The Importance of Net Zero Design

Over the last twenty or so years, it has become increasingly evident that the planet will not be able to survive the abuse that humans inflict upon it through everyday life. Between the rapid depletion of non-renewable resources, water and air pollution, and the ever growing climate change problem, humans are killing the only known habitable planet. However, advances in scientific research and new technologies have provided ways to combat and control human impact on the environment. 

Creating sustainable housing is one of the best ways that humans can prevent depletion of resources, reduce water use and pollution, reduce air pollution, and help create renewable energy. The net zero home design is leading the way for sustainable energy use and production while also promoting better indoor air quality and the use of sustainable materials to hopefully create a new sustainable building standard, but the adoption of this practice is hindered by the lack of understanding of the importance of net zero home design. 

The built environment and the natural environment are interdisciplinary with one another; residential and commercial structures cannot function without the use of the planet's natural resources. However, there are resources that engineers, architects, and designers can take advantage of that are renewable and sustainable. Renewable energy is defined as "energy from an energy resource that is replaced rapidly by a natural process such as power generated from the sun or from the wind” (“Renewable Energy”). Other sources of renewable energy are flowing water, geothermal heat flows, and biological processes. 
Fossil fuels are another renewable energy source, however they are not rapidly renewable and lead to water and air pollution. There are several negative effects that occur when fossil fuels, such as coal, are burned for energy. "When fossil fuels are burned, they release nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, which contribute to the formation of smog and acid rain" ("The Sources and Solutions: Fossil Fuels."). Coal fired power plants are one of the biggest known contributors to air and water pollution. 

If more houses switch to self-sufficient energy use and production, the need for coal fired power plants would decrease significantly and promote clean air and water rather than the pollution of today's environment. Net zero designed homes will "produce at least as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year” (“Net-Zero Energy Test House Exceeds Goal; Ends Year with Energy to Spare,” Crawley). Net zero homes are powered by solar panels and dye solar cells, drastically reducing their carbon footprint and helping to reduce residential homes' contribution to the pollution of the earth.

By producing their own energy, net zero homes save the residents thousands of dollars each month and can help them to earn money — homeowners can sell excess energy back to power companies. Joshua Kneifel, an economist for the National Institute of Standards and technology said the following about the institutes' test home in the Washington, D.C. suburban area: "In terms of cost, the NZERTF's virtual residents saved $4,373 in electricity payments, or $364 a month. However, front-end costs for solar panels, added insulation, triple-paned windows, and other technologies and upgrades aimed at achieving net-zero energy performance are sizable” (“Net-Zero Energy Test House Exceeds Goal; Ends Year with Energy to Spare.”). 

The front end cost of constructing net zero homes is more expensive than the construction cost of a typical residence, but the long term benefits for the home owner and the environment make it worth the cost. Sustainable is defined as "the study of how natural systems function, remain diverse and produce everything it needs for the ecology to remain in balance. It also acknowledges that human civilisation takes resources to sustain our modern way of life” (“Learn About Sustainability,” Krygiel). The technology to create sustainable net zero homes exists, and there are a great deal of interior finishes that are being selected for homes that are sustainable as well. Many of these finishes help to reduce indoor air pollution, which leads to a better quality of life for residents. Sustainable materials can be used in all aspects of the interior of a home, including fabrics, window treatments, surface materials, flooring, walls, and ceilings. 
Examples of fabric materials that are sustainable are, organic cotton and linen, bamboo fibers, hemp, soy fibers, wool, cashmere, leather, and silk. Window treatments are green design in and of themselves because they help control heat gained and lost through windows. They can also be made of sustainable materials like natural grass, bamboo, fabric, and composites made with hundred percent recyclable and renewable materials. Surface materials that are sustainable help to drastically reduce indoor air pollution. Flooring materials that can be used are wood — including FSC wood and reclaimed wood — and the following fast growing and renewable materials: cork, bamboo, linoleum, recycled rubber, natural stone, tile or terrazzo — made from pre-or post-consumer recycled content —, and concrete. 

