‘Cool Walls’ Get a Boost from U.S. Green Building Council



cool roofs, Energy Technologies
Image: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (iStock)

By: Julie Chao, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory | May 18, 2021

Sunlight-reflecting “cool walls” have been shown to reduce energy costs by lowering heat gain in buildings. But they do more – reflective walls can also cool cities, fighting the urban heat island effect. The concept has new support from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which has issued a pilot credit for the installation of cool exterior walls in new homes, schools, and commercial buildings to mitigate urban heat islands.

With the pilot credit, this is a test integration for cool walls into the USGBC’s Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) ratings for buildings. LEED standards raise the bar for energy efficiency, water conservation, waste reduction, and other aspects of a building’s construction and operation. Building owners seeking to meet a LEED standard take steps that earn them points toward certification.

The pilot credit was written by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) scientist Ronnen Levinson based on peer-reviewed research by the University of South California (USC) and Berkeley Lab. That study found that reflective walls could lower urban air temperature much like reflective “cool roofs.”

The newly issued pilot credit means buildings that satisfy specific cool wall requirements will earn an innovation point in LEED. After a trial period, USGBC will decide whether to add the pilot credit to its permanent library.

Making a wall cool is a relatively simple endeavor, but it can have big payoffs.

“LEED has long recognized the heat island reduction benefits of cool roofs and pavements. This pilot credit also acknowledges the urban cooling that can be delivered by reflective walls,” said Levinson, leader of Berkeley Lab’s Heat Island Group.

The idea is to surface exterior walls with a solar-reflective paint or cladding. Reflecting sunlight out of the city reduces urban heat. To qualify for the LEED pilot credit, buildings must cover 75% of a building’s exterior with a cool wall material that reflects at least 60% of sunlight, among other specifications.

Cool walls are also gaining acceptance as a way to reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions in buildings. Through a nationwide study, Berkeley Lab researchers found that in warm U.S. cities from Miami, Florida, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and all across California, cool walls could provide energy savings and greenhouse gas emissions reductions in homes, offices, and stores comparable to those from cool roofs. Recently, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) published an addendum to its “90.1” energy standard for buildings (except low-rise residential buildings) that credits cool-wall energy savings in performance compliance for the standard. Levinson provided technical guidance to ASHRAE as it worked on the update.

“Cool wall materials, such as light-colored paints, are available today at no extra cost,” Levinson said. “Choosing them for new construction or routine repainting is an easy and affordable way to make our cities cooler and safer while lowering your energy bill.”

The study that informed this pilot credit was led by Jiachen Zhang and George Ban-Weiss of USC. The work was funded by the California Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) program.

Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 14 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science.