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Mithun
Natural gas has worn out its welcome in buildings. That was the message from Berkeley, California, when its city council voted earlier this summer to ban gas connections to new small and mid-sized residential buildings. Instead, developers and architects will have to rely on electric appliances such as induction stovetops and heat pumps to serve those buildings, and in time they will have to do so for more projects. As written, the ban automatically expands to cover additional building types as the state certifies that they can cost-effectively forego gas.

Electrification advocates say that the city that kicked-off smoking bans in restaurants and curbside recycling in the U.S. is once again leading a movement. Several dozen California cities, including San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento, are racing to enact their own policies to accelerate building electrification, explains Panama Bartholomy, director of California's Building Decarbonization Coalition—an advocacy group representing electric utilities, municipalities, equipment suppliers, and designers. He says 15 to 20 towns hope to pass them within a few months so they can take effect on January 1, 2020, with the latest triennial update to California’s building code.

Similar efforts are afoot in northeastern U.S. states and in Europe, says Mike Henchen, electrification manager for the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a Colorado-based sustainability think tank. He cites the Netherlands as a frontrunner. A plan currently making its way through parliament maps out a phased, community-by-community decommissioning of the country's gas distribution grids. Some 1.5 million homes would be disconnected by 2030.

Behind these moves are the growing number of jurisdictions setting ambitious goals for greenhouse gas emissions, as well as recent high-profile gas leaks and accidents, says Henchen. California’s climate policy calls for zero net emissions by 2045, and removing natural gas looks like the cheapest way to achieve that in the buildings sector. Heat pumps running on all but the most coal-heavy power grids are already cutting carbon and that benefit will only expand as power systems shift to solar and wind energy. The California Energy Commission’s official energy plan cites, “a growing consensus that building electrification is the most viable and predictable path to zero-emission buildings.”

RMI research published last year found that most all-electric buildings pay for themselves over the long haul, though many cost more to construct—a situation they expect to change as increased use of heat pumps drives down their cost. Seattle-based design firm Mithun says they are finding that building without gas can already be cost-neutral or cheaper to build.

Hilary Noll, a Mithun senior associate in San Francisco, says heat pumps are providing savings for five all-electric multifamily housing projects the firm has underway in the city. She says this is primarily due to federal tax credits for affordable housing tied to energy efficiency targets. Those require the addition of solar water heaters when gas boilers are used, helping trim gas consumption. Without gas, additional savings come from avoided equipment such as gas piping, meters, and combustion venting, as well as simplified fire code compliance. “There's a trickle-down effect,” says Noll, who estimates about $250,000 in savings per project.

Noll says Mithun’s clients favor all-electric design primarily as a response to heightened awareness of climate change. But they also feel they are getting a better building. In most of Mithun’s all-electric projects, these savings are being used to upgrade air filtration systems to protect residents from soot from the region’s increasingly frequent wildfires. Owners also recognize that eliminating gas today will future-proof the structures against expensive retrofits. “When you design for natural gas in a building, you’re designing for obsolescence,” says Noll.

Many California cities plan to ban gas only from new municipal buildings, while pushing private developers to go electric by mandating higher efficiency for gas-equipped buildings. Bartholomy says Los Angeles is following another model pioneered in Vancouver, British Columbia: phasing in limits on carbon emissions that will ratchet down over time.

Whatever model jurisdictions use, Bartholomy says, they will have to stop the
Integrated Studio via Neumann Monson Architects
An inspiring new church in Coralville, Iowa is lifting spirits and bringing people closer to nature — while generating all the energy it needs on site. Iowa City-based firm Neumann Monson Architects designed the church for the Unitarian Universalist Society; the solar-powered building embodies the Society’s core principles with its organic architecture emphasizing sustainability, accessibility and flexibility. The energy-efficient building is currently on track to achieve Zero Energy Building (ZEB) certification from the International Living Future Institute (ILFI).

