Designing a Net Zero Home: A Map of the Design Process

The design of this home was, in part, a test of a design process—of a philosophy of design—known as performance-based design. The central idea is that performance analysis (energy, daylight, and thermal comfort analysis, among others) has a central role to play in informing design decisions at every step of the process.

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A Wood Stove in a Passive House

How should you design and detail a wood stove in an airtight Passive House? Here are some of the considerations, and the approach we used on this project.

First off: should you even have a wood stove in a Passive House? This is rightly a matter of some debate. It’s certainly not necessary, as our temperature data have shown: this particular house has proven it can stay habitable even through the coldest of cold snaps—maintaining ~55 degF even in -20 degF outdoor temperatures without mechanical heating.

And, a wood stove in a Passive House comes with downsides and risks:

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Slideshow: Achieving Net Zero Energy at Conventional Cost

Below is the slideshow I presented on April 20, 2017 to the Iowa Building Enclosure Council, and to a sustainable construction class from Hawkeye Community College.

The version below is slightly edited to make it easier to follow online. (I tend to avoid text in my presentations, which can make them difficult to follow without accompaniment.)

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Installing Zola Windows

I was on-site last week (Jan. 9-10) for the installation of Zola windows. This was both exciting and nerve-wracking for a few reasons:

  • Installing the windows correctly is critical to both the water management strategy and air tightness of the house. I wanted to make sure the details I had drawn actually worked out in practice.
  • The windows are massive. Each panel of the large lift-slide doors weighed 1000 lbs., and the second floor study window was 800 lbs.
  • The windows are one of the most expensive line items for the entire house. The possibility of damaging them was a bit scary.

Further complicating the process were extremely cold temperatures, and one day of rain (just enough to cover everything with mud).

In charge of the installation was Harry Schilling of Schilling Construction. I was incredibly pleased with Harry’s work and would highly recommend him for other projects. He and his team were fast and efficient while also paying close attention to detail. Harry also taught the owner and his assistant how to perform the installation, so they could help out with many of the steps, thereby reducing the labor costs.

Here’s how the windows were installed — both in theory and in practice.

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Incorporating Analysis in Concept Design

I incorporated energy and daylight analysis as part of the conceptual design for the Iowa Nest Residence. This meant that early design discussions encompassed both traditional topics like floor plan layout, siting, and aesthetics, as well as performance criteria. The addition of analysis added a trivial amount of time, but proved incredibly valuable. Here’s how I did it — and what I will do differently next time.

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Is Concrete Durable?

One of the goals for this house is durability: a lifespan of 200 years or more. Is concrete an appropriate material to achieve that aim?

First, some background: It’s not the concrete itself that’s problematic; it’s the rebar embedded in concrete. This rebar tends to corrode over time, and as it does, the rust increases the diameter of the rebar slightly, spalling the concrete, and eventually causing the concrete to fail. This is the main reason why Roman concrete (which had no rebar) has lasted for 1000s of years, whereas contemporary concrete’s lifespan is typically measured in decades.

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What Passive Strategies are Most Important? Using Simple Box Modeling to Inform Design

Before I ever put pen to paper for this project, I wanted to answer a deceptively simple question: What passive design measures are most important? What basic strategies did the design need to employ to be successful? —to maintain human comfort with a minimum of added energy?

It’s important to answer this question before design begins in earnest for two reasons:

  1. With a limited budget, it’s important that we invest in the right things; and
  2. If we know the most important strategies before we start designing, we can incorporate them into the DNA of the design—often more effectively and at lower cost than if they were afterthoughts. For instance, if thermal mass or natural ventilation is important, these things will begin to dictate the construction or interior layout in ways that are difficult to “add on” later.

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