Over the next 40 years, an estimated 2 trillion square feet of new and rebuilt building space will be constructed worldwide. That’s the equivalent of adding one New York City to the global building stock every 35 days for the next 35 years. On top of that, approximately two-thirds of the building area that exists today will still exist in 2050.

What tools are engineers using to minimize the energy and environmental impacts of this urban sprawl? One solution lies in designing buildings that produce as much energy as they consume.



Designing a net-zero energy (NZE) building is difficult.

According to the New Buildings Institute (NBI), only 500 certified and emerging zero energy buildings have been built across the U.S. and Canada. While that number may seem low, it represents a 700 percent increase since the NBI began tracking NZE projects in 2012.

In 2007-2008, Congress expressed its support by establishing the Zero Net Energy Commercial Buildings Initiative, which requires all new commercial buildings in the U.S. achieve NZE by 2030.



In an effort to streamline the path to NZE,  numerous organizations are introducing their own NZE codes and metrics.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) unveiled its LEED Zero certification in November 2018 at Greenbuild in Chicago. LEED Zero certification is achieved when projects demonstrate one of the following: net zero carbon emissions, net zero energy use, net zero water use, or net zero waste.

“We’re recognizing the leadership of these projects and formalizing our commitment to focusing on carbon and net zero across the entire LEED community,” said Melissa Baker, senior vice president of technical core at USGBC. “These new certification programs will encourage a holistic approach for buildings and places to contribute to a regenerative future and enhance the health and wellbeing for not only building occupants but all of humanity.”

The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) introduced its Living Building Challenge in 2006. The certification program was created as a philosophy, advocacy tool, and certification program to promote advanced measurements of sustainability in the built environment. It asks the question, “What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?”

Living Buildings strive for net-zero or net-positive energy, are free of toxic chemicals, and aim to lower a facility’s energy footprint.

The latest version of the Living Building Challenge, 3.1, was published in 2016. As of May 2017, there were 380 registered Living Building Challenge projects in 23 countries representing more than 14.1 million square feet of total area.



While designing to NZE standards is incredibly challenging, it’s well worth the investment.

NZE design offers clients several advantages, including isolation from energy prices, reduced operational costs, increased building value, less environmental impact, a reduced risk of grid blackouts, and more.

Sure, it won’t be easy. The project will test your staff like its never been tested before. But, stick with it. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.”

Projects that bear the NZE badge garner a lot of attention — as do the firms responsible for their design.

Has your firm shouldered the rigors of a NZE project? Give me a call and let’s discuss the pros and cons. Maybe we could even highlight your project in an upcoming issue of Engineered Systems.


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