Net-Zero Energy Building

After attending the sobering and inspiring lecture titled “Achieving Zero” by Ed Mazria (internationally recognized architect, author, researcher, and educator on the topic of sustainability – perhaps most well known for his organization ‘Architecture 2030’) hosted recently in Santa Barbara, we got to thinking about how Blackbird has long been and continues to help our clients get closer to realizing net-zero energy buildings.

First, let’s be clear on what net-zero energy building is. A net-zero energy building is one that produces as much energy on-site as it consumes over the course of a calendar year. Another and perhaps more important way of thinking about this way of building is known as zero-net carbon building. Zero-net carbon buildings are those that generate zero-net carbon emissions through significant energy use reduction and the exclusive use of renewable non-carbon generating energy sources (e.g. solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, bio, etc.) produced on-site or elsewhere. The larger goal of building net-zero is to phase out all CO2 emissions resulting from building energy consumption.

Surprisingly, only a handful of buildings exist in the US that meet the definition of net-zero. A quick search of the New Buildings Institute ‘Getting to Zero Database’ (a reliable source for information on exemplary sustainable buildings) reveals a shortlist of just 42 buildings that have been certified by the institute as net-zero energy. This is not to say that designers and community leaders are not working hard towards buildings that consume less energy (and produce more energy!).

Santa Barbara City is a nationwide leader in the adoption of sustainable energy building codes and regulations and Blackbird is proud to be a part of such a forward-thinking community. In 2007 the Santa Barbara City Council unanimously approved the Architecture 2030 Energy Ordinance becoming the first city to adopt the Architecture 2030 challenge into their building energy code.

What is the Architecture 2030 Challenge? Founded in 2002 by Ed Mazria, this organization challenged the building sector to dramatically reduce energy consumption through better design and design innovation. The challenge identified energy reduction targets for new and old construction establishing a practical path to net-zero buildings by the year 2030. Mazria and his organization are also working with local governments and building code officials to push for regulation that mandates dramatic energy use reduction.

California is a leader in this regard with the latest version of the state’s building energy code (Title 24) taking important steps towards achieving net-zero carbon goals. The 2016 version of this code mandates that all new construction in California get to within 47.5% of the 2030 goal for net-zero energy.

With sustainability always on our minds as we design a project and increasingly demanding building codes motivating us to innovate, we thought it helpful to identify some of the basic strategies Blackbird employs to help our clients get closer to achieving net-zero energy building. Our strategies are a two-pronged approach that works to create buildings that both use less energy to begin with and also, if possible, produce energy on-site.

Energy Efficiency Strategies

Thoughtful Site Design

This means careful consideration of a building’s location and orientation on its site to optimize solar access. This includes consideration of desirable solar heat gain in the cooler months and shading to protect undesirable solar heat gain in the warmer months.

Daylight Harvesting

Access to daylight is a critical factor in laying out floor plans. With appropriate access to natural daylight, artificial lighting needs are greatly reduced.

Insulated Energy Envelope

A high-performance building envelope is an easy way to keep the interior climate right where you want it without needing to expend a lot of energy on mechanical heating and cooling.

Natural Ventilation

Optimizing the natural ventilation of spaces through operable windows means that less energy needs to be consumed on mechanical ventilation of the building.

Efficient Building Systems

Blackbird pushes its electrical and mechanical engineering consultants to bring the most energy-efficient systems to the table. This could mean specifying all LED lighting fixtures, radiant floor heating, ground source heat pumps or other non-traditional but highly efficient systems that result in less energy consumption. Collaborating with LEED consultants or other experts on topics such as building energy modeling are standard practice for Blackbird’s team of designers. We welcome the opportunity to engage and learn from our colleagues.

Energy Production Strategies

Solar Hot Water Heating

By heating water with solar energy first some, if not all, additional energy needed to heat the water for use (bathing, dishwashing, heated pool, etc.) is eliminated. Most recently Blackbird is helping design a solar hot water system for a new dining and administration building on a boarding school campus.

Solar Electricity Generation

Many of Blackbird’s projects include solar electric generation capabilities through rooftop solar panels. See our design for the Coyote residence (photo of solar trellis below).

880 Coyote

At a parking lot in Isla Vista (see photo below) solar panels provided shade cover for the cars below and generated much of the sites electricity needs.

Isla Vista Parking Lot01 copy
06-06 Isla Vista Parking Lot Portfolio 001

Currently, there is a total of 1 gigawatt of installed solar generating photovoltaics in Santa Barbara County. To put that in perspective, the average US home uses approximately 1.25 kilowatts in a year. Our county has enough solar power to serve more than 830,000 homes!

Tracking a building’s energy consumption or production allows for further improvements to building systems even after the building has been built. Below is a recent screen capture from a real-time energy production solar log installed by one of our institutional clients. This log allows them to track their solar energy production and compare that to their energy demands.


Net-zero energy building is coming and Blackbird is well versed in the design strategies and technological innovations that can get us there. With any Blackbird designed project, context and project-specific solutions are our goal. Energy efficiency is not just about crossing items off a checklist or tabulating numbers for an energy budget. Blackbird looks for energy strategies that add value to a project in multiple ways including positive contributions to the overall experience and aesthetics.