Located on an existing open clearing so as to minimize the building’s impact on the forest, the Unitarian Universalist Society was built to replace an old structure that had multiple levels and many steps. In contrast, the new building was designed for greater accessibility to create more inclusive spaces, and it radiates an uplifting feel with its high ceilings and sloped roof that culminates into a peak in a far corner. The 133,592-square-foot church includes seven religious classrooms and six offices. It was also designed with input from the congregation’s 300 members.

Designed for net-zero energy, the church is an all-electric building powered with a geothermal heat pump system and solar photovoltaic panels located on the building’s west side. To further reduce the building’s environmental impact, the architects installed bioretention cells for capturing and filtering all stormwater runoff. The landscaping features native grasses and woodland walking trails that engage the surroundings and are complemented with accessible food gardens. Materials from the property’s existing residence — deconstructed by volunteers — were donated to local nonprofits. Visitors also have access to charging stations.

“The Unitarian Universalist Society facility harmonizes with its natural landscape to provide reflective spaces for worship, fellowship, religious education and administration,” the architects explained. “Beyond fully-glazed walls, the forest provides dappled intimacy. The sanctuary’s prow extends south, a stone’s throw from a mature evergreen grove. Services pause respectfully as deer and woodland creatures pass.”


California Energy Commission
The Building Decarbonization Coalition recently released a road map designed to help Californians stop their buildings from spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The road map charts a course toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions through highly-efficient systems and appliances powered by electricity instead of fueled by natural gas, which emits carbon into the atmosphere.

In California, building energy use accounts for about 25% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs). Recent analyses from researchers including E3, the Rocky Mountain Institute and Synapse have shown that a transition to efficient electric appliances is the least costly and most effective way to reduce emissions from homes and buildings, according to the coalition’s 16-page Roadmap to Decarbonize California Buildings.

If the systems and appliances used are highly energy efficient, electricity is a better choice for the environment and costs less than natural gas, says Panama Bartholomy, director of the nonprofit group, formed last year to assist in transforming the buildings market toward electric systems and appliances.

The group consists of energy providers, utilities, manufacturers, builders, contractors and others interested in pushing electric-powered building infrastructure.

Thanks to California’s transition to carbon-free renewable electricity, the transition to electric building systems can be achieved by converting appliances to already available technologies powered by electricity, says the report.

For example, high efficiency electric heat pumps can provide clean space and water heating, induction ranges can provide a superior and safe alternative to gas-powered appliances in the kitchen, and efficient electric clothes dryers can be used in place of gas-powered dryers.

There are obstacles. “We need to have new products as quickly as possible so that builders and individual customers can make choices,” says Merrian Borgeson, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We need to re-educate the supply chain and provide incentives for those who go first.”

Carbon Neutral by 2045

The road map follows a law, signed by former California Gov. Jerry Brown (Dem.) last September, that allocates $50 million annually for four years to aid building owners to reduce energy costs, improve air quality and cut climate pollution. The law, called Senate Bill 1477 (SB 1477), is part of the state’s initiative to be carbon neutral by 2045.

To assist the state in achieving its 2045 goal, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) initiated a proceeding, on Jan. 31, that will evaluate proposed methodologies related to the development of rules, policies and procedures aimed at reducing GHGEs from buildings.

SB 1477 requires the CPUC to oversee the development of two new decarbonization programs. They are named Building Initiative for Low Emissions Development (BUILD) and Technology and Equipment for Clean Heating (TECH).

The California Housing Partnership, a nonprofit created by state legislation to help increase to affordable housing for low-income Californians, “absolutely” supported SB 1477 because it sets aside 30% of its incentives for low-carbon building technologies for low-income households, many of which are in multifamily housing, says Stephanie Wong, the group’s policy director.

“It’s important not only to increase energy requirement standards but to increase the resources available for the building technologies we need to meet these standards," she says.

Barriers

The decarbonization coalition aims to break down barriers to the use of electricity. There is low awareness of the problem and low interest in it. The value of switching, on the part of customers, builders and contractors, is perceived as low. The products are not available in quantity because of low demand. And