Conceptually, designing a net zero building is straightforward. The goal is simply to utilize renewable energy sources to generate at least as much energy as is consumed. But in reality, net zero buildings are complex and can encounter unforeseen challenges.
RTM Engineering Consultants has extensive experience in delivering sustainable and energy-efficient solutions for clients. For the last several years, RTM has been involved with an ambitious project, designing the lighting, power, IT, and solar energy components of the electrical system for The William Jefferson Clinton Children’s Center in Port au Prince, Haiti.
Led by the U.S. Green Building Council, the project aimed to replace an orphanage that was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake with a completely sustainable facility. The children’s center is one of only a few LEED-certified buildings in Haiti, and it also earned a WELL certification from the International Well Building Institute.
Chris Kneeland, a project engineer in RTM’s Milwaukee office, started working pro-bono on the project in 2012 and has seen it evolve and expand over time.
“Net zero was always the goal in the back of our minds,” said Kneeland. “We wanted to install as much solar as possible, so they didn’t have to depend on unreliable utility power in Haiti. But what started as installing simple solar panels and a storage system became a much larger endeavor. We wanted this project to be a part of the bigger community – an example of how we can build better, smarter, and more efficiently.”
The center has large rooftop solar panels and a battery bank to store solar energy for use at night or during a disaster. The battery bank is designed to power the building for up to 48 hours with zero sunlight. The center is also outfitted with other energy-efficient features, including LED light fixtures and motion and occupancy sensors.
“One of the challenges we’ve run into is that we’re actually producing more solar energy than we’re using,” said Kneeland. “And while that’s a good problem to have, we’re looking for solutions to use that excess energy. One idea is to divert the energy to an ice machine that runs on a timer. The infrastructure for drinking water isn’t good in Port au Prince. A government-provided truck drives down the street each day, and people fill containers with fresh water. But if we could hand out bags of ice made from fresh water, that would be a way for us to give back to the community.”
Kneeland outlined some of the best practices for net zero buildings he has learned while working on the children’s center:
Account for location variables.
“From a design perspective, a net zero building should be uncomplicated,” he said. “But you have to take into account variables specific to your location, like weather, or language or cultural barriers. In Haiti, a lot of our contractors spoke Creole, an offshoot of French. So we had some installation challenges until I found documentation in French for a majority of the solar components.”
Be attentive to the capabilities of your contractors.
“Installation standards or proficiencies may vary, depending on where you are in the world,” said Kneeland. “For this project, I was happy I got to go down and inspect the installation so I could work out any little issues that came up.”
“If you’re working outside the U.S., going through customs can cause long delays,” he said. “During a dockworkers’ strike, we had major problems with products sitting for months at a time or disappearing altogether. But even if you work within the U.S., product back-orders or shipping delays can be difficult and time-consuming. Build in extra time for unexpected hold-ups if you can.”
Interested in partnering with RTM Engineering Consultants on a sustainable project? Get in touch.