Zero energy buildings are not high cost

They make sense environmentally and economically

MORE THAN 70 MUNICIPAL LEADERS, architects, engineers, advocates, and residents gathered last year in a room at the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston ready to talk green building and eager to take action. Representing over 20 different urban, suburban, and gateway municipalities, many attendees already had impressive goals, including a push for zero energy building codes. They were excited to share and enthusiastic to learn from their peers in neighboring cities and towns and start implementing change in their communities. With all this energy and enthusiasm at the local level, it’s fair to ask what has been holding local leaders back from pushing for zero energy? The answer is the myth of high costs.

Virtually everyone in the room had been told that zero energy buildings, which generate as much renewable energy on or off site as they use in a year, were too expensive. This perceived roadblock has historically dampened enthusiasm and threatened even minor progress. The truth, however, is that zero energy buildings are now not only a smart environmental choice, but a smart economic one.

The latest  report from the Massachusetts chapter of US Green Building Council, Zero Energy Buildings in MA: Saving Money from the Start, combats the common, but incorrect, notion of high upfront costs for building green. As the report describes how many types of zero energy buildings can be built with little or no added upfront cost and some zero energy commercial buildings can see return on investment in as little as one year. With zero energy buildings being more affordable than typically thought and within reach for many municipalities across the state, cities and towns can play a critical role in furthering green building in our Commonwealth.

Even though Massachusetts is a national leader in building green, there’s an urgent reason to do more. According to the UN’s 2018 Global Status Report, buildings were responsible for 40 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2017. This same report also notes that the global building stock is expected to double by 2060, with two-thirds of the building stock that exists today still in existence. Our report outlines several policy recommendations and action items to help municipalities across the state do their part to create and encourage zero energy buildings.

Cities and towns should continue to lead by example and make it standard practice to construct zero energy municipal buildings. Clearly prioritizing and communicating zero energy goals from the start and integrating them into early planning leads to more cost-effective design and construction and increases both economic and environmental return. For municipal buildings already in existence, cities and towns can evaluate the existing buildings’ systems–such as the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system; electrical; lighting; and windows and insulation–and update them to ensure that they are running most efficiently. Numerous studies have identified this process as one of the most cost-effective procedures to increase energy efficiency of existing buildings.

Municipalities can also play a unique role as advocates for green building policies at the state level. Currently, the Commonwealth offers what is known as the stretch energy code that sets better building energy efficiency standards; and municipalities can adopt the stretch code locally to ensure projects are more energy efficient. While the stretch code has improved building energy efficiency, the pace of progress has fallen behind building practices. Adding a zero energy stretch code for small buildings, with progressive phasing for larger buildings, will provide certainty to the marketplace and standardize zero energy construction practices.

Finally, municipalities can be proactive in incorporating green building policy and action items into their own long-term plans. While all cities and towns are different and the set of appropriate policies will vary based on size, building stock, staff capacity, and other factors, municipalities should review strategies and develop their own city or town-specific implementation plans.

Meet the Author

Meredith Elbaum

Executive director, US Green Building Council - Massachusetts
Everyone in attendance at the roundtable had visions and goals for a greener community: from adding solar panels to public schools, to creating zero energy affordable housing, to auditing their own buildings for energy efficiency. These local leaders are already moving towards implementing new practices and policies, and their communities are ready and willing to lead and take action. Now we can dispel this myth about high costs, and move forward together across the Commonwealth to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, make zero energy building common practice, and take charge of our green building futures.

Meredith Elbaum is the executive director of the US Green Building Council – Massachusetts.