A picture of solar panels lined up with a modern house blurred out in the background, indicating net-zero energy buildings.

We know that urgent action needs to be taken if we will get anywhere near the net-zero goals set by the Paris Agreement in 2015. But, knowing that a net-zero energy building will produce the same amount of energy it consumes, what action can you and I take to achieve this? 

So far, my experience has focused on net-zero home renovations, and I know from this that achieving net-zero energy buildings comes with enormous challenges. But I also know there are tried and tested ways to meet the challenges. With this in mind, I’m inviting you to dive in and explore the challenges further.

Achieving net-zero energy status in buildings requires the use of sustainable building materials, the use of innovative construction techniques, and the application of renewable energy, such as solar PV, to provide power for heating and lighting etc.

How to Achieve a Net-Zero Energy Building

WorldGBCs Net-Zero Vision

The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC), which is 100% committed to “sustainable buildings for everyone, everywhere,” has a stated vision that aims for total decarbonization of the building and construction sector. 

“By 2030, all new buildings, infrastructure and renovations will have at least 40% less embodied carbon with significant upfront carbon reduction, and all new buildings must be net-zero operational carbon.” 

“By 2050, new buildings, infrastructure, and renovations will have net-zero embodied carbon, and all buildings, including existing buildings, must be net-zero operational carbon.”- The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terminology:

  • Carbon emissions are emissions of all greenhouse gases
  • Embodied carbon emissions are associated with materials and construction processes.
  • Operational carbon is associated with energy used to operate buildings and infrastructure

It stands to reason that the carbon footprint of buildings starts long before construction begins. It incorporates manufacturing, transportation, construction, and then the final lifecycle of the building while it is in operation. Their priority is for the industry to tackle whole-life carbon and scale up net-zero retrofit and renovation.  

A picture of the World Green Building Council's cover page of their Net Zero Commitment PDF, showing a dark blue background and a picture of a city skyline towards the bottom.
The WGBC offers some great resources on wide-reaching net-zero plans into the future, which you can download here for yourself.

In June 2021, WorldGBC released a new Advancing Net Zero Status Report. In addition to motivating governments, cities, businesses, and real estate investors with clear, ambitious targets and policies, it highlights the crucial actions that frontrunners in the race to zero are implementing. It also debunks some common net-zero myths. 

Net Zero Myths

Net-zero buildings don’t have windows

Windows are essential in all sustainable buildings, including net-zero buildings. Design and glazing standards are important. 

Net-zero operational carbon cannot be achieved without offsets

It is possible to achieve net-zero operational carbon by using renewable energy sources and optimizing energy efficiency.

Net-zero buildings cost more than conventional buildings

When you consider the whole life cycle of the building, it’s not difficult to be budget-smart and to produce an environmentally friendly result. We wrote a lot more on this in detail here if you’d like to check it out.

It’s too difficult to make existing buildings net-zero

The Attainable Home Net Zero renovation, with solar panels on the roof and the Tesla parked in the driveway.
The net zero renovation we did here in Florida proves that it is possible for an existing home to be made net zero. You can read all about how we did this in our net zero case study.

Having successfully completed a net-zero renovation, I know first-hand that this isn’t true. Sure there are technical challenges when renovating to net-zero standards, but it’s not too difficult and results in many benefits, including better internal comfort levels and extending the useful life of the building. 

Net-zero buildings are only possible in warmer climates

There are attainable net-zero solutions for all climates, hot and cold. 

It isn’t possible to make tall buildings net-zero

The proof of the pudding is that net-zero buildings have been constructed and retrofitted in all shapes and sizes all over the world. They range from small townhouses and apartments to soaring skyscrapers. 

How to Achieve Net Zero Energy Building

Green buildings need new technologies, product design, and an innovative construction approach. Those in the industry design solutions that will sustain the quality of life for those using or living in the building while responding to environmental challenges. 

Every part of the construction and building industry is involved, from designers and manufacturers of materials, architects and engineers who design buildings and specify construction materials, to those responsible for construction practices. And consumer awareness is helping to drive the critical net-zero movement.

