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The all-electric future for buildings: Decarbonizing the built environment
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The all-electric future for buildings: Decarbonizing the built environment

Decarbonizing the built environment: the all-electric future of buildings

Julie Janiski, Partner in the Boston office
Buro Happold

By Julie Janiski & John Swift

Partners at Buro Happold Boston

BOSTON–Aggressive decarbonization in the built environment is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. All-electric buildings can be connected to electricity grids that are supplied by renewable energy sources to support this goal. Buro Happold has done a preliminary study of different construction types in US cities to assist with sustainable engineering solutions. The feasibility study highlights the importance of high-performance envelopes, heat recuperation, heat pumps, system and network resilience, and grid carbon factor as key variables. These readily available and affordable solutions will reduce, or eliminate, any additional strain on an electrical grid.

Many buildings, especially in cold climates, rely on fossil fuel sources (e.g. Natural gas is used for heating and hot water. The impact of an all electric building is often based upon the conversion of these heating and domestic water loads from fossil fuels. Energy-intensive buildings may introduce additional factors such humidification, additional plug load demands, or additional water heating requirements.

Buro Happold’s feasibility study includes cold climates as well as intensive building types such labs. It also considers warmer climates and other sector sectors, such office, higher education, multifamily. Buro Happold has examined the impact of the technology, greenhouse gases, and cost on the project and the electric grid in order to evaluate an all-electric solution. These four impact categories will be referenced throughout the study.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Grid resilience



These are the key takeaways from Buro Happold’s project-based studies:

Grid carbon factors. All-electric buildings align with many state and municipal goals for carbon neutrality. The US has a wide range of carbon footprints. They vary by state and region. (see graphic)

Technology and loads. Buro Happolds studies have included an evaluation three heating technologies in five US cities. It shows that heat pumps have a lower carbon footprint than other heat sources today and into 2050. (see graphic)

Costs. All-electric buildings are becoming more affordable. It is important to consider the following key cost factors: space requirements, impacts on usable space and capital cost, maintenance, utility, and maintenance costs, as also the possibility of offset costs for projects pursuing zero carbon targets.

Buro Happolds research shows that an electric heat pump can be implemented on a per unit basis using current Boston cost rates. This is significantly less than the nearly fivefold increase in electrical resistance heating. (see graphic)

This feasibility study is the first to represent some of Buro Happolds’ work to date. We are sharing this to help the industry in decarbonizing their built environment. For the next version, there are many items that need to be challenged or developed, including but not restricted to:

Other locations beyond Boston

A list of key resources

All-electric city-scale research

Evaluations of existing buildings

Other important topics for climate action agenda (e.g. Other topics that are critical to climate action agenda (e.g., embodied carbon and equity for the poor).

This study is the result of many engineers and consultants from Buro Happold. It also includes discussions with peers, collaborators, clients, and industry peers. These conversations and intercultural collaborations are vital and should be continued for the foreseeable future. The future of an all-electric, sustainable building sector will be possible by sharing data and methodologies.

Global consultancy Buro Happold has Julie Janiski, CPHC and LEED AP as a partner. She leads integrated teams of engineers and designers, analysts, subject-matter specialists, and subject-matter specialists from the Boston office of Buro Happold to deliver high performance projects. They have delivered projects at every scale, including individual buildings and city planning.

John Swift, CEM, LEED AP is the partner at global consultancy Buro Happold and the leader in science and technology. He has been providing solutions to research, commercial, and academic facilities for over 25 years. His expertise includes the creation of reliable infrastructure that optimizes occupant comfort and safety while minimizing energy consumption.

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