Does Going Net-Zero Really Mean Buildings Will Have No Windows?

Well, the president was a real estate developer, so he should know.

Long Lines Building
The Future of Architecture, according to the President.

 Lars Ploughman on Wikipedia

At a recent press conference, the President of the United States was critical of candidate Joe Biden's green plans, which he claimed would:

…mandate net-zero carbon emissions for homes, offices and all new buildings by 2030. That basically means no windows, no nothing. It's very hard to do. I tell people when they want to go into some of these buildings, how are your eyes, because they won't be good in five years. And I hope you don't mind cold office space in the winter and warm office space in the summer because the air conditioning is not the same as in the good old days.

Now to be fair, the president has often claimed that he was the world's greatest property developer ever, and he does know something about gold glazing. Also, one has to point out that net-zero can be a difficult concept to grasp, even for stable geniuses. Take the definition from the World Green Building Council (WGBC) as an example:

Net Zero Definition
Net Zero Definition.  World Green building Council
Net zero carbon is when the amount of carbon dioxide emissions released on an annual basis is zero or negative. Our definition for a net zero carbon building is a highly energy efficient building that is fully powered from on-site and/or off-site renewable energy sources and offsets.

The WGBC definition calls for a highly energy-efficient building, but it ain't necessarily so to get to net-zero; in fact, you can have lots of glass if you can afford lots of solar panels. It just gets more expensive, and it is more economical to make the building efficient. The WGBC, and Mr. Biden, are also not asking for something unusual or outlandish; it's being done all over the world. In fact, many, including me, would say that it isn't going nearly far enough.

Packard Foundation Headquarters
Packard Foundation Headquarters. Packard Foundation

Net-zero really has nothing to say about whether you can have windows or not. As can be seen in the photo above, this important net-zero building has lots of windows. But I have never thought that net-zero was the right target; you have to do this silly balancing act between summer and winter, because as Bronwyn Barry has noted, the grid is not a bank.

The reality is that the grid does not have the capacity to store all excess energy generated in summer, so buildings employing this ‘fuzzy math’ still require that the grid supply their winter deficit. Unfortunately, this winter energy is more likely to be generated using fossil fuel sources and therefore buildings designed in this manner are still responsible for the higher carbon emissions generated by non-renewable energy sources.

This is why I have always argued for Radical Building Efficiency rather than net-zero. With something like the Passive House standard, you reduce the requirement for energy all year round and don't need much heating or cooling at all. If you want to be fashionably net-zero, a few solar panels will do it for you; as I have noted, Passive House and net-zero are made for each other. And you won't have "cold office space in the winter and warm office space in the summer" – radically efficient buildings are actually comfortable all year round.

211W29, a Passive House building in New York by ZH Architects
211W29, a Passive House building in New York by ZH Architects. Lloyd Alter

In Passive House design, you do have to control the amount of window, because even the best window is not as good as a lousy wall. But nobody can say that Stas Zakrzewski hasn't given his clients lots of windows in this New York condo. He has had to put nice shades on over them to reduce solar gain and prevent overheating, but they are still generous.

Passivhaus can have it all, including big windows that open/
Passivhaus can have it all, including big windows that open/.  Juraj Mikurcik

 Juraj Mikurcik demonstrated in his Old Holloway House that you can achieve Passive House efficiency and make everyone happy with the amount of light, even the dog.

Passivhaus townhouses in Goldsmith Street
Passivhaus townhouses in Goldsmith Street. Tim Crocker via RIBA

You just have to hire a good architect and be smart about how you deal with your windows. Look at what Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley did with this Stirling Prize-winning housing development in the UK:

To be certified Passivhaus, the windows had to be smaller than the proportion in a Georgian or Victorian terrace, so the architects have used a set-back panel around the windows to give an enlarged feel, and panels of textured brick have been introduced into the main elevations, again to balance the feel of the fenestration along the terrace.
Trump International Hotel, Las Vegas
Trump International Hotel, Las Vegas. Steve Jurvetson on Wikipedia 

In fact, the evidence is pretty clear that with a talented architect and a knowledgable client with ace cognitive skills, it's possible to design a building that is not floor-to-ceiling gold glass, that is not an energy hog, that is comfortable inside all year round, and actually has nice looking windows.

Buffalo City Court Building, 1971-74, Pfohl, Roberts and Biggie
Buffalo City Court Building, 1971-74, Pfohl, Roberts and Biggie.  Lloyd Alter on bike tour of Buffalo

Although I have seen some pretty neat buildings without lots of windows, including that AT&T Long Lines building in New York City at the top, and this courthouse in Buffalo. There's a place for them too.