Scaling the picture

Shawna HendersonApril 03, 2014

There is so much to focus on when working in energy efficient, low energy, high performance, green, sustainable houses: materials, assemblies, performance, HVAC, energy sources. Broad categories like these can be broken out into a dozen subcategories each, then another dozen sub-subcategories again. And there's two sets of the top-level categories: one for retrofit and another for new construction. And then there's climatic zones, which could actually be the top level categories, or could be flagged in the subcategories, and then there's codes, bylaws, regulations, standards, targets and benchmarks.

It's good to look outside the box of the house and down the street and 'round the corner and into the whole community every once in a while, because, in general, a house doesn't exist in a vacuum. Urban, suburban and rural houses are situated in relative proximity to community, and take advantage of infrastructure that has been created to support the community. No news here.

When it comes to low energy houses, and you're in the thick of all things pertaining to performance and targets and budgets and schedules, sometimes, it's hard to see past the house itself. The thing that came to mind today is this: we want to get to Net Zero Energy (NZE): houses and buildings that produce as much energy as they consume on an annual basis (there are a few variations on that theme mainly to do with how the energy is produced/consumed, but let's go with the fundamental one: it's a balance of energy in and energy out). That's a good thing. But the reality is that not every house that is being built, will be built or has been built is a good candidate for a PV system, which has become the default energy production system for NZE houses.

It seems to me that there needs to be a bigger picture discussion about the relevance of NZE goals and existing neighbourhoods and communities. Perhaps the discussion already in play and I just haven't been invited to the party yet, I don't know (please invite me if it is!!). But we need to marry the goals of NZE to the realities around us, like the newly proposed initiative I just read about in RenewablesBiz from Florida Power and Light: a voluntary community-based solar program that allows people who are unable (for any reason) to install a house-scale rooftop PV system to take part in generating clean power. I know it's not the first one of it's kind, and there are several riffs on the theme, as well as community-based rooftop leasing programs.

What I'm pointing at is the need to have several options on getting to Net Zero Energy that can encompass a wide range of situations. Ideal NZE houses, like ideal passive solar houses in the 70s, are not the norm, and likely never will be, given the way bylaws and typical development patterns focus on land usage. Certainly they won't be until the current standing building stock is completely retrofitted, or falls down. So we have to have some guidelines and options for the 'energy producing' end of NZE that allow for crappy orientations, no roof space, obstructions, out-of-date bylaws and regulations and a host of other complications.

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