How Sustainable Is a Zero Energy Building?

Published Categorized as Sustainability
Zero Energy Building

A zero-energy building is designed to meet all energy requirements within the structure without relying on energy from external sources. The idea behind the design is to ensure that the building generates its power through various systems. But are zero-energy buildings really sustainable?

A zero-energy building is highly sustainable in the long run when constructed with the right design specs. The use of solar panels, rainwater harvesting, intelligent lighting, and other sustainable design practices all help to cut down carbon emissions significantly.

In this article, I’ll further explore why a zero-energy building is inherently sustainable and discuss a few design specifications and structures implemented in its construction.

What Makes a Zero-Energy Building Sustainable

I’ll be using the term zero-energy throughout this article. However, to be more clear, I’m talking about sustainable buildings and structures that implement intelligent designs to reduce carbon emissions.

While an intelligent building may not wholly eliminate external energy sources, it can significantly reduce its reliance on these sources and move closer to zero energy consumption.

There’s a wide range of methods builders use to create zero-energy buildings that run sustainably.

Here are a few of the most common qualities of a zero-energy building.

Renewable and Alternative Energy Sources

The most effective way to reduce energy consumption is to integrate renewable energy systems into a building’s design. By shifting to alternative energy sources, a structure can offset a significant portion of its energy requirements without draining environmental resources.

Solar Panels

Solar energy has been around for years (actually, forever if you think about it), but it’s been only a decade or two since builders seriously began to consider the power of the sun and how to make use of it effectively.

Of course, solar energy isn’t always an ideal source, as sunlight is scarce in some locations and cannot properly power a building. But shifting some of our energy requirements to solar power can help cut down on the environmental impact.

For example, the Bullitt Center in Seattle has over five hundred solar panels covering the rooftop. This structure generates so much solar energy that it’s one of the few net-positive energy buildings in the world (producing more energy than it consumes).

Underground Heat Pumps

Underground heat pumps have gained popularity in recent years, with many residential buildings installing a system to take advantage of this renewable resource.

These pumps use the heat generated in underground passageways and convert it into energy that can be used to power the building. However, most establishments use underground heat pumps to ensure the occupants of the building (and the water used by them) stay warm.

While it may not seem like much, heating water and running a heating and cooling system consumes significant quantities of energy that can be easily saved by installing an underground pump.

2. Effective Water Management

Managing water use within the building is an effective way to ensure your building is sustainable in the long run. In fact, many intelligent buildings use a variety of practices to ensure they minimize water consumption from external sources.

  • Rainwater harvesting is the most popular method of cutting back on water use. In fact, some intelligent buildings like the Bullitt Center rely on rainwater harvesting along with a purification system to provide potable water to their employees.
  • Some smart buildings employ condensation to store water from the atmosphere. One example is the famous Burj Khalifa which uses a highly advanced condensation system to collect water from the atmosphere in significant quantities and use it to irrigate the parks in their compound.
  • Water recycling is a technique where buildings use specific devices to clean up and recycle water throughout the structure. Most of these intelligent buildings have a processing plant that removes impurities and prepares the water for use.

When you have a building full of employees, water is consumed at an enormous rate every day. Zero energy or smart buildings typically rely on water purification and collection systems to minimize their water consumption. This way, they ensure that most of their water comes from within the building.

And in many cases, with a practical design, most smart buildings are able to rely entirely on their own water resources.

3. Intelligent Lighting

The introduction of intelligent lighting into the construction space is another great leap towards a more sustainable future.

Smart lighting can be used to control energy consumption and reduce it as much as possible, depending on conditions like the population of the building and the natural daylight available at any given point.

Let’s take The Crystal, for example. It’s located in London and is one of the first green building designs in the world. The Crystal employs an intelligent lighting system where a central processor controls each light shade. These lights are then adjusted automatically depending on the amount of natural light received at any time of the day.

Controlling lights in a single day may save you only a few watts of power. But when you consider the entire year, intelligent lighting systems can significantly reduce the amount of energy consumed.

The Edge, in Amsterdam, is another building with intelligent lighting that also integrates smart lighting through an app that tells the building how many people are in it at any given moment. This app even directs people to specific sections of the building so it can completely shut down empty pareas, saving energy on an unimaginable scale.

However, intelligent lighting is most efficient when paired with other design modifications. For example, DPR Construction in San Francisco uses an intelligent design to ensure that plenty of natural daylight filters into the building. In addition to their setup, this building also uses solar tubes and skylights with dynamic glazing to improve natural indoor lighting.

These modifications, coupled with an intelligent system that brightens or dims lights based on occupancy, help DPR Construction cut down its energy consumption drastically.

