Zero Net Energy Building: Hot Trend Getting Hotter

Zero net energy (ZNE) buildings — both residential and commercial — are a sustainable construction approach in which the building has a much smaller energy impact. ZNEs have continued to show significant growth in recent years. In fact, the increase prompted the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to release a common definition for ZNEs in 2015.

What’s ZNE?

The DOE defines a ZNE building as “an energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy.” Source energy includes utility-scale gas, coal, nuclear and hydro energy. Onsite renewable energy includes solar power, wind energy, “super” insulation and sub-basements that gather stable underground air temperatures.

According to Navigant Research, California is leading the way: The state’s goal is to have 100% of the state’s new residential construction be ZNE starting in 2020, with commercial construction following by 2030.

What are the goals?

The DOE has joined the march toward energy reduced construction. It intends to create a technology and knowledge base for cost-effective ZNE commercial buildings by 2025.

The Navigant Research report stated that the ZNE residential homes market is beginning to emerge. To increase the growth of ZNEs, the industry will need to see:

  • An increase in stringent building codes,
  • Onsite energy generation to help offset growing energy grid loads, and
  • New technologies becoming mainstream.

The report expects 27,000 total units by 2025.

What are the benefits?

The New Buildings Institute notes that ZNE buildings are higher performing, and offer “superior comfort and healthier places to work and live.” In addition, these buildings’ use of passive strategies, such as natural ventilation and daylighting (using natural light to illuminate buildings), make them more resilient to climate change impacts and less vulnerable to energy price fluctuations.

When construction is complete, ZNE building owners will pay less for energy. This frees up dollars to reinvest in the business. And remember: Public interest and demand for ZNE building is increasing and will continue to grow as more states turn to ZNE building. Owners can leverage increased brand promotion and return on investment by using ZNE technology now.

What are the challenges?

Contractors undertaking a ZNE project may face several challenges. These jobs tend to follow the integrated project delivery (IPD) format. According to the American Institute of Architects, when working on an IPD, you’ll work collaboratively to “harness the talents and insights of all participants to optimize project results, increase value to the owner, reduce waste, and maximize efficiency through all phases of design, fabrication, and construction.” In other words, this won’t be a job where you’re given the building plans and left to complete the project without input from others.

In addition, ZNE jobs usually involve building information management (BIM) software systems. BIM enables anytime, anywhere collaboration among everyone from the owner to the subcontractors. So it’s perfect for creating and implementing complex ZNE designs. If you’ve never used a BIM system or have limited experience with it, you’ll need to get up to speed quickly.

When it comes to costs, these projects can involve a lot of discussion and even debate. ZNE building systems are still evolving, yet owners don’t want to spend big money on assets that will be outdated in 10 or 20 years. Thus, you’ll likely be working with materials that are of the highest quality, but are also durable and relatively upgradable.

Why not now?

From all indications, ZNEs are the future of construction. Now’s the time to do some research to determine whether this type of construction is right for you and your business. Being involved with ZNE building may help position your construction company as a leader in this form of sustainable building in the years ahead.

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