Zero net energy (ZNE) construction is a necessary step for reducing buildings’ energy impact, as well as their impact on climate change. Yet, for many architects, zero energy construction remains an elusive goal, still just out of reach.

Certainly, there remain challenges to more widespread adoption, but zero net energy construction should no longer be considered out of reach by any architecture-owner team that wishes to pursue sustainability goals.

By understanding the market barriers still slowing the shift toward zero net energy construction, architects can take action to identify solutions and move closer to their zero energy targets.

Barrier 1: Affordability

There’s ample evidence that energy efficiency measures offer significant operational cost savings over time. However, due to typically higher upfront costs, affordability remains a leading barrier to greater adoption of zero net energy nonresidential construction opportunities. High first cost was the single biggest concern of survey respondents in the 2018 Dodge Data Analytics report World Green Building Trends, cited by more than 49% of survey respondents.

Addressing this challenge is no easy feat. It will require the education of building owner decision-makers to drive a change in mindset. The starting place here is for designers to change the metrics they use to discuss investments. Design decision-makers have long used the Return on Investment (ROI) metric to justify an investment. However, this can be misleading. By not considering operational costs in ROI calculations, or considering a simple payback period, decision-makers do not get accurate data on the life cycle savings energy efficiency measures provide. Popularizing more accurate metrics, such as Life Cycle Costs or Total Resource Cost, can change the conversation around energy efficiency investments.

Utilities are—or should be—incentivizing improvements to help drive this transformation. Consider reaching out to local utilities to discuss and evaluate the best options for your project.

Barrier 2: Policies

The regulatory environment tends to fall well behind the curve when it comes to innovation, leaving many zero net energy technology trends to wither without market support. Regulatory support is critical for reducing risks and fostering leadership critical for achieving zero net energy construction. Electric utilities’ Emerging Technology programs offer critical support in the identification, development, marketing, and implementation of emerging technologies that support zero net energy construction, but too often face tremendous barriers here in moving promising technologies into widespread use.

This regulatory support must also be more comprehensive so as to not make the path to zero net energy more difficult by promoting a single technology. There are countless examples of areas where a singular focus in one area leaves out relevant other areas that support zero net energy construction. As a case in point, many policies focus solely on funding or incentives for solar power upgrades, a perspective that overlooks the weight carried by energy efficiency improvements in moving toward this goal.

Barrier 3: Education

Despite goals for achieving zero net energy in the United States by as soon as 2050, many small or mid-size building owners assume that zero net energy is out of reach for them. Most stories around zero net energy construction tend to focus on large solar arrays or microgrids, seemingly large investments unattainable for smaller projects. However, there are numerous technology and design options available to support a shift to zero net energy usage over time. For architectural firms to educate building owners on their options, as well as strategies for securing incentives from utilities and local government, they need to first understand what’s available.

Small and mid-sized architecture firms that are ready to better position their projects for the future, there are ample resources available. In addition to traditional workshops, manufacturer lunch-and-learns, and the like, local utilities and energy consultants are also excellent resources. Utilities have energy reduction goals to meet as well, and so are as vested in successful energy reduction projects as the architects designing them.

The next step is to educate owners on efficient operation. More innovative buildings often require a more sophisticated operation, with controls for building management systems, energy dashboards, and the like. This shift to the more sophisticated technology installed to achieve zero net energy can frighten off some building owners, who must then pay for knowledgeable operators to run these systems. By accounting for training around zero net energy system operation during the handoff process, architects can begin to normalize the design and operation of zero net energy buildings.

Barrier 4: Low Prioritization

One of the drivers behind the relatively low acceptance of energy efficiency incentive programs among building owners is a lack of early identification of project goals. Setting goals for energy efficiency measures becomes much more cost-effective when incorporated in the earliest stages of conceptual design. However, most energy efficiency consultants are sought for advice when the design is 50% to 75% complete. At this point, it becomes much more difficult to go back and make impactful investment decisions.

It’s also more difficult and costly to accommodate massive energy loads during a renovation, yet the tendency toward limited future-thinking is driving this challenge as well. As one example, architects have long been reluctant to suggest renewable energy battery storage due to its high upfront cost. However, it’s a short-sighted approach that ignores the long-term potential value of this solution. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has reported that U.S. annual energy consumption from renewable sources exceeded coal consumption in 2019 for the first time since 1885.

Another example of this reluctance to design for the future is the lack of early specification of electric vehicle charging stations in new construction. With commitments to electric vehicle production from several of the world’s leading car producers, it’s clear that this is a trend that should be integrated into all designs going forward. After all, research suggests that by 2030 the energy load of plugging in electric or hybrid vehicles could account for 20% of a typical home’s electricity use; the load could be significantly higher for nonresidential buildings with EV charging stations in their parking lots. Incorporating this upfront can lead to significantly lower energy costs in the future.

Of course, there’s another benefit that comes from prioritizing this integration upfront, and it comes in the form of potential cost-saving incentives. Incorporating EV infrastructure into a facility after it’s built could theoretically double the load required at the building facility, adding to utilities’ infrastructure costs. Integrating energy charging and storage solutions in new construction can help the utility reduce the required amount of distribution upgrades to the site, lowering their costs. In other words, identifying this benefit early on can present an opportunity to partner with utilities, secure incentives for projects that can reduce costs for all parties involved, and gain an advisory resource as vested in this project’s success as the owner. Prioritizing ZNE measures upfront is the best way to maximize the return on this investment.

Barrier 5: Focus on Short-Term Benefits

Prioritizing energy efficiency benefits has the potential to serve as a stepping stone for pushing the nonresidential new construction sector towards greater rates of zero net energy construction.

However, too many organizations focus on achieving energy efficiency goals on Day One of operation without addressing how this performance will be maintained long-term.

The popular sustainability certifications that have driven much of the energy efficiency conversation in recent years are beginning to encourage building owners and designers to look further, toward more aggressive energy savings targets. Rather than reaching for a certification plaque, A&E firms must help developers and building owners reach for a lower operational bottom line through a zero net energy facility, a far more valuable goal.

Barrier 6: Attitude Toward Risk-Taking

There are many technologies available today to support zero net energy construction goals, as well as proven design strategies. However, there is also room for improvement and innovation. Architects who prioritize zero net energy construction will be able to expand their skill sets in the pursuit of designing advanced, innovative buildings. By prioritizing zero net energy strategies today, architects can ensure they’re leading the national conversation around energy rather than playing catch up. Best of all, these forerunners will gain examples of zero net energy work that can stand the test of time.

Of course, it’s easier to take risks when supported by a partner knowledgeable in energy management consulting. If you’re ready to begin navigating the barriers to successful net zero energy construction, Lincus can help. Contact us today.


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How to Move New Construction to Zero Net Energy Consumption



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