Zero-Energy Schools Elevate Expectations

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Elementary schools have a special status as local community hubs and, because of that, represent a great opportunity to demonstrate innovative design and energy cost savings.


“Schools are very prominent in their communities: Parents see them, they are easy to talk about and document, and there a lot of them,” said Principal Engineer Paul Torcellini, commercial buildings expert at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).


Torcellini and his colleague Stacey Rothgeb, senior buildings engineer, collaborated this year on a project that could vastly increase the number of zero-energy schools, leveraging NREL’s expertise.


The result is a new online course, unveiled in August: Achieving Zero-Energy Building Design, adapted from the Advanced Energy Design Guide for K-12 School Buildings. The training will give building professionals the knowledge to design zero-energy schools in any climate in the United States.

The nine-hour course was developed at NREL with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and a set of industry-wide partnerships: ASHRAE, the American Institute of Architects, the Illuminating Engineering Society, and the U.S. Green Building Council.

“EERE welcomes this industry partnership to further equip the U.S. workforce with the building science knowledge and practical skills needed to design high-performance buildings that deliver tangible benefits to occupants, owners, and our national energy systems,” said Sarah Zaleski, policy advisor at the DOE Building Technologies Office.

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As a collaborative effort, the course now pulls expertise and experience from the largest trade and professional organizations in the field.

“We integrated more than 700 peer-review comments into this process,” Rothgeb said. “We hope to blanket most of the designers in these professional organizations.”

First of Its Kind Online

Energy efficiency guidelines are not a new thing at NREL. For many decades, the Commercial Buildings Research Group has produced advanced guidelines in written form.

Promoted by ASHRAE, NREL’s guidelines have been distributed more than 700,000 times. They have included guidelines for hospitals, small retail buildings, large office buildings, grocery stores, and a number of other building types.

The online learning module is the first time that these design guidelines have been opened up to professional organizations in an accessible, dynamic online format for learning.

“We heard that there’s a need in the industry to have more actionable knowledge,” Rothgeb said. “Here at NREL, we have the technical knowledge. This is a great effort to get it into the hands of professionals.”

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New Level of Achievement

In addition, these guidelines represent a new benchmark in energy efficiency in building use. Previously, the Advanced Energy Design Guidelines series had cut energy use by 30%—then, the threshold was moved to 50% for design guidelines issued five years ago.

This is the first series of guidelines developed to be zero energy.

The cost impacts are one of the biggest reasons that school districts will hopefully find the plans appealing.

“This whole notion that high levels of energy efficiency are expensive is just not true,” Torcellini said. “Our secondary audience here is building owners. We hope that they can start asking for zero-energy buildings once they realize the cost savings for taxpayers.”

Almost 200 Strategies To Achieve Zero Energy

Two other members of the NREL team were integral to this project: Researcher Michael Young wrangled the peer-review comments into the nine-hour course, and Marjorie Schott communicated the technological concepts into the visual language of infographics.

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If this series results in uptake of the concepts, the online learning component will possibly be expanded to other building types, Rothgeb said.

The nine-hour course consists of 12 modules with content that applies to commercial buildings, including case studies that focus on zero-energy K-12 schools.

“We’ve collected almost 200 strategies to achieve zero energy,” Torcellini said.

The format includes open-ended thought questions, reference lists for additional reading, real-life case studies, video testimonials from design professionals, and separate learning paths for architects and engineers.

Certificates of completion will be available for download for the successfully completed course.

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