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“Zero-energy buildings are impossible to build and they don’t make financial sense.” This statement is a false narrative. Zero-energy buildings and even zero-energy targeting cities are gaining momentum all over the United States and Canada, both for environmental and financial reasons. Whatever your role is in our industry, you can define yourself by leading the charge in this growing and vital sector.
Zero-energy buildings (ZEB) aren’t just a San Francisco pipe dream. In a ZEB panel webinar “Scaling to Zero,” hosted by REHAU in August, Cathy Higgins, research director at New Buildings Institute which has tracked zero-energy buildings since 2008, explains, “We have buildings on the map in every climate zone, in 45 states. And they're not just small buildings, 25 percent of this database and 90% of the floor space is greater than 50,000 square feet. So, it's a very diverse distribution of building sizes and types.”
How can buildings best move toward zero energy? Cindy Cogil, principal and director of engineering at SmithGroup, says in the webinar, “The most underutilized tool in our collective toolbox is to think beyond the individual building and to scale up. In my mind, this means designing building systems that enable energy to be more easily repurposed, within a building, between buildings and between buildings and the earth. And this often relies on technologies that heat at lower temperatures and cool at higher temperatures.”
Cogil and her peers are doing this work already. There isn’t a massive technology gap here. We might need to find new technologies to support life on Mars, but we already have the technology and workforce means to support low-energy, high-performance building construction.
If you are a building owner, there is incentive to go zero energy, also. Adrienne Johnson, associate engineer at Point Energy Innovations mentions in the ZEB webinar, “What are the health and comfort outcomes for future occupants of high-performance buildings? These are generally very high quality and this can make the discussion a lot more tangible for the owner. Then in turn, this also makes the building more leasable, which is another thing that we like to focus on. We already know that people tend to gravitate toward healthier buildings and green buildings are leased faster than standard buildings.”
Let’s say a building owner assumes a price premium will be associated with constructing a ZEB. Instead, they opt for minimum-code energy performance. Maybe they save a little on initial construction. What if that building isn’t completely leased because a comparable space around the corner goes zero energy and offers tenants better comfort and lower monthly utilities? Would the minimally acceptable energy efficiency be a financial benefit for long?
Building owners are already recognizing the financial benefits of ZEB. Higgins explains, “What I really get excited about is when you see that ZEB construction isn’t just public buildings anymore; that's a trend change. Our data shows 45 percent of these buildings are privately owned and 27 percent are privately owned, for-profit. So, we're seeing expansion into economic drivers to make a decision in the private sector.”
The smart investment money might be in ZEB construction, contrary to the expiring notions that you would only build green if building owners demanded it. Building resiliency, an additional by-product of ZEB, might ultimately have an even greater influence on construction decisions.
For a broader look at the financial incentive to focus on ZEBs, a 2020 report written by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Wall Street experts who are looking at financial markets in relation to climate change. The commission is a bipartisan group, appointed by the President. Their report anticipates that financial markets will operate sub-optimally if capital doesn’t accelerate a transition toward a net-zero emissions economy. The report conclusion says, “Climate impacts may also magnify or exacerbate existing, non-climate related vulnerabilities in the financial systems, with potentially serious consequences for market stability.”
Further mentioning that post-COVID-19, the already weakened economy is going to be especially vulnerable to disruption. Beyond the day-to-day work we do, the construction industry can play a vital role in making the world and financial systems more stable and resilient.
On a larger scale than individual buildings, the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance has a website that shows goals and progress for the towns that have committed to reducing carbon emissions in a major way. You will see some familiar cities, such as San Francisco and Boulder, Colorado. However, Minneapolis is also on their list. While not completely causally related, since 2006, they have seen a 30 percent economic growth, while reducing emissions by 17.8 percent. Cities can require better energy efficiency without sacrificing economic growth. The major shift that is occurring is that building green, however you define that, isn’t an obstacle for builders; it is a way to set yourself apart. As millennials become the majority of homebuyers and office space occupants, ZEBs will become more desirable.
Building professionals have the technology readily available to make buildings more efficient. To get involved, search for groups that are pushing the ZEB goals you are most interested in. You can provide input or even get on the steering committees in many places. In my limited experience, I’ve found that non-technical community planning organizations would much rather have the technical input while they are still building the car, instead of hearing about how badly they neglected the technical aspects of a topic once the car is built. Be someone who drives the zero-energy building discussion and implements the energy efficiency designs that are needed on this continent.
For more on this topic, you can find a recording of “Scaling to Zero” here: