Eastern Washington University’s Catalyst Building, tucked into the South Landing neighborhood of Spokane, Wash., is a Modern shoebox-shaped, five-story collection of offices and classrooms built with cross-laminated timber. Designed to be a living laboratory of sustainability, the building has sadly sat mostly empty due to the pandemic since opening in the fall of 2020. But those looking for data on the power of transformative technologies such as electrification and smart grid systems need look no further. In the time since the building’s completion, these technologies have undergone an unprecedented shift from cutting-edge to commonplace.
“Building electrification is the ticket for entry, and where smart grids can meet smart buildings, we can decarbonize the grid,” says Michael Frank, vice president of engineering and design for McKinstry, the design-build firm behind Catalyst. “We need buildings to play a big part. We can’t get there from the utility side alone.”
Frank’s work on, and belief in, Catalyst highlights a key shift taking place at the intersection of development, technology, and power generation and distribution, one that’s challenging established ways of designing and building. For decades, sustainably-minded architects have preached increasingly rigorous and effective means to boost efficiency and cut carbon emissions from our buildings, from LEED standards and passive house design to solar panels and battery storage.
But the future—as a number of intertwining developments in building design, utility policy, and digital building management tools suggest—will consist of homes, offices, and neighborhoods hooked up and collaborating with emerging smart grids that can direct and ration power.
Catalyst, in addition to the nearby Scott Morris Center for Energy Innovation, is part of an emerging “Eco-District” that’s pioneering and testing sensors and energy control systems meant to significantly cut energy usage. While this urgent transition may seem like territory for those versed in technology and energy policy, architects can also lead the way.
“Architects have traditionally relied on their favorite engineers to do the right thing, and put the right technologies in their buildings,” Frank says. “But there needs to be a more holistic approach. From the building’s inception, architects need to educate future owners about the impact of building design on the larger system.”
There are three significant, intertwining trends currently pushing the development world toward electrification, according to Rachel Golden, principal of carbon-free buildings for RMI, a sustainability think tank: significant funding going toward clean energy technology; a growing regulatory push by cities and states in favor of rapid electrification; and more mainstream awareness of the health impacts of burning natural gas indoors.
“Electrification is the holy grail,” adds Breana Wheeler, U.S. director of operations for BRE Group-BREEAM, an international building sustainability standard. “It’s really about changing the mindset about what’s important in designing buildings. Energy efficiency is critical to the puzzle.”
She points to buildings like The Edge in Amsterdam, a jewel-shaped, glass-encased high-tech office billed by the Dutch as “a new way of working,” and by Bloomberg as “the smartest building in the world,” when it was completed in 2015. London-based PLP Architecture embedded a combination of high-tech sensors within its dramatic beveled form that, together with a custom app for users, dramatically lowers energy usage. Architects will need to understand the technology behind sophisticated HVAC and electrical systems and think holistically around shading, lighting, and building controls to maximize efficiency.
The speed at which electrification is being implemented—with more than 60 municipalities, including New York, pushing electrification ordinances for newly constructed buildings—has ramped up with increasing government investment. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last year will direct $6 billion toward weatherization, electrification of public buildings, grid work, and support for updating and rewriting building codes for more states and cities. The Department of Energy is running a “Cold Climate Heat Pump Challenge” to help push adoption of electrified heating tech in northern regions of the country while also allocating $20 billion toward its Building a Better Grid Initiative (more than 70% of the nation’s existing transmission lines are 25 years or older).
In New York and California, both centers of development and investment, a host of programs from Governors Kathy Hochul and Gavin Newsom recently unveiled budgets set to funnel additional billions of dollars toward building electrification. With the government’s ability to regulate and the purchasing power inherent in its own sustainable building practices, it can help set the market.
“What we’re finally seeing is the two states that are leading on climate recognizing the importance of buildings,” says Panama Bartholomy, founder and executive director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition. “Their policies are very clear that in this decade, New York and California will be saying no more [to] new gas in buildings, so the architects of the world need to come to an understanding of how to deliver all-electric, efficient buildings by the second half of the decade. There’s no way we’re going to meet climate goals without doing this, so the architectural community should be prepared.”
