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Accelerating toward zero

Local architects, builders about to confront 2020 energy goals

When it's completed, this steel-framed College Terrace home will be "zero-net-energy," using the same amount of energy that it produces. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Homebuyers who have just closed escrow on property along the Midpeninsula and are planning to tear down whatever existing home is there now to build a new one over the next couple of years, should know that California energy codes are about to get really stringent.

Starting in 2020, with the next cycle of energy codes enacted by the California Energy Commission, the bar will be moved up to the highest it's ever been for newly built homes.

A house built from scratch or (in some cities) extensively remodeled will need to be "zero net ready," or so energy efficient that it can produce as much energy as it consumes over a year. These homes usually have rooftop solar photovoltaic panels or at least have been retrofitted for them.

The push for net-zero buildings began a decade ago when the California Public Utilities Commission adopted the goal that all new residential construction in California would be zero net energy by 2020, and all new commercial construction in California would be zero net energy by 2030.

Each part of the state, depending on climate, will be required to meet the energy codes (built upon the familiar Title 24 energy code, which requires energy-efficient technologies like LED lighting).

Architects, contractors and developers who aren't prepared for this may be in for a shock, although Palo Alto, as well as other cities, have been holding training workshops for years now for those builders and architects who they work with often in their planning and development departments.

Menlo Park architect Karen Zak, a former planning commissioner, is not only ready but enthusiastic about the changes. Many zero net energy homes can be built with steel frames, she said, which makes the homes "much more level and straight and true," and steers clear of wood, which can twist and shrink over time.

To get to net-zero, designs are mostly based on how much insulation a home has, Zak said. "Because of LED lighting, energy loads have come down." What's left, she said, is heating and cooling, refrigeration and outfitting homes with solar panels.

With the energy codes being phased in over several years and cities' building departments needing longer lead times to approve projects because of the construction boom, it could be frustrating for builders or architects, but Zak doesn't mind.

"It's interesting right now because my projects are taking longer. The codes are changing wildly," she said. Inspectors have to look to see what code you were under when you got your building permit, she added.

According to the information website sponsored by the Public Utilities Commission,, zero net energy is relatively easy to achieve in California's milder coastal climates with lower air-conditioning needs and therefore lower energy consumption; however the warmer inland climates can also achieve zero net energy through efficient building and on-site renewable energy, such as solar panels.

"Each part of the state will be a little different depending on climate zone," said Mindy Craig, who oversees content for

Is the city of Palo Alto ready for this?

"We're more than ready," said Peter Pirnejad, the city's development services director. "We're ahead of the curve on this."

Palo Alto's own requirements in many ways exceed the 2020 state mandate already. The city gives developers many tools along the way, Pirnejad said, including requiring inspections after insulation is installed but before the shell is put on a home, to make sure the home will meet the energy grade.

The solar mandate does not necessarily mean a home has to be built with solar panels, just that there is a specific amount of space in the roof and that the home is plumbed with conduit that will allow it to be ready to be powered by solar panels, Pirnejad explained.

He proudly noted that Palo Alto already has California's largest concentration of "Passive House Certified" homes, a distinction given to structures that meet rigorous energy-efficiency standards.

BONE Structure, a family-owned Canadian home company with an office in San Francisco that started more than a decade ago before most energy requirements took effect, is taking advantage of the state's energy-efficiency moves.

Vice President of Operations Charles Bovet, whose parents started BONE, said their steel construction system "just made sense." The goal, he said, is to create "homes that are not just energy efficient, but comfortable." The steel frames are custom made for each home, and can be effectively "snapped" together using mechanical screws. They are not assembled in halves or boxes, as many prefabricated homes are.

Bovet said that while Canada's energy rules are advanced, California's are "extremely ambitious," especially the goal of achievement by 2020.

The company's homes are built from steel tubes manufactured in factories that are designed to be attached on-site. The framing system used in the homes is 88 percent recycled steel, mostly made of smashed cars.

While the homes lend themselves to modern designs with long beam spans, the company's homes can be finished in stucco, brick or wood siding. The insulation, a combination of polystyrene panels and spray foam, are applied to the outside steel frame of the home and then covered up with whatever material the architect calls for. The plumbing and electrical infrastructure can be "threaded" through the steel frames through pre-cut holes.

"Our system lends itself to modern design. When you work with steel you can have big, open spans," Bovet said. He said the homes generally don't have attics and can support larger windows. The glass needs to be high-efficiency to meet the zero net energy standards, however.

Bovet shies away from using the word "prefab" when describing his homes, saying generally such homes have "container shaped rooms" while most of the company's homes don't look like that.

BONE is building several projects on the Midpeninsula including two in Palo Alto and one in Menlo Park. The company completed another home on the Stanford University campus a couple of years ago, he said.

Why is it important to make homes zero net energy? According to the ZNE website, "The energy used in buildings is the second largest contributor to California's greenhouse gas emissions. ZNE buildings will help reduce our demand for energy and provide more resilience to climate impacts."

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