Carbon Reduction in Commercial New Construction

Every city climate action plan I have ever read references moving to zero energy buildings as well as  more stringent or zero energy building energy codes. These are great plan elements and certainly are “doable” things to include in a plan. That said, zero energy buildings are not all that easy to accomplish across the broader market, and they certainly won’t happen without a substantial supportive effort.

At the current time, a few leading architectural and engineering firms can and do routinely deliver zero energy commercial buildings. Many of the remaining firms may not be interested, may believe that their clients don’t want zero energy, may not know how to fit designing to zero energy into their business or fee structure, or may just be following their own rules of inertia. They haven’t gotten on the (electric) bus.

Zero energy buildings and the codes that require them are very important aspects of a climate plan, but implementation will require a detailed and deliberate strategy. Professional training, consumer education, price reductions, and technology advances are all necessary components of any strategy. Many of these strategy elements can be accomplished through regional or national actions but some elements are very localized.

The stories in this month’s newsletter are focused on new construction (mostly non-residential) and provide some initial guidance to those who want to see their climate action plans move forward more rapidly. Decarbonization of existing buildings is both more difficult, has fewer precedents and less detailed guidance available. (NEEP has developed a draft plan for existing residential buildings, focused on the Northeast U.S.) Below are several resources that can be useful to cities and states. Other stories in the newsletter describe some additional critical elements for consideration.

National Buildings Institute (NBI)

NBI started in zero energy about a decade ago, supporting the initial zero energy effort in California and also the group that later became the International Living Futures Institute (ILFI). The resources at NBI include a semi-annual survey of the zero energy commercial buildings market that started in 2012. The market tracking of zero energy over time has some excellent lessons about how markets grow.

Early projects were mostly small buildings owned by environmental organizations or architectural or engineering firms that reflected their corporate values. The next generation were primarily public buildings, especially educational buildings. Multifamily construction, primarily affordable multifamily developed by community-based organizations, has also been a growth market. A number of larger private firms that control their own real estate, such as TD Bank and Walgreens, have either experimented with or launched zero energy efforts.

Over time the scale and diversity of zero energy buildings has grown. In the most recent report, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that there’s been 700 percent growth in zero energy buildings since 2012. The bad news is that the overall market share is still less than one percent. We know a lot about zero energy buildings, but there is a long way to go to transform the market.

One way to transform the market is to require transformation. Enter codes, which can work very well but still need supportive strategies and structures. And by the way, there can be significant political difficulties in both getting codes passed and in early implementation efforts.

NBI was initially founded to develop better commercial building energy codes and is a prominent player in national, state, and local code development efforts. The group is involved in both base energy codes (usually state adopted minimum requirements), stretch codes (that go beyond minimum requirements for adopting jurisdictions or for certain building types), and utility program efforts that can build the pathway to stronger codes. There are multiple resources on the NBI website, and NBI continues to push the boundaries of code strategies.

Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP)

In the Northeast United States, NEEP provides support to cities and states for the adoption of both zero energy buildings and zero energy codes. NEEP was founded as a market transformation organization more than 20 years ago, and provides the planning frameworks, technical depth, partnership development and support needed to move markets forward towards deeper efficiency and lower carbon.

NEEP’s recent publication, Building Energy Codes for a Carbon Constrained Era, includes detailed strategy and implementation information on getting to zero energy in codes as well as code administrative enhancements. The goals of the report are to:

  • Advance building energy code development and adoption to enact zero energy buildings codes throughout the Northeast region within the next 15 to 25 years; and,
  • Improve the administration of building energy codes to ensure that desired performance levels are realized.

NEEP partners extensively throughout the Northeast and is well-positioned to provide the technical support that many states and communities need to smoothly advanced policies and programs. NEEP has focused on publicly owned buildings as a leading market for zero energy performance, and has developed planning documents, case studies and other supportive information.

Exemplar Strategies

Some of the most aggressive strategies in commercial new construction are being developed and implemented at the city level.  At the broader level, there are the international Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Sierra Club’s growing network of over 100 U.S. cities pledging to use 100 percent renewable energy. In dense urban environments, new single family construction is modest, but commercial construction including multifamily is a critical driver to reach climate goals. There are multiple resources and examples associated with these two initiatives.

The city of Vancouver, Canada has put together a detailed and comprehensive Zero Emissions Buildings Plan that includes regulations, density bonuses, technical guidance and assistance. The plan’s “catalyst tools” philosophy was succinctly explained to Vancouver’s City Council as:

“When structured properly, catalyst tools will support multi-unit residential developers pursuing Passive House or ILFI Zero Energy standards in working through real and perceived development and construction risks unique to the multi-unit residential and mixed-use building typologies. Once these shifts in the building industry are made, near zero-emissions standards can be more easily required in policy and the Building By-law. As zero emission buildings practise are broadly adopted, the catalyst tools can be discontinued.”

There are thousands of people that need to change their thinking and practice for the buildings market to move – owners, developers, financiers, architects, and engineers to name a few very important ones. To reach all of these people and transform building markets, the general pathway of supporting knowledge and development moves from:

  • Case studies (usually of projects driven by a visionary owner or design team, local examples are critically important) to
  • Design guidance (leading to broader adoption by “early adopters”), to
  • Market adoption (incentive programs, technical support, market awareness, recognition through branding and awards, manufacturer support, achieving cost reduction by scaling) to
  • Regulations (codes, standards for some equipment types, requires training and support to implement, code must be passed by the appropriate government body)

The good news, the first two steps are - to some degree - accomplished (more is needed), and we have a good sense of what the fourth step will look like. The bad news is that the biggest job and the classic failure point (actually named the “valley of death” in market transformation evaluation literature) is getting to the broader market adoption.

Broader market adoption is the critical point, and that is where we are today. We know what to do, we know how to do it.  We really need a lot people on the (fleets of electric) buses to work together to actually do it.

This blog is part of Building Decarb Central, a series of blogs and other resources aimed at providing a constant flow of information on building decarbonization. Be sure to check out our web portal for more stories, resources, and information.

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