the money you save on energy bills.

A German institute dedicated to promoting the Passivhaus cause – and certifying buildings that meet the standard – was formed in 1996, and similar institutions are popping up around the world. Now, even office buildings and schools are being built on the same principle. No heating and cooling – does it get any better than that?

Even if you don’t reach the Passivhaus standard, you can get pretty close. The husband-and-wife team behind tiny Solares, in Toronto, Canada, has put up some pretty smart homes. They use heating, but not much. A Solares house stayed a comfortable 64 F (18 C) during a -13 F (-25 C) cold snap – and that was before they installed the heating unit. And air-conditioning? Forget about it. “We’ve never built a structure that needed air conditioning. In my view, a building that needs it is badly designed,” says Solares cofounder Christine Lolley.

It’s not hard. Why don’t we do it all the time? A mix of momentum, education and lax building codes. These buildings cost a tiny bit more to build, and they take more time to design. Unless customers demand it, why would a developer bother? That’s how we ended up with the typical North American suburb – thousands of square miles of ill-designed, cheaply built structures.

Net Zero Building

Once you’ve got a smart envelope, you’re just a few short steps away from becoming a “Net Zero building” generating the same amount of energy as you consume (and sometimes even more), by putting solar panels on the roof, building a wind turbine or two, even constructing a neighbourhood biomass plant using tree waste from a local forest. The Earthships are probably the original Net Zero homes – but you don’t have to be off the grid to be Net Zero. In fact, it’s actually easier if you’re plugged in – that way, you can give back any extra energy that you produce.

The idea is gaining traction in cities and towns worldwide. Z-Home, a small community in Issaquah, Washington, will use photovoltaic solar panels to power the lights, appliances and geo-exchange heating units. That, along with a program of conserving energy, will mean the community breaks even on power use. In the London borough of Sutton, the UK’s first Net Zero community, BedZed will use a biomass electrical plant to bring its net energy use to nil. Even frigid Canada will soon see 12 Net Zero buildings, supported by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

To really catch on, though, Net Zero buildings need a government push. The UK is leading the way: The government has announced that, as of 2016, all new homes built will be Net Zero. The US Department of Energy is putting some serious money behind a similar effort for the US. Once the Energy Internet (see Energy Internet page) comes online, and people get paid cold, hard cash to produce power, we’ll go past Net Zero. Our homes will become a net source of power.


Getting smart is easy when there’s lots of space, and sunshine pours in through the windows. But what about all the existing condos and apartments the rest of us live in? We’re not ready to tear them down and build a billion Earthships in the desert. What do we do?

How about building a brand new envelope around the entire building? It’s been done, and it works. The benefits are twofold: The building gets an aesthetic facelift, and a modern and efficient envelope that brings it closer to that Passivhaus ideal. The new skin is usually a layer of glass on a metal framework. It can even incorporate modern solar PV cells, like on the Co-operative Insurance Co.’s 25-story headquarters in Manchester, UK. Even better, install geo-exchange at the same time, and hide the pipes like veins under the new skin.

A developer can be motivated by the facelift alone. A 12-level building on the infamous K Street in Washington, DC, was a drab and sorry-looking affair when a private equity firm bought it in 2005. Architects Skidmore Owings & Merrill suggested re-skinning the building, and it’s now a beautiful, modern, floor-to-ceiling glass structure. The top two floors rent for 40% more than they did before the renovation. Smart, and fast: Re-skinning an office tower can take only a day or two once the exterior structure is up. Gensler, an architectural firm in Indiana, is working to build the entire prefab exterior shell in a day, so eventually, you’ll be able to re-skin a living, working building.

Re-skinning holds enough promise that Toronto-based Zerofootprint is offering a $1-million prize to the company that comes up with the best way to do it. That’s the largest architectural prize in the world, and for good reason. Buildings in urban areas are responsible for more than half our energy use; in New York City it’s almost 80%. Re-skinning what we’ve got could cut that in half.

Building Codes

Subsection 5.c, with reference to bylaw 41, indicating a thermal conversion requirement of…Regulation 32.1 dictates an extension of capacity … Zzzzz, snore! Nothing puts me to sleep faster than reading bylaws and building codes. But they’re the bedrock on which developers build. Meet them, they must; exceed them, they rarely do. Change them, and you change the world.

How do you motivate condo developers to install more expensive heat-exchangers, geoexchange heating and cooling, and triple-glazed windows? The problem is that developers don’t pay the energy costs on a building – tenants do. Why invest upfront for down-the-road savings if you’re not the one doing the saving? It makes no sense from a business perspective, where only the bottom line matters. From a carbon-reduction standpoint, however, it’s a frustrating failure of the free market.

Here’s a bold idea: Change the building codes. If the codes were to demand geo-exchange, developers would have no choice but to comply. Same goes for efficient heat-exchangers, better insulated windows and even solar thermal. Imagine if the Passivhaus became the standard model for new suburban development, or if re-skinning apartment blocks were mandatory. No developer would have an advantage over the others, because it’d be a level playing field. As for homeowners, the extra costs would be buried in their mortgage payments, and monthly costs would actually go down, thanks to energy savings. It’s a no-brainer.

Buildings codes aren’t technology. But they drive technology – and they can sometimes get in the way.

Potential and Pitfalls

We could easily cut our buildings’ energy use in half. Since buildings consume around 40% of our power, that means smart buildings could lower our total energy use by one-fifth.

There are pitfalls, however. The vast majority of the buildings we’ll be occupying in 20 years have already been built. So, retrofitting and re-skinning will be the backbone of this effort. Retrofits can be inconvenient; re-skinning, not so much.

Still, developers are slapping up new office towers, condo blocks and subdivisions all the time, from Chicago to Beijing. And chances are good that most of those buildings are dumb. New building codes would encourage those developers to smarten up. But changing codes is tortuous. Because they’re normally regional in scope, each jurisdiction must be cajoled, inspired – or forced – to evolve. After all, people like to do what they know, and engineers, developers and bureaucrats are no exception.

But smart buildings are worth more, and they cost less to operate. So here’s another idea: Make re-skinning the law and, at the same time, give developers and building owners access to lots of low-cost money, via massive bonds or through pension funds. The energy savings, along with higher rents, will pay back the bonds. It’s already happening. The Clinton Climate Initiative is putting $5 billion toward building retrofits.