Chapter 5: Wear Nice Glasses and Design Beautiful Spaces

Memoirs of an hourly emissions modeler: a six-part series by Karina Hershberg

In the previous posts, we’ve looked at the implications of the hourly emissions data multiverse and considered the most meaningful ways to use this data. In this post we’ll explore ideas for applying the concepts from time-varying grid emissions, without the deep dive modeling, to projects.

A key theme in our Greenbuild prep sessions was the beauty of Net Zero Energy (NZE) is its simplicity. Not easy to achieve, but generally easy to understand, calculate and measure.

It’s reasonable to hypothesize part of the success in NZE becoming a widely adopted concept was this simplicity. In response to a statement about really knowing your hourly data set, an architect wisely reminded me, “We’re just people who wear nice glasses; we need simple rules to live by.” It was a good reminder that the intent of regenerative building design isn’t to turn buildings into grid resources – it’s to create beautiful, healthy and environmentally restorative spaces…that also happen to support decarbonization of the energy sector.

As the industry reckons with the reality that we must move on from energy to emissions as our metric, it’s not yet clear how to find simplicity in hourly operating emissions.

Yet within the discussions of data sets and modeling procedures, it is critical we consider a simple path as well. Not all projects include detailed modeling and to achieve our building decarbonization targets, we must have all buildings meeting these goals. Additionally, the predictive models for the future grids are exactly that – predictive models. We don’t entirely know what the reality will be so the goal isn’t to create something rigid and precise but rather something flexible, dynamic and adaptive.

With this in mind, I offer a few ideas for consideration:

The first is New Buildings Institute’s GridOptimal program. For projects able to consider hourly emissions, the GridOptimal LEED credit is a structured way to go through the steps of using and interpreting an hourly emissions analysis. Even for projects not able to dive into that level of detail, the GridOptimal design guides provide a high-level summary of best practices based on region and building type. Projects won’t get the customized knowledge from full modeling, but they at least have a fighting chance of taking steps in the right direction.

Able to Shape Load
The second is an idea Z Smith developed during our Greenbuild discussion. It’s a guideline for projects with energy models, but not in-depth hourly emissions analysis, to inform their designs so the end result is a building that has the right levers to be grid-adaptive.

Although still a draft concept, I appreciate the idea of this approach because it provides projects with a framework to consider their building’s energy profile, not just in terms of total values, but in how flexible it could be.

Available Renewables
The last idea I’ll put forward was suggested by Pieter Gagnon from NREL’s Cambium team. He made the comment that to support grid decarbonization, buildings need to get better at using energy when renewables are available, particularly when they are abundant.

In other words, the grids will build the resources we ask them to provide - if we can ask when renewables are available, it can provide more of those resources.

Repairing Our Relationship with Energy
Timing usage with renewables gets particularly intriguing, if not slightly esoteric. This essentially says buildings need to reconnect with the available patterns of the resources we want the grid to rely on. If you have ever explored only using energy when your rooftop PV is generating, you know this idea is a big shift from how we’ve learned to live in the modern world.

But when we pull back to the big picture, it really does get to the heart of what we’re aiming to achieve - bring the modern industrialized world back into balance with the natural systems that support life on this planet.

Framing it within this context provides a friendly reminder that many of the best solutions for grid-interactive and adaptive buildings might not be active systems, even though these often get the most attention.

We must remember the role of well-designed architecture in grid-adaptive buildings: high performance envelope, moderate level of WWR (or as Z says, “Friends don’t let friends overglaze their buildings”), exposed thermal mass, solar-responsive orientations, and more.

And lest we forget - most regions don’t have access to real-time grid emissions signals yet. In many ways we are trying to design buildings that can dynamically participate in a future that doesn’t yet exist…but is most certainly coming. Our task is to create buildings that can be grid-responsive when they are asked to be, including designing them to more closely align with what is likely happening on the grid.

These solutions can be better understood and fine-tuned with hourly emissions analysis. Yet we can likely also get close to the right answer with other more broad-brush stroke approaches like the GridOptimal guides, Z's framework and good ol’ place-based design. In order to turn this barge quickly, we should move forward with an eye towards all of these methods.

Discussion question:
What does “use energy when renewables are available” look like from a design perspective? How does it change when we consider that solar isn’t the only grid scale renewable?

Up next –final chapter in this series! - No one is net zero until everyone is net zero

Also published on LinkedIn by Karina Hershberg

Chapter 1: Not All That Glitters is Zero Carbon
Chapter 2: The Emissions Multiverse
Chapter 3: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Chapter 4: Dr Strange Data, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hourly Emissions
Chapter 5: Wear Nice Glasses and Design Beautiful Spaces
Chapter 6: No One is Net Zero Until Everyone is Net Zero