The most important factor is that net-zero buildings operate on renewable energy sources, mostly solar but also wind and hydropower, that cater to all electricity and HVAC requirements. Truly net-zero buildings operate off-grid, although, in reality, a large percentage remain connected… just in case!

We know the goals, but we also need guidance. So, let’s look at some of the essential elements that enable us to achieve a net-zero result, including a peek at the codes, standards, and certifications that will help us get there. 

Achieving Net Zero Energy With Codes, Performance Ratings, & Certifications

We’ve had a green building standard in the U.S. since 2007, but in 2016, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) approved the ICC/ASHRAE 700-2015 National Green Building Standard. It assigns points for sustainable (green) building practices related to resource and energy efficiency, water, indoor environmental quality, lot and site development, and homeowner education. 

Bronze, silver, gold, and ultra-green emerald levels of certification are available to residential developers, builders, and remodelers. 

In 2016, WorldGBC also created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental (LEED) standards as a rating system. Within the first year, more than 15 billion square feet of building space had been LEED-certified. Within two years, estimates were that U.S. LEED-certified buildings were generating $1.2 billion in energy savings and water savings totaled $149 million. 

July 2021 saw the release of an updated International Green Construction Code (IgCC). It is an invaluable model code that, amongst other things, is formulated to help cities, states, and countries deal with scarce resources and build smarter, stronger, more sustainably, and more resilient, lowering operating costs and energy usage. 

Sustainable Products & Construction Materials 

WorldGBC’s latest status report draws attention to the emissions caused by steel and concrete production. And they are huge. But the new technologies that we can use for carbon capture are evolving, including CarbFix which almost magically converts CO2 into stone. That includes the CO2 used for steel production.  

A picture of a man writing on a whiteboard, with the word LEED in the middle of it, and a web of different related words and graphics related to net-zero and sustainable building.

New York engineer, Michael Tobias, in his ebook, The Top 10 Inventive Green Engineering Trends for 2017, points out that steel is one of the major construction products that can be recycled – with a potential recovery rate of 98%. Other recyclable materials include stone and concrete, although the process is slow. 

Happily, according to WorldGBC, companies like LafargeHolcim and Heidelberg Cement have committed to the Net Zero Climate Pledge they launched in 2018. The approach of this initiative is to motivate leadership action in tackling embodied carbon emissions from the building and construction sector. 

Additionally, there are many sustainable products consumers need to consider to achieve a net-zero building, including relatively simple options like smart batteries and LED lighting. 

Passive Building Design

Central to a net zero building design, the passive building relies on smart design choices. These include focusing on minimal heat loss in winter and using as much natural sunlight during the day as possible. The other important principle is to use natural ventilation whenever possible. 

Solar Power

Solar power is key to energy efficiency in homes. It’s already a booming industry in the U.S., but it is definitely still growing. While installation and setup costs may be more expensive than conventional energy costs, once it’s running, solar power pays its way throughout the lifecycle of any building. 

A picture of a blue Tesla Model 3 in front of our white-painted net-zero house with solar panels on the roof, and palm trees around the yard.
Our first net-zero home renovation, complete with enough energy efficiency and solar power to power both the house and the Tesla (EV) 100% from renewable energy, and eliminating about $2,500 per year in utility and gas bills to boot.

The good news is that many states are striving towards total renewable power production. Competition between the costs of solar systems and traditional energy resources has also increased exponentially in the past decade. 

Water Conservation & Protection 

We need to protect and conserve our water resources and use as many water-saving features as possible. We also need to collect, pump, heat, and store clean water using natural energy resources. 

Automated Management Platforms

Automated, wireless software platforms are imperative for managing commercial buildings, schools, hospitals, etc. These provide 24/7 performance monitoring, imaging, and data analysis. 

Final Thoughts On Achieving Net Zero Energy

Net-zero buildings produce no less than the energy they consume. This means we need to focus our efforts on renewable energy sources for everything, including water heating, lighting, and power production.

While we rely on professional designers, architects, and engineers to help us achieve net-zero buildings, there are many things every single one of us can do to embrace the challenge. The race to zero is hotting up, and we all need to do our bit to carry the baton. 

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