Near Net Zero Energy Buildings


The concept of Net Zero Energy is one in which, through a combination of passive and active design strategies, a building or campus of facilities achieves a “net” of zero use of electricity annually. This strategy goes beyond “high performance” building design because energy generation is a required step to overcome the inevitable need for power, artificial lighting, heating, cooling, and ventilation.  Some very specific building types, such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory built in 2010 In Colorado, are leading the way with mission-driven owner occupied specialty buildings at a first construction cost of $259/sf with a LEED rating of Platinum.

The US DOE’s current building technologies program states, “The long term strategic goal is to create technologies and design approaches that lead to marketable zero energy buildings by 2020 and to zero energy commercial buildings by 2025.” Four critical metrics have been established as part of the definition: Net Zero Site Energy, Net Zero Source Energy, Net Zero Emission, and Net Zero Site Energy Cost.

These benchmarks will be critical to enabling national goals of future US energy independence. However, a purely Net Zero Energy budget is a perceived challenge to the pro-forma driven financing of development projects today. It is the active systems designed to achieve net zero energy use, such as solar and wind power, which can push construction costs beyond typical costs viable in a return-on-investment driven real estate economy. Budget relevancy is also a concern in the institutional sector, especially in today’s highly competitive market of higher education.


The important differentiation of Near Net Zero Energy buildings is the idea that with market relevance, this approach to design can flourish in the main-stream of commercial and institutional design now. If a near net zero energy strategy will allow one to build multi-use, tenant occupied buildings, the “market” will naturally assimilate this building type. If the First-Costs of development are within acceptable margins, then the radical reduction of Life-Cycle cost of ownership and utilities can take a relevant position in the development and marketing of buildings.

Although driven by financial pragmatism, if one considers that buildings account for nearly half of energy use in this country, it is easy to understand the impact that energy use reduction and even generation can contribute back into the grid if done at a market-wide scale.

Successful Near Net Zero strategies require integrated design management to think in terms of natural forces, energy performance, building systems, cost analysis, and built environment continuously across all disciplines in the development team.  In a truly integrated design approach, the design team has considered all passive strategies for energy use reduction first; including site orientation and solar/climatic influences, rainwater and gray-water harvesting, while simultaneously considering the quality of the inhabited spaces. These investigations can be balanced against cost at each step in design and folded into a Pro-Forma strategy.

Energy performance is the most important variable in affecting our global carbon footprint. It is also one of the biggest influences on U.S. energy independence. Current initiatives such as the “2030 Challenge” adopted by Universities, Colleges, the AIA, ASHRAE, USGBC, the US Conference of Mayors and more are a direct benefactor of large scale improvement in energy performance in the built environment. In order to meet a goal of zero fossil fuel consumption by 2030, new buildings and renovations are targeted to achieve 50% fossil fuel consumption starting now. Near net zero design can achieve or exceed this design parameter on a case-by-case basis, and by being relevant Market-Wide, will align with the 2030 Challenge.


Regardless of political position on issues such as energy independence and global warming, the greatest value of a Near Net Zero approach is impact. Impact on cost of development, impact on energy use, impact on marketability, impact on cost of ownership (not only for private developers but also for publicly funded institutional facilities such as schools), impact on quality of living, and impact on the environment all occur when achieved at scale.

Achieving market-relevant First-Costs does require a knowledgeable team of experts. This development team will provide an integrated strategy and implementation in the fields of  financing, design, and project delivery. As Architects, we find our greatest skills lie in the synthesis of these factors into the tangible built environment. It is the informed negotiation of these variables that is critical to an integrated approach. In a successful NEAR Net Zero strategy, Architects facilitate this “consensus-based” process throughout the design, bidding, and construction phases.

Strategies such as financial benefits, energy partners, and tax incentives for new construction, renovation and energy reduction must be added to the typical community economic development incentives. In a pro-forma driven investment, the cost of energy reduction – and how close it gets to Net Zero – will be influenced by potential subsidy like any First-Cost added value. Perhaps most valuable is the development strategy that leverages the investment return on Life-Cycle cost benefits into real reductions in construction costs.

Translating those opportunities into building strategies is what we do.

Written by David McIlnay