Baker take note: Net zero buildings make sense

Cities can get high-quality housing at no extra cost

THERE HAS BEEN a lot of misinformation flying around regarding Gov. Baker’s veto of groundbreaking climate legislation this month, but nothing has been more egregious than claims that provisions related to building codes in the bill would stall economic progress in Massachusetts.

Now that the bill is back on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, it’s time to set the record straight.

The fact is, Massachusetts can build residential and commercial buildings more quickly and more affordably when following net zero standards, particularly if these buildings are bypassing polluting gas. According to a review of construction in Massachusetts conducted by Built Environment Plus, our state is already building zero-emissions buildings today at no additional upfront cost. The return on investment for building new zero emissions office buildings can be as little as one year.

These cost-findings were confirmed by the city of Boston, which examined how new affordable housing could be constructed to cleaner, pollution-free standards. In its assessment, the city found that there was little-to-no cost increase for building to zero emission building standards, and that available rebates and incentives could actually make the buildings less expensive to construct. These homes and buildings also then locked in long-term operational savings.

So the good news is, if cities are allowed to adopt net zero stretch codes, Massachusetts will receive higher-quality housing at no extra cost. To increase cost-savings even further, Massachusetts should ensure that no new homes or buildings are connected to the state’s aging and risky gas system. Fossil fuel hookups slow down permitting and the construction process, and according to think tank Rocky Mountain Institute, can cost upwards of $15,000 or more in construction costs, depending on the building type.

The cost-savings associated with going pollution-free should be very encouraging for Baker and the real estate industry as they look for ways to lower up-front costs and build more quickly as we recover from the COVID-19 economic recession.

In Boston, building an all-electric home saves an average $2,700 in up-front costs. Leaving out gas not only saves money, but also lowers climate pollution of that home by nearly 70 percent due to more efficient appliances being powered by increasingly renewable electricity. In Massachusetts, space and water heating in buildings alone accounts for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, due in large part to the use of fossil fuels like gas or oil for heating.

The climate impact and cost savings for commercial buildings can be even more striking. That’s one reason why cities are moving in this direction, with more than half a billion dollars of net zero municipal construction already in the pipeline. This is smart public investment and a powerful economic stimulus.

These buildings also offer dramatic health improvements for residents. In Massachusetts, buildings are thenumber one source of air-pollution-related premature deaths. Children living in homes with gas cooking stoves have a 42 percent higher risk of experiencing asthma symptoms— a starting statistic that is supported by the findings from longitudinal study in Massachusetts, which showed that children had more severe and frequent asthma symptoms if they lived in homes with gas stoves.

As an architect, I’m deeply committed to ensuring that the Commonwealth’s building stock is suited to the challenges of the twenty-first century. In Boston alone, we’re set to add an additional 30,000,000 square feet of residential floor area within the next 10 years. We must ensure that the homes and offices built this decade and beyond use energy wisely and are equipped to run on clean, renewable electricity instead of fossil fuels.

Meet the Author

Meredith Elbaum

Executive director, US Green Building Council - Massachusetts
Buildings that are not equipped with zero emissions technology will have to undergo expensive retrofits in the future, so it is much more cost-effective to get this right from the beginning.

Policymakers should listen to the experts on this issue. Support letters from the Boston Society of Architects, representing 750 businesses in the Commonwealth, and Built Environment Plus demonstrate that building industry professionals know that net zero is here today and can be achieved with lower cost of ownership for buildings of all types and sizes. To cost-effectively expedite the building and strengthen our economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, Massachusetts must invest in climate-friendly housing.

 Meredith Elbaum is a registered architect and LEED AP, and the executive director of Built Environment Plus.