4. Automatic Heating and Cooling

Most regular office environments possess a central heating and cooling system that consumes tons of energy on a monthly basis so the employees can stay comfortable while they work. However, intelligent buildings ensure that their heating and cooling systems are optimized to cut down on energy consumption while ensuring everyone remains comfortable.

The Capital Tower in Singapore is an excellent example of an intelligent building that has optimized its cooling system to a significant degree. The building features a design known as the recovery wheel that gathers cool air and circulates it back into the building. This wheel system cuts down the energy costs of cooling while ensuring its occupants stay comfortable.

Glazed windows throughout the building improve this system to ensure that the inside temperature doesn’t get too high in the first place.

The Crystal in London has a smart ventilation system that automatically opens windows and shuts off temperature regulation when the outside temperature is comfortable. When it gets too hot or cold, the windows automatically close, and the indoor temperature is regulated accordingly. This design effectively reduces the energy lost in rapidly heating and cooling the building throughout the day.

It’s crucial to note that besides technology, buildings that use intelligent designs like shades and glazed windows to reduce temperature are more effective at reducing carbon emissions and creating a sustainable workspace.

5. Effective Waste Management

Managing waste can be tricky, especially if the building has too many occupants. However, proper waste management makes a space more sustainable by reducing the negative impact on the environment.

  • Waste management starts during construction. The materials used by a green building are typically safe for the environment and a lot less volatile. Additionally, many of these resources last longer than conventional resources, reducing waste.
  • Repurposing construction material. Some builders have employed the technique of gathering waste material at a construction site and recycling it by converting it to raw material for other buildings.
  • Composting within the building. While composting human waste isn’t too common, it’s a highly effective method of reducing carbon emissions. The Bullitt Center is a stellar example of sustainability and has installed a composting system throughout the building to ensure the safe disposal of waste.

Effective waste management also relies on a few other techniques, like using alternative building materials and reducing energy during manufacture, both of which can help improve the sustainability of a building. However, I’ve listed the most common approaches smart buildings utilize to ensure they remain sustainable in the long run.

Is It Worth Constructing a Zero-Energy Building?

Even with all the environmental advantages, many builders are skeptical about constructing intelligent buildings. Their skepticism isn’t wholly misplaced, considering that smart structures can be complicated and more expensive to build. However, even with the added cost, intelligent buildings are worth the investment.

It is worth constructing a zero-energy building as it significantly reduces the negative impact on the environment. Additionally, zero-energy buildings are designed to cater to the needs of their occupants, and while the initial investment is high, they can help save money in the long run.

Most construction experts are put off by the cost involved in intelligent building designs. As a result, new offices often avoid sustainable building practices as they don’t see a way to recoup their costs.

However, when you look at the big picture, a zero-energy building can help significantly reduce expenses in the long run while promoting a healthier environment within and outside the structure. Here are two advantages green buildings have over conventional ones.

Healthier Occupants

In smart offices where light, temperature, and air quality are measured, the occupants tend to be in a better space cognitively. By moderating light levels, the building helps to create a space that adjusts to different times of the day instead of providing one constant lighting condition throughout the day. And proper lighting is crucial to productivity, mood, and overall mental health.

Aside from lighting, many smart buildings also monitor indoor air quality and ensure that occupants breathe fresh air throughout the day. The Glumac in Shanghai is an office space that gives employees updates about the air quality on their smartphones.

You can check for carbon dioxide and monoxide levels along with particulate matter in the environment. This office space employs an effective air purification system that continuously provides clean air to the building occupants. And, as you’ll be able to see in the linked resource above, regular intake of clean air helps improve cognitive function and overall well-being.

Reduced Economic Costs

At first glance, a zero-energy building can seem like a significant investment of resources. It can cost a lot to install solar panels and build an effective condensation system. And building owners may not recoup the cost in the first few years.

But the magic starts once a few years have passed and the building produces all the energy and water it requires to run effectively. Even residential buildings can benefit enormously through reduced bills on water and electricity.

Additionally, the value of a green property will rise considerably compared to traditional construction. This rise means increased earnings for building owners and developers.

Efficient lighting systems also help cut costs as energy use is optimized throughout the structure. Lights are dimmed when natural light is available and adjusted based on natural lighting changes. Controlling indoor lighting in this way helps to cut costs in the long run.

And finally, the automatic heating and cooling systems help further cut down expenses by removing the need for unnecessary heating. Natural ventilation and the outside temperature are considered before adjusting indoor temperature, and this technology also helps cut back on energy consumption, reducing costs in the long run.


Investing in zero-energy buildings is probably the only way for us to move forward, considering that we’ve all but depleted our non-renewable energy sources. And while the concept might not be familiar yet, many buildings worldwide have already achieved this status, with some structures producing more energy and water than they consume.

And while the initial cost may be high right now, it will reduce as renewable practices become more mainstream. Moreover, the benefits of zero-energy buildings are well worth the investment.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

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