It’s rare to be able to look 20 years down the road and see what’s coming next. Current trends in zero-energy buildings offer one of those opportunities, and with a potentially large payoff. Revenue from these ultra-efficient buildings, which consume only as much energy as can be produced from onsite renewables in the course of a year, is expected to exceed $1.4 trillion annually by 2035, according to recent analysis by Navigant

After decades of “percent-better-than code” and point-based labeling programs, nothing beats zero for a concrete goal and promise of quality that owners can define (and occupants desire). Several factors are driving this transformation, but most fundamental is the growing acceptance that zero-energy performance is achievable with existing design practices and technologies, and at a cost on par with other green buildings. 

“Three years ago, net zero would have been a kind of heresy to talk about,” says Ed Mazria, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, an independent organization working to transform the built environment from the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions to a central part of the solution to the climate and energy crises. Mazria says 900 billion square feet of buildings will be rebuilt or built new between now and 2030, with the vast majority in urban areas. “That equals 60 percent of the world’s entire building stock,” he says. “If we don’t get it right, we lock in emissions for 80 to 120 years.”

A growing set of verified zero-energy buildings validate feasibility and are inspiring new projects. When the New Buildings Institute (NBI) published the first list of verified zero-energy buildings in 2012, it only included 21 projects. But, the potential for ultra-efficiency in the building sector captured the imagination of a group of innovative building owners, designers and government leaders who are now growing the market beyond the early university and environmental nonprofit buildings.

By the NBI’s most recent count, the 2015 list of verified buildings has nearly doubled in just three years. More promising is the increase in emerging projects with zero-energy intentions—from 39 in 2012 to 152 in 2015. While more than one-third of the verified projects hail from California, which has the most aggressive zero-energy policies in the country, verified or emerging buildings are currently located in 39 states across all eight climate zones.

Analysis on Verified Buildings
The NBI’s list shows 16 different building types, including schools and college buildings, offices, retail centers, libraries, labs and health care facilities. In addition, the number of large projects grew from 2012 to 2015—with more than 25 percent measuring more than 50,000 square feet and half of those measuring more than 100,000 square feet.

Most significant is the growth in existing building projects, with about one-quarter of the verified buildings representing deep energy renovations. With this shift, zero-energy performance has moved from a new construction only option to something that can be applied to the billions of square feet of existing building stock across the United States.
“We learned a lot through the process of building three net-zero energy offices,” says Ted van der Linden of DPR Construction, which has designed and constructed its office buildings in San Diego, Phoenix and San Francisco as net-zero energy performers. “Each project informed the next, and we are getting better and better at optimizing our approach.”

Another factor in favor of zero-energy buildings is the steep reduction in the cost of photovoltaic (PV) systems. The NBI’s study of zero net energy-verified buildings and comparable ultra-low-energy buildings with measured performance show these buildings use about one-fifth of the national average, with an average energy use intensity (EUI) of just 20 kBTU per square feet per year to be met by renewables—traditionally onsite PV systems. The expense of PVs has been the biggest cost barrier to achieving zero-energy buildings and has deterred some exemplary energy projects from taking the final step of adding solar panels.

Owners and communities also are starting to think creatively about how to supply buildings with the requisite renewable energy. Communities and campuses are adopting commitments to make districts or groups of buildings zero energy with centralized generation within a campus or neighborhood. The U.S. Army and several leading universities have major commitments to get their portfolios to zero energy. These increases in scale will only help further reduce the cost of renewables.

Governments are turning to zero-energy policies, including energy code roadmaps, as a strategy for controlling energy demand and curbing carbon emissions. That’s a good thing, as buildings account for nearly 40 percent of the carbon emissions in the United States.

 California’s 2020 residential and 2030 commercial requirements set a strong precedent in a large economy, as did the European Union’s member requirements for “nearly” net-zero buildings by 2020. In addition, all U.S. federal buildings must meet net-zero by 2030, and the Department of Energy created milestones of 2020 and 2030 for net-zero residential and commercial, respectively.

New standards requiring zero-energy buildings are also in place or under way in Cambridge, Mass.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Tucson/Pima County, Ariz.; and Santa Barbara, Calif. Pilot programs for zero-energy buildings in Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, Oregon, Maryland and Rhode Island will help breed further market acceptance.

How Design and Construction Teams Get to Zero
Integrated design is the first step to achieving the necessary energy performance and managing project costs. This process allows all stakeholders—owner, architect, engineer, builder, facilities manager, etc.—to work together from the start to ensure that building form and function meet the needs of occupants as well as energy performance goals.

“Step one consists of design and planning information for sustainability and adaptability—how we orient a building, the shape of a building, where we put the fenestration, what kind of materials we use, daylighting strategies, heating strategies and cooling strategies,” Mazria explains.

Step two is adding onsite renewables, if feasible, or securing district energy resources.

The zero-energy building market is still nascent, with challenges to be addressed. But, innovation in design, construction and policy are laying the groundwork for getting zero-energy buildings and communities to scale.

The dramatically changing economics of renewable energy and private sector investment are accelerating the transition from energy-efficient buildings to those that fully self-generate their energy. These trends and the environmental pressures driving regulations for ultra-efficiency in the built environment signal what the future will look like in 2030 and beyond.


Ralph DiNola is executive director of the New Buildings Institute. For more information, follow @zeroenergybldgs or visit navigantresearch.com/research/zero-energy-buildingsgettingtozeroforum.orgnewbuildings.org/sites/default/files/2015ZNEbuildingsList.pdf and c2es.org/technology/overview/buildings.