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Planning for 100: Looking beyond the horizon of zero-net-energy buildings

March 29, 2018

By Travis Sage

Imagine a future where buildings and infrastructure are 100 percent utilized and 100 percent responsive

Thanks to the emergence of the U.S. Green Building Council, founded in 1993, we’ve witnessed an incredibly fast transformation of building design and construction—probably the most rapid market transformation since the industrial revolution. Sweeping innovations in materials science, systems efficiencies, and technology have fueled the changes. Designers and builders have adapted their processes and delivery models—but the goal post has consistently and rapidly moved further downfield.

The most prescient end zone in the marketplace lexicon is the “zero-net-energy” building. A natural evolution of closing the “efficiency gap,” it takes the end game to its natural destination: a building that produces as much energy annually as it consumes.

A new learning stair at the renovated University of Northern Iowa Schindler Education Center is heavily used by students and faculty as stop-and-study space, as well as an interior connection from one side of campus to the other.

However, just as quickly as this goal post emerged in the lexicon, it was viewed as woefully insufficient—which isn’t necessarily out of the norm in the sustainability movement. Net-positive, Living Buildings, and Well Buildings have already stepped in to argue that zero-net is simply not enough. Keeping up? Good.

While these new benchmarks nobly look to flip the efficiency gap on its head, pushing building performance past the apex of zero-net and into areas of building health, human wellbeing, and regeneration, they miss the fundamental convergence of where our cultural, technological, and sociological arcs are trending: which is toward a future where buildings and infrastructure are, and must be, 100 percent utilized and 100 percent responsive.

The goal post that doesn’t move

The most sustainable square foot you can build is the square foot that is never built.

It is well documented, if not grossly obvious, that buildings and infrastructure in the United States continue to be the most underutilized and capitally-intensive investments of industrialized society. We invest billions of dollars annually to develop highly specialized spaces that are ever more attuned to the envisioned uses of its patrons. Such is the assumed necessity of an industrialized culture, which stresses the economic value of specialization and a social identity defined by individual property and territorial possession.

When we look across our building stock, we consistently see homes and offices that sit vacant for 9 to 12 hours each day. Stores occupy massive retail footprints while struggling against the tide of online retailers. Universities and schools that see 15- to 20-percent total building utilization rates as the norm—each with a parking lot, deck, or subterranean structure planned for vehicular traffic based on a maximum occupancy load, which may be seen 5 to 10 days each year at best. In the end, it’s this “utilization gap” that is the figurative “gold mine” for resource preservation and protection.

Only when we are playing the zero-sum game can we begin to discover true sustainability within our built environment.

We have been experiencing the pressure of underutilization for decades now.

That underutilization is evidenced by the emergence of the telecommuter, a renewed appreciation for mass transit, and the transition of traditional brick-and-mortar functions to online equivalents. Our social and economic response to the underutilization pressure, however, has been to build specialized building stock. We have customized our build environment into an unsuitable reality that’s now forcing a change in social norms, technological disruptions, and a generational appeal to lifestyle over status. These changes have resulted from or caused us to look differently upon our buildings and infrastructure, demanding more from them while demanding less of them.

The end-game of these social, technological, and lifestyle changes is inevitably a future of 100 percent utilization of buildings and infrastructure.

It’s a world where multifamily housing forces the highly specialized uses of kitchens, laundry, and living spaces into the common domain, shared among tenants. This is a world where the residence hall, student union, and library take over university life, eschewing conventional classroom buildings and faculty offices. It’s a world where learning experiences are scheduled dynamically across the campus by faculty who roam freely to engage with students in their social context.

This is a world where parking lots and decks are re-visioned as green space and micro-lofts as ride-sharing, mass transit, and autonomous mobility replace the personal automobile. This is a world where retail becomes distributed, transacted by point-of-use versus point-of-sale, and delivered on-demand by machine-learned, predictive algorithms. This is a world where augmented and virtual reality replace many of the highly specialized spatial experiences we seek from our buildings today.

