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04 June 2012

A holistic approach to energy saving in buildings

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Adopting cost-effective energy efficiency solutions as standards

A new Directive, dubbed the energy performance of buildings Directive (EPBD), brings the new concept of net-zero energy buildings (NZEB) meaning buildings with a zero energy balance that have a better level of energy performance than the standard energy efficiency requirements in current building codes. It will be compulsory for all new public buildings by 2018 and by 2020 for other buildings. Since the EPBD directive will introduce more restrictive energy efficiency standards in new buildings than current standards, an FP7-funded project called DIRECTION aims at demonstrating that all new buildings could adopt these standards by using effective and unexpensive energy efficiency solutions.

“The innovation is having approached the design and construction of very low energy buildings in a holistic way”, says Sergio Sanz, DIRECTION project coordinator. “Instead of considering solutions for architectural design, equipment and building energy management system (BEMS) separately, we have found solutions to each problem by always taking into account how they affected the others”.

Never has activity in sustainable building been as strong as it is nowadays.  The objective is to tackle the fact that buildings are responsible for 40% of our energy consumption, 36% of CO2 emissions. Improving buildings’ energy performance is a must to achieve sustainable buildings. It also fits in with the EU's climate & energy 2020 objectives to reduce greenhouse gases emissions by 20% and reach targets of 20% renewable energy share and 20% in energy savings.

To demonstrate how such targets can be met, two privately owned building — at the CARTIF Boecillo site, in Valladolid, Spain and the Nu-Office in Munich, Germany —and one publicly owned building — the new technology park of the Bolzano province in Bolzano, Italy— were chosen as showcase sites, because they are located in countries with an important building sector that is highly regulated. These choices also stem from the fact that buildings represent different concepts from industrial zone buildings to office buildings, and because the energy needs of their users differ.

The project plan consists of deploying a set of measures for energy optimization, high-efficient equipment and advanced building energy management system in each of the three showcase sites of the project.  The overall objective is to achieve a primary energy consumption lower than 60 kWh/m2/year.

In addition, there are specific technological objectives such as providing solutions to enhance the building envelope. These can be met through architectural solutions. For instance, architectural design can help to not only to reduce heat losses or unwanted solar gains but also to allow day lighting and natural ventilation. This requires the development of new control algorithms in order to specifically adapt the energy consumption to the actual needs of the building alongside the creation of dynamic simulations and monitoring. 

Some believe that although technologies used were not innovative, the approach itself was innovative. “What is surprising is that there is no real innovative technology in this project,” explains Inés Alomar, free-lance energy consultant, based in Barcelona. “The innovation is applying what is already on the market to achieve a very ambitious and specific goal.”

Others experts concur in that it was the holistic approach that is innovative. “I think that what is really important and innovative is that they take into account, through simulations, the energy performance, the indoor climate performance and the potential environmental impact of the building already in the design phase”, comments Mikkel Skott Olsen, Environmental Engineer and chair of the board of directors of the international organization Active House Alliance. He adds: “This way they make sure these fundamental aspects to achieve sustainable buildings are an active part since the beginning.”

The additional cost for sustainability will correspond to approximately the plus 10% compared to conventional buildings recommended by the Commission, according to project coordinator Sanz. The exact additional cost will be made public between the third and the fourth year of the project, in 2014-2015. This approach compares favourably with previous attempts to increase energy efficiency in buildings.  “The other projects applied to energy efficiency in buildings I know of have a very high funding value, often out of the market, for materials,” Alomar points out, adding: “Instead here it looks like this is not the case.”

Possible future applications of this project could be relevant to both existing buildings and other building sectors such as malls, according to Alomar. Olsen considers these solutions are valid for all buildings  even though “we have to find out what are the most suitable solutions in each case”.

Ultimately, the aim is for these building to have a wide-impact by becoming a good-practice reference for building professionals, its users, politicians and the society in general. This explains why there is an element of communication in the project too. To increase awareness with regards energy solutions and the energy performance of the buildings, the project will deliver guidelines regarding how best to save energy developed for the buildings users and for the general public. provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.