Building Magazine


Target Zero

The beginnings of a global market shift toward zero energy buildings

As sustainable building practices continue to take hold across the globe, it is safe to say that the construction industry is now on a clear trajectory to higher standards. For market leaders, the target is becoming clear: Zero.

Zero energy, net-zero, zero carbon — while the definitions are still being worked out, whichever way you slice it, evidence and experience show that achieving an annual balance between energy used and renewable energy generated will become a realistic option for builders.

Shifting Performance Standards

The global boom in advanced sustainable building targets is illustrated by the growth of international programs targeting radically higher building energy performance standards.

For example, Passivhaus or ‘Passive House’, which demands extensive energy reductions, is reported by the U.K.-based BRE, which specializes in Passivhaus building certification and consultation, to be “the fastest growing energy performance standard in the world” with over 30,000 buildings realized to date.

Ed Mazria’s program, Architecture 2030, whose goal is zero carbon from buildings by 2030, is in the midst of a U.S. nationwide education roll out with the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the Living Building Challenge which includes zero-energy as a requirement has emerged from the Cascadia Green Building Council as a framework for those looking to go beyond LEED. The program is now active in five countries (USA, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Mexico), has certified three buildings as “Living” with a growing number of registered projects in development (for more information on the various international certifications, read the article “Does LEED Still Lead” in the August-September 2011 issue of Building).

Driving Market Change

Innovolve, as part of a Canadian team working with the international community on low-carbon and zero-energy housing, has been exploring local solutions and strategies from China, to Australia, to Mexico and Peru. What they’ve found is a number of factors leading to this market transformation.

National energy security is a major driver for exploring the energy efficiency and energy generation provided by zero energy buildings. But private homeowners seeking energy independence are also leading the change in some markets. One top green homebuilder in the southwestern U.S. found that their core customer for zero energy housing is not social minded environmentalists, but right wing libertarians looking to insulate themselves against big energy utilities. The company has done some of its most successful marketing at hunting and fishing shows.

Financial drivers range from conservation savings, to government incentives, to net metering or feed-in tariffs that provide income through energy generation sold back to the grid. There are also untapped opportunities for international funding for countries that participate in carbon markets or are eligible for development aid. Mexico is one country leading the way by formalizing a national urban carbon mitigation strategy that includes low carbon housing and is laying the groundwork for carbon credit applications.

Regions like Ontario are seeing minimum energy performance increases in building code and other jurisdictions are establishing national energy guidelines to inform building policy. These levels are determined primarily by looking at the performance levels currently being achieved by builders. As more builders demonstrate capacity to affordably achieve ultra-high energy performance the codes will continue to follow.

Some developers see it as an opportunity to ensure their leadership in the marketplace. In Canada, for example, Minto is doubling down on zero energy after their experience building the Inspiration Ecohome as part of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) EQuilibrium competition for zero energy homes. Robert Smith, Director of Innovation for Minto says that “the opportunity to build inspiration,” named Canada’s Greenest Home, “provided incredible positive recognition for Minto, reinforcing our reputation as one of greenest homebuilders in the country. Additionally, it allowed us to experiment with new ways of building, refining our construction processes and improving the build quality and energy performance of even our standard base models.” Now they are utilizing the lessons learned and are targeting zero energy for a multi-unit residential project at their Ampersand community in Nepean, Ont.

What’s Next

Zero energy is still a new concept particularly for consumers, but new programs will start to build the awareness much the way ENERGY STAR has for energy efficiency over the past decade. One example comes from the Living Future Institute which owns the Living Building Challenge. They have created a Net Zero Energy Building Certification program using the structure of the Living Building Challenge. This could go a long way to both define the standard criteria for claiming zero energy and to educate the market that zero energy is possible.

The cost of new technologies will continue to drop, making zero energy increasingly competitive on a first cost basis and far more profitable over the life of a building. Energy efficient lighting is already achieving positive ROI with a short payback term. Higher quality windows, wall assemblies and insulation will cost more, but prices are coming down as order volumes increase. Besides, when installed correctly they provide critical air-tightness that result in significant savings on space conditioning equipment requirements and energy costs.

Access to these components is one of the biggest areas of deficiency in developing nations. As these countries begin implementing new building energy programs and standards there will be huge manufacturing and licensing opportunities for the makers of high quality products. To put it in context, according to StatsCan there are about 12.4 million homes of all types in Canada, while Brazil will require an estimated 22 million new housing units by 2022 to meet projected demand.

Finally, any regulations, incentives and financial mechanisms pegged to energy or carbon savings will require verified performance assurance. This means increased requirements for building energy modeling, post construction testing, and ongoing commissioning and monitoring to ensure that desired savings are being achieved. Inevitably, the resulting availability of data along with a trend toward providing greater energy transparency and life cycle costing for occupants, we are sure to see an emergence of mandatory energy labeling or time-of-sale reporting requirements.

While the first steps of green building involved just a few tweaks to current practices — some better equipment here, a little more insulation there — companies pursuing higher levels of sustainability required a rethinking of their whole building model. Shifting to integrated design processes and building-as-a-system thinking allowed them to achieve vast performance improvements and laid the groundwork for driving continued innovation. Once the organizational shift was made, further improvements toward zero-energy became both feasible and inevitable as market conditions allowed.

It will be a long time before buildings on the whole achieve zero energy or zero carbon impact, but early signs show that the potential exists and that the market is moving faster than expected.

Jeff Ranson is a Senior Associate with sustainability consulting firm the Innovolve Group ( He serves on the executive of Sustainable Buildings Canada and is a member of Future-Proofing Cities. Jeff is also completing a Masters in Strategic Foresight and Innovation from OCADU in Toronto where he is researching the application of foresight methods for resilient urban design.

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