high-performance buildings

How to define a high-performance building

The dominant conception of “high performance” is at best ambiguous. The defining trajectory of the past century or more is toward a sustainability failure that cannot be remedied by incremental improvements. Rather, sustainable high performance requires breaking out of the traditional performance trajectory of buildings.

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As countries develop, their buildings improve in life quality performance and decline in carbon performance. Even if we ignore life quality issues that emerge in developed countries as buildings age but remain operational, the dominant conception of “high performance” is at best ambiguous. The defining trajectory of the past century or more is toward a sustainability failure that cannot be remedied by incremental improvements.

Sustainable high performance requires breaking out of the traditional performance trajectory of buildings. It requires buildings in which energy requirements remain low or drop dramatically while life quality improves dramatically — and stays improved. But what’s the measure of how much energy requirements need to decline from today’s levels? Various standards have been proposed, with “net-zero” getting a good deal of the attention. It may be objected, however, that “net zero” as a standard of building performance fails to weigh the costs of achieving high performance, especially the last margins of performance as buildings approach net-zero.

And if the definition of “life quality” includes the opportunity cost of resources spent to achieve building performance, then “net-zero” may be too imprecise a standard, failing to make explicit the implied marginal trade-offs. It might further be objected that “net-zero” as a standard for each building fails to incorporate performance opportunities offered by integration within and across communities of buildings and the larger built environment.

High performance defined in terms of energy, health, comfort, and economy might be better expressed as buildings that achieve and maintain high health and comfort and dramatically lower energy requirements at a cost low enough to be offset by the value of energy savings. Cost offsets that are recovered over time or out of sync with building ownership, however, are notoriously problematic as market drivers and are therefore unlikely to prompt the level of market transformation required. So, to be market driven, the definition of high performance needs as a practical matter to lean heavily toward at least cost parity with traditional buildings.

Returning specifically to energy requirements, “net-zero” as a building standard encompasses the building but not the variety of carbon-free energy sources that can be harnessed within a community if the building is integrated not only in its internal design but in its design relationship to the community of buildings, the larger built and natural environment, and the surrounding energy sources — including distributed energy resources of varied descriptions.

Thus, high performance would need to reference the full range of building and community factors that can be integrated into building performance to reduce building energy requirements to levels that can

be supplied by non-carbon sources at cost parity with traditional buildings (or better) and with high quality in-building health and comfort.

That definition may not be exhaustive. The cost of not only delivery but also maintenance might need to be considered, along with durability, resilience, and other such factors. But it encompasses at least the most obvious factors that bear on the challenge of market-driven building transformation.

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