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Achieving Zero Energy Building Design

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With the trend toward decarbonization increasing interest in net zero carbon buildings and on-site renewable energy, it is essential architects and design professionals understand the process and factors to consider, the best practices and procedures, and where to find the resources to complete a zero energy building design.

The Advanced Energy Design Guide (AEDG) Series has been supporting this effort for over a decade. The guides provide definitions and processes; solution sets by climate zone with a mix of prescriptive and performance-based approaches; guidance on strategies, including whole-building integration approaches; recommended energy targets; and examples of buildings with performance data showing proven techniques and achievable targets.  

Adapted from the Advanced Energy Design Guide for K-12 School Buildings and featuring case studies of zero energy K-12 schools, this highly interactive, self-paced learning program offers recommendations, strategies, and resources for achieving zero-energy commercial buildings to help design practitioners improve their skills in high-efficiency building design. 

The course was developed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in partnership with the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

Course expires on 8/9/2026.

Learning Objectives


Define zero energy buildings


Discuss the different terms used for zero energy


Explain the benefits associated with achieving zero energy

Module 2: Developing Energy Budget and Key Performance Criteria

  • Identify the key steps to an integrated zero energy design process
  • Appreciate the importance of conducting an iterative analysis throughout the design process
  • Implement each step in the integrated zero energy design process

Module 3: Building Performance Simulation

  • Define building performance simulation and describe each of its elements
  • Identify different simulation types and how to use the results
  • Interpret the feedback provided from each simulation type and how it can be analyzed and used to make design decisions

Module 4: Building the Team

  • Describe the role that a designer plays in being a champion for zero energy design
  • Discuss the key characteristics of a zero energy design team
  • Describe techniques and methods to get all team members focused on the goal of zero energy

Module 5: Creating a Collaborative Mindset

  • Describe the strategies for setting energy goals
  • Discuss the steps for developing collaboration across all teams and creating an integrated design as applied to zero energy buildings

Module 6: Developing Quality Assurance and Commissioning

  • Discuss the role of the QA team
  • Describe how QA/QC plans are created to achieve the required performance
  • Describe the measurement and verification period, how long it should last, and items to consider
  • Identify the strategies used to monitor and maintain building efficiency
  • Discuss the importance of sustaining zero energy performance and reducing energy consumption in the long term

Module 7: Project Planning

  • Discuss the key components and factors to consider when simultaneously meeting budget and energy performance goals
  • Describe the loading order to efficiently design and construct a zero energy building
  • Understand how to manage a project so that all decisions evaluate energy impacts

Module 8: Strategies for Architects

  • Discuss site and building design strategies to consider when designing a zero energy building
  • Describe the key items to consider when designing a building envelope that is aesthetically pleasing and contributes to meeting the energy goals
  • Identify the key factors to consider for achieving energy savings when designing daylighting
  • Describe the options available to achieve energy savings through electric lighting without compromising performance

Module 9: Strategies for Engineers

  • Describe ways that engineers can help hit EUI targets
  • Identify ways to maximize energy efficiency while improving indoor environmental quality
  • Describe the best practices for reducing energy consumption of the service water heating system
  • Discuss strategies to reduce energy consumption in kitchen equipment
  • Discuss different renewable energy sources that can be used as part of a zero energy building design

Module 10: Effective Envelopes

  • Describe the role that the building envelope plays in zero energy design
  • Identify the steps for optimizing the envelope
  • Describe thermal bridges and their detailing
  • Discuss the steps and criteria needed to perform envelope testing
  • Discuss the multi-disciplined aspects of creating an effective envelope

Module 11: HVAC Systems

  • Identify the necessary design parameters for HVAC systems in zero energy buildings
  • Discuss the factors to consider when completing loading calculations in order to "right-size" HVAC equipment.
  • Describe the controls used for HVAC systems in zero energy buildings
  • Discuss design features that improve the ease of maintenance of HVAC systems for zero energy buildings.

Module 12: Plug Loads

  • Describe the importance of plug loads
  • Discuss why plug loads are part of the design problem
  • Describe strategies for controlling plug loads
  • Engage occupants in the success of the building