Zero Energy. Zero Carbon. Zero Waste. Commitments to “Zero” are proliferating globally. These certifications are urging developers and building operators to achieve ultimate levels of efficiency.

Maintaining healthy budgets and driving profitability keeps buildings operating and keeps much needed new and affordable housing viable. So what can a building owner or a builder do now to show corporate social responsibility without compromising budgets?

  1. Make a commitment that you/your company will create or move towards zero energy/waste programs.
  2. Update your policies and procedures to current best practices.
  3. Benchmark your current performance/designs.
  4. Measure your ongoing performance/designs. Track ROI.

Buildings will be impacted as a result of the “Zero” programs discussed above. A building doesn’t import more energy or water than it can sustainably create on-site, nor does a building emit gasses or waste into the ecology.

How do you get there?

The International Living Future Institute has a Zero Energy Standard Certification which is based on actual (not modeled) performance. It states: “One hundred percent of the building’s energy needs on a net annual basis must be supplied by on-site renewable energy. No combustion is allowed.”

Their Zero Carbon certification takes it even further:

“One hundred percent of the embodied carbon emissions impacts associated with the construction and materials of the project must be disclosed and offset.”

LEED projects can achieve Net Zero certification (referred to as LEED Zero) when they demonstrate any or one of the following: net zero energy use, net zero water use, net zero carbon emissions, or net zero waste.

TRUE is a waste certification. A TRUE project’s goal is to divert all solid waste from the landfill, incineration (waste-to-energy) and the environment.

Even the Department of Energy has the “DOE Zero Energy Ready Homes” program in which homes are verified by a qualified third-party to prove they are at least 40%-50% more energy efficient than a typical new home. This target exists because this is about the average where adding solar to the home can flip it to Zero Net Energy.

Passive House is an international program that aims to dramatically reduce a building’s energy demand. Achieving “PHIUS+ Source Zero” means meeting the small remainder of energy needed with on-site renewable energy. This holistic view pursues both radical load reduction and clean energy production at the same time. This could allow meeting building energy needs with fewer solar panels.

Why do we see all these zero certifications? Well, it is very much like the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm”.

Through science, we know that carbon and methane emissions are changing our climate. We know that it’s our industrious use of materials and fuels that is producing these emissions. However, if we can find a way to still construct, still farm, still travel, and still conduct commerce without producing these emissions and their detrimental side effects, then we are “doing no harm”. We can go about our lives and the Earth can repair itself.

“Getting to Zero” is a catchphrase for at least one of the philosophies of getting human activities to reduce the adverse impact on Earth down to zero (doing no harm, in other words).

Some certification programs, like Envision, even include a “regenerative” level of achievement because “Zero” is just preventing further damage and isn’t really helping repair the damage already caused.

Which one of these makes sense? Which one is the best?

Well, they all are. The idea here is to find one that resonates with your goals and just do it. Make the commitment to do something in order to start making progress. This isn’t a college exam that we can wait until the night before to cram; this is a marathon that we need to start making progress on right now. Any progress will do – just make progress. Even if you don’t have the budget to pay for a certification, you can still create sustainable policies and procedures and implement them. What’s the worst thing that can happen – you save the world but didn’t get a plaque on the wall?

Getting it kicked off could be easier than you think. Simply changing your construction standards to require things like:

    • Recycled materials and products.
    • Sustainably sourced wood products.
    • Products with paper/cardboard-only packaging.
    • LED-only lighting (until we have something better).
    • The highest efficiency HVAC systems with safe refrigerants.
    • Grade 1 insulation at the highest R-value possible.
    • Implement advanced automation / IoT (Internet of Things)
    • Eliminate all combustion sources – electrify everything.
    • Keep your roof clear and install solar + storage.

Simply changing your operations and maintenance standards to require things like:

    • Procurement form only verified, sustainable vendors.
    • Mandatory trash separation, including composting.
    • Monthly electronics recycling to prevent them from going in the trash.
    • Monthly automation/controls check-up.
    • Annual/biannual retro-commissioning.
    • Annual tenant sustainability events to solicit ideas and collect feedback.
    • Public informational displays to encourage good habits.

Simply creating policies like the ones above and doing your best to follow them is making progress. If you’re able to make progress, you should congratulate everyone that helped or walked that path with you, because it’s a step in the right direction.

On your next construction project or at your next operations management meeting, take the initiative to bring up just one idea and get it in motion. If you need help with ideas or have questions on how to start, we’re here for you. Just contact VCA Green.

Contributing Writer: Wayne D. Alldredge, Associate Director

Moe Fakih, Principal
714-363-4700 x501