Net Zero Buildings: 4 Things for Local Governments to Consider

Posted byKim Lundgren on Apr 28, 2021 12:25:48 PM

What we learned from the Net Zero buildings experts on our webinar

We kicked off the KLA Climate Solutions Series with an informative and engaging webinar discussion on how local governments can take steps toward implementing Net Zero buildings in their communities -- a critical step to achieve greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions at a scale that truly matters for climate action. 

You can access the on-demand webinar, our tipsheet and webinar slides here.Screen Shot 2021-04-28 at 10.54.13 AM

Here are four things our panelists said about this high-impact climate solution that caught our attention: 

1. The cost to get there is nothing compared to what it will save us long-term.

We know the climate crisis demands action, and action costs money. It’s important to keep in mind, however, the cost of not acting.

Steven Burke mentioned the importance of this perspective when thinking about the initial cost of constructing Net Zero buildings: 

“If the premium to save our future is a 3% added cost on a building, we should be able to manage that.”

2. Net Zero buildings are the buildings of the future. 

As Meredith Elbaum noted, Net Zero buildings are more resilient buildings. As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, resilient communities exactly what we need to face the future.

Constructing buildings to Net Zero standards presents a crucial opportunity to make our buildings healthier and more efficient (not just for the planet, but for us). Passive House standards provide requirements for ventilation and other systems that control air quality and can improve overall health.

3. New buildings are low-hanging fruit, but existing buildings are just as important.

Communities should be driving hard for new construction buildings to meet Net Zero standards, said Lauren Baumann. Making the upfront cost commitment now to build Net Zero can stave off greater costs in the future as we adapt to the climate crisis. And, the cost of constructing lower emissions buildings is lower than you may expect. According to a Massachusetts survey, 85% of net zero ready buildings (across various building types) reported less than a 1% construction cost premium.

However, this doesn’t mean we should just ignore existing buildings. Though it may be a greater challenge, retrofitting older buildings to reduce their emissions is a key step we can’t overlook, said Seth Federspiel -- as the local government voice on the panel, he urged his city/town/county colleagues to consider existing buildings the priority. 

4. Community collaboration is key to success.

Seth also highlighted three main takeaways for communities to consider when pursuing Net Zero buildings, especially related to policy.

  1. Establish consistent stakeholder engagement early in the planning process, with both internal (community planners/permitters) and external stakeholders (developers, technical support, etc.)
  2. Supplement policies and requirements with resources and support -- including financial, educational/informational, and technical support.
  3. Collaborate with nearby communities. We all have so much to learn from and offer each other, and working together can help establish regional consistency and encourage involvement from the development community that stretches across borders. 

These points just scratch the surface of the wealth of information our panelists covered. Watch the recorded webinar or access the tipsheet here

 

We also captured some of the Q&A from the webinar: 

When it comes to Net Zero buildings, in your opinion can we reach GHG emissions reductions -- at a level needed to avoid the most dire impacts of climate change -- with voluntary measures alone? 

 

Seth: No, both mandates and resources/incentives are needed to decarbonize buildings.

 

Q: My understanding is that financing renewable projects via PPA would not allow an owner to claim the grOne aspect of Net Zero buildings that is worth mentioning is that most/all Net Zero buildings will be compliant with COVID-safe air quality standards, whereas code constructed buildings will likely need additional measures and costs to reach building air quality standards. Any comments?  

 

Lauren: Net Zero buildings are definitely not guaranteed to be COVID safe. You could design a net zero building with no ventilation (very energy efficient, but very unhealthy!), and that would not be COVID safe. Good, efficient ventilation system design will be required for that, which Passive House has good requirements/guidelines around. Reviewing the tech details of the ventilation system (or complying with a program like Passive House that has good requirements around this) is critical to know if you are designing a healthy building.

 

Q: Do any of your studies take into account the less expensive rates of some of the municipal light plan communities in MA? It is important to remember that these relationships of cost change when eleectricity is 2/3 thee cost of Eversource or National Grid. 

 

Meredith: The costs we've been talking about so far are for construction cost and don't include operational energy. Our recent study shows less than 1% addition for construction costs. Lauren said she had some projects 2-3% more. If there is an added cost, then it would just be a longer payback for Municipal Light and Power communities. The study we did a couple years ago, focused on the lifecycle cost, was based on National Grid's rates and not Muncipal plants.

 

Lauren: As it relates the cost of electricity, you can mitigate the operating cost impact of electrification in new construction and retrofits by reducing the heating energy load of the buildings through building envelope improvements.  For buildings where you have limited ability to do that (ie newer projects where you will not be significantly changing the building envelope), and you are only converting the systems from gas to electric, we have run some analysis for a project in Eversource/National grid territory, and it resulted in an annual operating cost increase of ~2%.  In communities with lower cost electricity, the impact will be less!