At the same time, rising electricity costs are hitting building owners hard. Joseph Aamidor, a longtime smart building and real estate technology consultant, says operators and owners face rising electric bills—“you can really destroy your budget by using energy at the wrong time”—as well as a rapid rise in consumption.
In short, modern buildings are moving toward more nodes of electrical usage and need more control, just as climate realities demand a rapid shift to renewable power generation that isn’t as reliable as fossil fuel generation. Numerous states have set 100% clean energy goals, and the Biden administration wants to shift the grid to net-zero carbon emissions by 2035. These significant leaps forward won’t land without a blueprint for smart energy use.
For these systemic changes to take root in a viable way, a smart grid is essential. Broadly speaking, this means a grid that isn’t a one-way distributor of power, but one that interacts with buildings (and can utilize battery storage) to better manage and lower existing energy use; help supply new demands for electric vehicles and electrified homes; and take advantage of a growing network of renewable power generation and home and commercial battery storage. In California, for example, the increasing hunger for more renewable energy sources to slash carbon emissions and meet sustainability targets means the need for a new generation of smart electrified buildings, which can help balance grid operations and reduce overall energy usage.
“If we want renewable supply, we want flexible demand,” says Mary Ann Piette, a senior scientist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is focused on building technology, and the CalFlexHub, a working lab for smart grid tech. “We want to demand to use as much of the clean energy when it’s available. That’s a big driver.”
Clean energy is also a driver set to be accelerated by vast investments in new tech, including home batteries and more resilient electrical grids. Wood Mackenzie, a global research firm focused on clean energy, predicts $110 billion in investment on distributed energy resources around the country will begin to realize these savings. The Department of Energy estimates that over the next two decades, grid-interactive efficient buildings could save the U.S. up to $200 billion in electricity costs.
A number of programs and pilots have shown the promise of this new technology. Whisper Valley, an Austin, Texas-area megadevelopment that runs on solar and geothermal power, will soon add a mixed-use retail development. A number of national laboratories and DOE initiatives have collaborated on the Connected Communities program, a growing network of grid-interactive efficient building communities, including many California college campuses. Across the country, developments like Reynolds Landing in Hoover, Ala., which utilizes smart grid systems, have shown great promise. The 62-house setup is outfitted with energy control systems that cut energy usage by 44% and cut peak energy usage by more than a third. The appeal to energy savings is a key part of the development’s marketing—the homes are touted as being rated 35% more efficient than standard new-construction Alabama homes.
In Ithaca, N.Y., Brooklyn-based climate tech startup BlocPower plans to decarbonize the entire building stock in coming years, utilizing a set of unified design guidelines for retrofits and conversions, as well as neighborhood geothermal and heat-pump networks, to electrify roughly 6,000 buildings. It’s the most significant step taken by any city to transform its built environment and will allow Ithaca to reach its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030.
As Dom Lempereur, BlocPower’s chief of engineering, says, it’s the scale, rather than the technological breakthrough, that makes this project most noteworthy. In a decade, using current technology proven with existing case studies, he hopes to transform the city, eliminating significant air pollution and electrifying homes and ideally a large number of vehicles. “We don’t have much room for error,” he says. “We’ll be working with contractors for years with products they already know. We’re not doing research and development with products we don’t know.”
Scott Shell, FAIA, principal at EHDD Architecture, has worked on a number of electrified and grid-smart buildings, such as the Sonoma Clean Power Co. headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif. “It’s shocking how quickly cities have embraced electrification, which will encourage manufacturers to make better products supporting electrification,” Shell says. “What drives the cost of electricity isn’t so much generating it, it’s the infrastructure that has to be built to transmit it and shift it around. If we can use the smart grid to manage when those peaks occur and reduce those peaks, we can save billions of dollars on costs for apartment renters and homeowners.”
While this technological evolution seems to be moving ahead, in many ways, according to Frank, it’s returning architecture to first principles.
“This is getting back to the traditional roots of architecture and having a more holistic view of what they’re doing, creating a building from soup to nuts,” he says. “Helping clients through this transformation is something architects are, and should be, excited about.”