Zilkha Center exceeds net-zero energy usage

More than a year after its opening in February of 2015, the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, has finished the first 12 months of evaluation for the Living Building Challenge. It currently satisfies six out of the seven requirements needed to obtain this certification. 

The challenge requires buildings to fulfill 20 imperatives grouped within seven petals: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty.  Some of these are inherent in the construction of the building, while others are judged in its operation. Unlike other standards such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the challenge goes beyond mitigating environmental damage to actually producing benefits for the environment. Standards such as landscaping that produces food and net-zero energy and water usage that make it more difficult.

“I think Williams, at that time, just said let’s go for it,” Mike Evans, assistant director of the Center, said.  “Let’s do something that is educational and difficult.”

In order to fulfill the requirements, the Zilkha Center still needs to attain net-zero energy usage. Over the past year, the Center has been a center of constant hub as the structure and operation of the building has been tweaked to achieve higher levels of efficiency and environmental-friendliness. 

“We’re trying something that very few other institutions have tried, and every time you do that it takes a lot of learning and a lot of adjusting,” Amy Johns, director of the Zilkha Center said.

Many steps were taken to reduce energy usage, from encouraging a mindset of conservation to troubleshooting areas where unnecessary waste was occurring.  The center’s kitchen is a prime example of this, where specialized appliances meant that users were sometimes not turning them off properly. 

“When we moved in here February 2015, people would use [the appliances] at night and sometimes forget to turn them off manually,” Evans said.  “So we put in a swipe system, and you have to get a 20 minute training. The swipe automatically shuts off all appliances after an hour. It’s a nice catch-all, and it seems to be helping.”

Users of the Center also note that the nature of the Center encourages sustainable thinking, as it brings to the forefront issues such as resource usage that would otherwise be overlooked.  Evans notes that he finds himself being more conscientious of water and energy usage than he is at home. While the behavioral changes are a crucial part of the project, current data also suggests that the root of the Center’s energy problem lies with its heating and cooling systems, and not necessarily the overuse of resources by its users. 

“What we’ve learned so far is that it’s more of a building systems issue more than something that people are doing,” Johns said. 

In order to solve the problem, the Center, in addition to troubleshooting the problem internally and with facilities, has also brought in outside help so that it may hit the target it needs to over the next 12-month evaluation period.

“We’ve just hired a third party that has experience with living building challenge to really work on some of those things,” Evans said.

The Center has also been making adjustments to other parts of the building, such as a water collection system that was improperly installed.  Otherwise, the building has been successful in achieving its goals. Water usage, for example, has fallen short of projections — a boon for meeting the goal of net-zero water usage despite the inefficiencies with collection. 

Due to its difficult nature, the challenges in attaining Living Building Certification have all been expected parts of the process, as the Center is aiming to join a very select group. Just 11 other buildings have completed all seven petals. Rather than a means to an end, the process of completing the challenge is, more importantly, an educational experience.

“We’re asking people to consider what being sustainable in a building means,” Evans said. “And we’re working on different ways to invite people into that.”

Thus, even without full Living Building Certification, Johns and Evans are proud of the work that has taken place — with six petals already achieved — and are confident that the seventh will be met in due time. 

“It’s been a fabulous learning experience,” Johns said.  “That was the goal of the entire project, and so I really feel like in many ways it’s been tremendously successful.”