ZeroEnergy Design: Leaders In Zero Energy Architecture

ZeroEnergy Design is an architecture firm creating high performance homes and buildings, while also offering energy consulting and HVAC design for other professionals through the firm’s mechanical design practice. The company has received numerous awards, including Best of Boston Home® 2020 Best Sustainable Architect, Sustainable Design Award 2019 from the Boston Society of Architects, and many others. The firm was founded with a commitment to deliver ecologically sensible design for all clients as a best practice.

I had an opportunity to interview Stephanie Horowitz, the Managing Director of ZeroEnergy Design Architects.

Kitchen/dining area in a Zero Energy Certified home in Lincoln, MassachusettsPhoto by Chuck Choi

How did you first become interested in establishing an architectural company focusing on energy?

We felt the need to establish an architecture firm that offered sustainable design as a matter of course, not an optional checkbox to be selected by some clients and value engineered by others. Considerations for energy, occupant health, durability and beauty are part of our holistic approach to design. We couldn’t see practicing any other way. Yet there were many firms at the time, and still are, that let client or up-front budget dictate the inclusion or exclusion of these critical attributes to every project.

Historic super insulated home in Boston’s Southend neighborhood.Photo by Eric Roth photography

How do you think your company is different from other architectural companies?

Energy efficiency, health, and comfort have always been baseline attributes of our projects – these are a given. This means our design time is actually spent on creating spaces that are beautiful, functional, and durable – striving to make positive contributions in the owner’s life and the environment.

What have you learned about saving energy in homes over the years? Design, then enclosure, systems, and finally renewables. Energy conservation starts with good design – with right sizing a home or building, responding to site conditions, factoring in the occupant’s needs, etc. Then we can focus on the building enclosure – making it air tight and super insulated, in the cold climate in which we practice. Efficient consumption comes from a well matched mechanical system, efficient lighting and appliances, and even a conscientious user. Only then do we look to offset the drastically reduced energy use with renewable energy like on or off site solar (PV) panels.

Renovated kitchen in Boston townhome with triple pane windows and super-insulationPhoto by Eric Roth photography

This approach addresses many of the things we care about – energy, durability, health, comfort and of course beauty. Energy is expended in the production of a home or building, sometimes call the embodied energy or embodied carbon, as well as during its operation. The approach I previously described focuses on the operational energy. In the past decade, we’ve also begun to focus on embodied energy, but it wasn’t something that was on our radar when we first got started.

Renovated Boston townhome with continuous exterior insulation, air sealing, triple pane windows, and … [+] electric car chargingPhoto by Eric Roth photography

What have been some of your most interesting projects?

The Lincoln Farmhouse has a traditional, recognizable aesthetic. It produces far more energy annually than it consumes – enough to power 25,000 to 35,000 miles of annual driving in electric cars. The SouthEnd RowHome is a historic two-family home in downtown Boston that we renovated to modernize and tailor to our client’s lifestyle and to address thermal comfort, sound attenuation, improved indoor air quality, and of course, vastly reduced energy consumption. The Dartmouth Oceanfront is a modern net-zero energy home that features exceptional performance in a harsh coastal climate. Collectively, these three projects span traditional, modern, and historic aesthetics, suburban, urban, and coastal project sites, and both new construction and renovation. Exceptional energy performance is achievable for nearly any building in any location – with the right timing and planning.

Modern green home in Dartmouth, Massachusetts with super-insulated building enclosure, solar panels, … [+] and electric car charging.Photo by Greg Premru

What have been your biggest challenges as a firm in getting very energy-efficient houses built (clients, red tape, builders)?

We’ve found that with the right team in place, there aren’t any insurmountable challenges. We’re clear with our clients about our approach from the start and it’s often a reason they seek us out. When we bring a contractor into the fold, we’re looking for someone with their own expertise in building and the right attitude. We’re likely going to ask them to do something they haven’t done before, like wrap a house in insulation, or heat a home with heat pumps.

A contractor with an eagerness to do something new and to follow our direction, paired with good communication is a recipe for success. What do you think is the major error people are generally making in building new homes? The biggest issue remains a lack of focus on the building enclosure. Exceptional performance of the building shell is vital, and this, in turn, justifies a smaller HVAC system and a smaller amount of renewable energy to offset consumption. Improving the performance of the building enclosure later is difficult – much harder than targeting an efficient new or renovated enclosure when the opportunity arises.

Indoor-outdoor living in a modern green home. Lift-slide triple pane door system, super-insulated … [+] building enclosure, solar panels, and electric car charging.Photo by Greg Premru

How do you see the future of energy-efficient homes?

We envision a status quo of healthy, comfortable, energy-positive, carbon-neutral buildings made of biodegradable and recyclable materials. Not only will they entirely avoid fossil fuels onsite and sequester carbon in their construction materials, but they will also produce enough clean renewable energy to offset the energy consumed in their construction, operation, and by the owners’ vehicles.

What changes do you feel are necessary for everyone to have an exceptionally energy-efficient home?

Changes in the building code are needed to really move the needle, specifically that address major renovations and new construction. These big improvements might look like: improved insulation and airtightness requirements, the prohibition of fossil fuel combustion on site, required planning for future solar electric systems, material labeling for carbon intensity, and planning for use of electric cars as battery backups for home. Some of these steps are being implemented currently in progressive communities, but a national push is needed.

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