Architecture at Zero




Jensen Architects – Winning entry (Honor Award)



Beginning in 2011, Architecture at Zero, a collaboration between the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and the California chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIACA), was established to investigate the role architecture might play in reducing energy consumption in the built environment. Since then, every year has seen a new site and building type selected as a design challenge in what has become one of the world’s most interesting international competitions.
 As a sign of its mounting popularity, the competition received 237 registrations from 49 countries and, according to the professional adviser, about 150 entries— all this during the Covid-19 virus pandemic, when all were compelled to work from home.


Although an ideas competition, the annual competitions were staged with input from the institutions that provided the subject matter for this exploratory process. No exception to this format, the 2020 Architecture at Zero competition’s subject, a library for Hollister, California, took place with the blessing of the community’s San Benito County Free Library. The competition organizers were clear in their praise for the input received from the County Librarian, Nora Conte, and the library’s Community Program Director, Erin Baxter. Moreover, the organizers were clear that the quality of the competition program could not have occurred without the technical expertise of Peter Turnbull, former Principal Program Manager, Zero Net Energy, PG&E.
 The administration of the competition was carried out by competition adviser Margie O’Driscoll.


The design challenge for the participating competitors was clear:

“The 2020 Architecture at Zero competition challenge is to create a zero net energy library for the San Benito County Free Library in Hollister, CA. Entrants are encouraged to highlight any energy efficiency strategies or systems shown. In order to demonstrate the building design and its performance, entrants will provide required documentation and may also include supplementary documentation. The preferred solution is an all-electric zero net energy library. The preferred solution will not include natural gas and will use electric power.”


One of the more interesting aspects of the competition components was the jury, many of who had participated in the previous Architecture at Zero competitions. Almost to a person, they remarked how the field’s advances in the tools made available to the designers over the years had contributed to the obvious improvement in quality of the competition entries. Among those who had been jurors over the years were Allison Williams, FAIA, Paul Torcellini, PhD PE, Greg D. Ander, FAIA, and Marsha Maytum, FAIA.
 A welcome addition to this year’s jury was Cole Roberts, PE, from San Francisco’s ARUP office.






Student Merit Award entry by Cankaya University


Other than the advances in the technical field of energy consumption in the 2020 competition, it was notable that the winner in the 2016 Professional Category, Dialog of Vancouver, B.C., also was awarded a finalist award in this year’s competition, whereby Jason Heinrichs, the lead designer of the 2016 winner, was also on the team as designer of this year’s submission.

Of the finalists in this year’s Professional Category, two of the three were notable for their liberal use of lumber in the construction process. This is no doubt a sign of the times.

Finally, the nature of the subject matter in no way deterred from the aesthetics of the design proposals. The jury was clear that siting and aesthetics were considered as essential, assuming the numbers matched the metrics required by the energy sector.

Finally, all of the jurors were impressed with the level of sophistication and technical expertise so evident in this year’s entries. Much of this was attributed to the use of the advancement in the tools which were used to inform the specifications in the energy sector.



Read more…






Exhibitions and Conferences


No events

Recent Archive Updates




Prince Charles in the White House?

Expressway toll booth of the future ©Paul Spreiregen
(Explanation of lane designations below*)


Recent news about a new U.S. government policy concerning the design of public buildings under President Trump bears a striking resemblance to the controversy surrounding that very issue in the U.K. in the second half of the 20thcentury. It was then that Prince Charles appeared on the scene to challenge the use of modern design in architecture. Prince Charles’ career as architecture critic on the public stage began in 1984 with his criticism of Mies van der Rohe’s design for a new tower on Mansion House Square in London. Unfortunately for Britain’s architects, the voice of the crown carries some weight in British society, and the Mies tower was scrapped, replaced by a post-modern structure by James Stirling—which the Prince also did not like. According to the Prince, those modernist buildings resembled “Frankenstein monsters.” According to U.K.-based architects who had to deal with Charles’ pushback on modern design during that period, he was the “worst thing that happened to architecture here.”


Since then, Prince Charles’ influence in blocking the evolution of modern design in the U.K. has diminished considerably with the ascendance of modern architecture as a common staple—led by architects such as Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Amanda Levete, Zaha Hadid, John McAslan, Nicholas Grimshaw, Thomas Heatherwick, and others. Although not taken seriously by his European neighbors on the continent, Prince Charles’ ideas did find fertile ground in the U.S.—both in municipalities and even in academia, where classical architecture became a staple at such programs as Notre Dame and, to a lesser extent, Yale. At the latter, I learned from a former student there that Prince Charles even surfaced on a list of “architects” one could choose from as a topic in one seminar.


Instead of peer review, federal architecture under the auspices of the General Services Administration (GSA) now will apparently be at the mercy of a “beautification” panel, which will see to it that modern architecture recedes into the background, if at all. U.S. architects may see themselves placed in the uncomfortable position German, Italian and Russian architects experienced under their totalitarian regimes in the 1930s. By embracing the primacy of classical architecture as a blueprint for public buildings, the Trump regime certainly has helped the National Civic Art Society reach its ultimate goal, at least at the federal level—requiring American architects to turn to the replication of 17thand 18thcentury-style buildings as the preferred design model. Assuming that happens, Prince Charles would be a welcome visitor in the White House.


Addressing this issue, Paul Spreiregen FAIA, architect and professional adviser for the Vietnam Memorial competition states:

“Architectural history is not a copybook. Rather It is a textbook, to be read with a deep understanding of the many principles upon which architecture comes into being. The history of architecture is not served by aping it but by building on it, addressing the programmatic needs of each new building in its own time and place, its neighbored respected, thereby reflecting and honoring the culture it serves. 
To use the “styles” of the past as a cloak for the new is a lie, a subterfuge for respectability and supposed prestige. That is the work of authoritarian governments. Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini were its more recent and notorious promoters. They produced not architecture but laughable if not tragic cartoons of architecture.

All the great works of architecture of the past were, in their own times and places, masterpieces of ancient principles seen anew. That practice has been the glory of the best of American architecture.”**

*Letters to the Editor, The Washington Post, 17 February 2020


*Lane designations

I – Express lane for National Civic Art Society members and family
II – One-horse Roman War chariots (a non carbon emitting benefit)
III – Two-horse Roman war chariots (other emissions of a non carbon nature to be monitored)
IV – Fiats
V – Ferraris
VI – Alpha Romeos
VII-IX – Other automobiles of the great unwashed
VVV…. etc (in colonnade)

Vestal virgins (scantily clad in aisles I-VI) poised in colonnade who wave red or green flags to signal receipt of toll fee
R It – Italian fast food restaurant. (order by mobile phone)
R Gr – Greek fast food restaurant.