A Net-Zero Discussion with DSA Architects

Dan Smith and Dietmar Lorenz at DSA Architects believe that any house in California should be close to net-zero energy, especially new construction. They also have the know how to back up this goal. Dan and Dietmar are experts in net-zero design and construction with a savvy eye towards cost effectiveness. The golden rule is that an upfront premium needs to be justified by a net cost savings in the long run.

We got the chance to ask Dan and Dietmar a couple questions about their design strategy and the main considerations when aiming for net zero.

“Can you explain exactly what you mean by a net-zero building?”

We are referring to dollars spent in annual energy cost. A net-zero building will cost you $0 in annual energy by virtue of producing as much energy onsite as you use on a yearly basis. The power grid acts as a “battery” to balance seasonal supply & demand discrepancies.

“How do you do it?” 

First, always start with a site responsive, well insulated building – build it right. Second, install an appropriately sized, typically small, PV solar system. That’s it.

“What do you mean when you say “build it right”?”

It means finding the right balance between all building elements. Passive solar design considerations should always precede mechanical system talk. Ultra high performance products are often not needed. Sometimes completely eliminating or downsizing mechanical systems can deliver upfront savings. Both improved standard construction practices and new methods and materials help achieve the goal of reducing the operational energy consumption of the building. We’re always keeping an eye on the embodied energy (what it takes to build the house), indoor environmental quality, often referred to as ‘healthy building’, and finally – durability and longevity.

Above all else of course, it has to be really nice.  A good layout and design can go a long way toward lowering your carbon footprint. Building it right means making as good a building as possible through energy conscious design and quality construction.

“Is a PV solar system required for net zero?”

Even if you saved 80% of the energy compared to a typical house, you’d still have to generate the remaining 20% to be truly net zero. You can do that with a small PV solar system which is a little bit more upfront cost, however the monthly utility bill savings typically more than offset the initial investment over time. There are also PV lease models that don’t need an up-front investment at all. In the end even if you decide against installing a PV system, you still have a house that is 5x more efficient than usual – kudos!

“Do you have to build small to be net zero?”

A small house inherently has a smaller energy footprint in both embodied and operational energy. While economy of scale considerations typically work against small houses, compactness is probably the single most important asset in achieving net zero goals and some of the key ingredients in the mix, such as heat pumps, are perfectly geared towards that scale.

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Check out some of the pictures below for some of Dan & Dietmar’s favored approaches to net-zero design and construction and read more about their work at www.dsaarch.com.

Structured Insulated Panels (SIP’s) Construction

 

Strawbale Walls

Living Roof

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