As we push further and faster toward this world, we’ll discover the hidden gold mine that is found in the 100 percent utilization of our buildings and infrastructure. We will find the sustainability goal post that doesn’t move.

A side entry corridor of the new Biosciences Building at Central Michigan University seconds as a study space for students, made attractive by various biophilic elements, such as vast natural light and a living wall.

We are a clumpy people

Whether tribe, family, nation, or culture, we are a clumpy people. We mold ourselves to social constructs and shape our spaces through the functions of our groups.

The social aspect of humanity has always been with us. We define ourselves by our groups and our groups define themselves by their members. More importantly, we are a species that is constantly learning, aging, adapting, and migrating, and therefore our groups change organically. It is this constant change in our social groups that demands our spaces be responsive.

While some migrations are inevitably the result of ecological changes that are impact human life, most frequently migrations are the simple result of our disposable views of place and space for the consumeristic impulses of our social groupings.

We demand new space for a new group. A new house for a new family. A new building for a new department. A new temple for a new congregation.

It is not that our “old” spaces are not adaptable—it is that our old spaces are not “responsive.” That is the challenge. They cannot keep up with the human pace of “re-grouping,” and it’s too easy to create a new place.

In a world of 100 percent utilization, such impulses cannot be afforded. Our spaces must and will learn to become 100 percent responsive while our rulesets evolve to accommodate them.

Already we see the emergence of “unscheduled” spaces on university campuses. Spaces whose amenities are immensely diverse, accommodating meeting or office space at any time, for any amount of time, without regard for size or rank, seniority or activity. We see this further with the emergence of VRBO and Airbnb, redefining how we vacation or allowing us to spontaneously live in two to three locales throughout the year. We see this with office hoteling spaces, preparing for a telecommuting, intelligence-based workforce who co-work and incubate together on an as-needed basis and in a location conveniently and individually suitable.

Our spaces must and will become 100 percent responsive, meeting the needs of groups where needed and forcing us to trade in “a space of our own” for “a space we can own … for a time.”

Most libraries are filled with books, stacks, and static spaces. At Grand Valley State University, the library is completely flipped on its head—activity, noise and knowledge transfer are embraced. The students can tailor the space to accommodate their needs throughout the day and the semester, and it can accommodate all of the devices and resources used daily.

A future of 100

Certainly, we don’t discount the efforts and immense market transformation driven by the sustainability movement and its numerous organizations and proponents. But now we must look well beyond zero-net, net-positive, and regenerative views of architecture and the built environment to a future that acknowledges that the human condition, by default, dictates a necessity for consumption.

We are a fragile species that physically requires shelter and that socially discards its own constructs. We are necessarily un-satisfiable, a species that is both predatory and parasitic at once, preying upon our environment while we prey socially upon ourselves. This has never been more evident than it is today. Our global rates of consumption continue to escalate exponentially, even while we focus vast amounts of intellectual energy on consuming less.

We must trade the philosophy of consuming less for a philosophy of consuming completely. By focusing on a future of 100—where our buildings and infrastructure are created and sustained to be utilized 100 percent of the time by 100 percent of people—we stand to discover the zero-sum game that was envisioned by the net zero standard and its progressively “better” benchmarks. Only when we are playing the zero-sum game can we begin to discover true sustainability within our built environment.

Knowing the most sustainable square foot is the square foot that is never built, we are charged as architects to think smartly and futuristically about existing spaces. We must imagine various adaptive reuses, understand the various offers of emergent and disruptive technologies, and then package it in a way that presents a truly sustainable solution to clients with a specialized need of space.

  • Travis Sage

    Travis has collaborated on more than 100 LEED-certified projects (40 or more with Gold or Platinum certification), and he’s led several net zero energy projects and two Living Building Challenge Petal certifications.

    Contact Travis
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