Carpets can be made from wool, organic cotton, bamboo, hemp, and jute; their underlay can be made from recycled content. Non-VOC paints, including water based and clay paints, are sustainable, as are tiles made of recycled glass, ceramic, and tile. Earth-based plasters are the healthiest wall finishes as natural clay plaster allows walls to absorb and release moisture as needed. Papers papers made from rapidly renewable sources like cork, grasses and other plant fibres and must be used with an environmentally friendly glue or paste can serve as a better alternative to traditional wallpaper. Faux stone, created with recycled water and and raw materials made with pre- and post consumer waste, can be used in place of real stone. Wall panels can be made from eco-friendly materials as well (Hayles, Jones). 

All of these materials are sustainable, and they also help make manufacturing companies better environmental stewards. These sustainable materials are implemented in net zero home designs to help reduce off gassing, which often leads to sick building syndrome. Indoor air quality is incredibly important to the human body; good indoor air quality contributes to a healthier life, work productivity, and an overall better quality of life. However, many homes have poor indoor air quality due to many different factors. There are several sources of indoor air pollution that often come from materials used in the interiors of home and from improper ventilation and insulation. Some of the pollutants that can be found in the air of homes are "pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), allergens, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include consumer products, the dust present in carpets and furniture, household pets, or pollutants entering the house from outside air” (Loftness). There are plenty of alternative materials that can be used in homes that do not contain any of those harmful chemicals and that are sustainable. 

Many of those chemicals, such as VOCs, can be found in typical surface materials, offing gas over time and polluting the air (Hayles). There are several ways to improve indoor air quality, however some of them depend on the quality of the surrounding outdoor air: “improve the quality and quantity of outside air, maximize natural ventilation with mixed-mode heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, and separate ventilation air from thermal conditioning” (Loftness). Improving individual spaces indoor air quality is a simpler task than improving the overall outdoor air quality due to the amount of people in the world still ignorant to the effects that humans have on the natural environment. 

Net zero design not only involves using technology to create a renewable energy source, it involves using sustainable materials and practices to promote and protect the natural environment and human health. Net zero design is not only about incorporating the newest technologies to produce renewable energy, but it involves the delicate balance of intertwining architecture, interior design, environmental sciences, conservation and sustainability, and human health. The built environment and the natural environment constantly affect one another, both positively and negatively. They are interdisciplinary in nature and it is up to humans to find a way for them to coexist, as humans cannot survive without one or the other. There are ways for the built environment to leave a smaller footprint on the natural environment and there are ways for the natural environment to greatly benefit the built environment. People are hesitant to embrace the power of the natural environment due to initial cost and fear of their current lifestyle changing, but net zero and sustainable design strive to protect the earth while allowing humans to continue to live in the comfort that they are used to and increase their quality of life. 

Works Cited

  1.  Crawley, Drury, et al. “Getting to Net Zero.” ASHRAE Journal, Sept. 2009.
  2.  Hayles, Carolyn S. “Environmentally Sustainable Interior Design: A Snapshot of Current Supply of and Demand for Green, Sustainable or Fair Trade Products for Interior Design Practice.” International Journal of Sustainable Built Environment, Elsevier, 3 Apr. 2015 
  3.  Jones, Louise. Environmentally Responsible Design: Green and Sustainable Design for Interior Designers. Wiley, 2008. 
  4.  Krygiel, Eddy, and Brad Nies. Green BIM: Successful Sustainable Design with Building Information Modeling. Wiley, 2008. 
  5.  “Learn About Sustainability.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 18 Oct. 2016
  6.  Loftness, Vivian, et al. “Elements That Contribute to Healthy Building Design." Environmental Health Perspectives, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, June 2007
  7.  "Net-Zero Energy Test House Exceeds Goal; Ends Year with Energy to Spare.” ScienceDaily, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), 1 July 2014
  8.  “Renewable Energy.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, March 2012 “The Sources and Solutions: Fossil Fuels.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 10 Mar. 2017