Living Inside a Cooler – The Challenges of the Net-Zero Building Envelope

Lucas Hamilton

Can we live inside a cooler? We’re going to find out.

As we respond to the challenges of energy and resource depletion through the construction of super efficient and sustainable buildings we must remember why we are constructing buildings in the first place- it’s for people. The net-zero envelope is like a portable cooler – super tight, thermally efficient, and breathes no air.  The easiest was to create super efficient buildings is to just copy a portable cooler and then shove people inside. However, a building’s primary function is to provide a safe and healthy habitat for people. The success of any building technique or approach should be judged by this criterion first.

When struggling to find motivation for doing the right thing – good indoor environmental quality (IEQ) in this case – we have a strong incentive when it comes to our homes.  We love our families and want them to have the best environment we can provide.

In a commercial setting, since some of us don’t love our co-workers, we need to find a different motivation. A really smart guy I know (no name dropping here) explained to me that when a building occupant such as a large corporation considers where they are spending their operational costs, the break-out is 15/85. 15% goes to operation of the space; the rent, the light bill, the toner cartridges, etc. 85% goes to Human Resources (salaries, benefits, etc.). Perhaps it is here that we find good cause for doing right.

In this sort of space we can create a more financially based argument by focusing on the impact of good IEQ on worker productivity and related issues. We know that IEQ leads to better problem solving, increased productivity, lower absenteeism and lower health care expenses. I would also suggest that it leads to a greater sense of happiness and accomplishment.

Now let’s get the building envelope dialed in. We can do zero energy. We can do zero carbon. We’ve gone from negative to neutral. The challenge now is can we do this so that it has a positive effect on people?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

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