How the New Buildings Institute is Pushing CRE Toward Net Zero Carbon

By Published On: December 8, 20215.5 min read

Many developers, architects and construction teams are moving toward a net zero carbon build. Industry experts believe this is the best way to fulfill the Paris Climate Agreement by 2050.

To put it into perspective, 38% of carbon dioxide emissions are emitted from the building sector alone.

Last month, the Getting to Zero Forum tackled some of the most pressing issues around this key problem with carbon emissions. While they claim with their slogan that “You are 100% of the solution,” it’s easier said than done.

Getting to Zero wants action from state and local governments, who work with building industry professionals to create a clean energy future. By using less energy, the goal is to have carbon neutral buildings while creating jobs and meeting the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.

One of the key teams that are helping the building sector get to zero is the New Buildings Institute. This nonprofit organization sits at a peculiar intersection in the building world, as they help improve the energy performance of commercial buildings. They also help developers cut through the bureaucratic policy jargon to build eco-friendly structures with their research, reports and guidance. Namely, they help buildings the most with zero carbon and zero energy buildings.

Kim Cheslak, the Director of Codes for the New Buildings Institute, said tackling energy codes and policies remains a key factor in the building sector. The organization has been helping drive energy codes and policy for over 20 years. Two of the standards they work with are ASHRAE 90.1 and the International Energy Conservation Code. One of their goals is carbon neutral new construction nationwide by 2030.

“The most pressing issue around the national conversation around decarbonization is how we deal with the correct accounting for cost,” Cheslak said. “Financing is important, but we have to figure out how to properly account for the cost of carbon from a policy perspective. How do you account for your building retrofit timeline?”

Cheslak explained that it depends on capital investment cycles, as well as the need to decarbonize. “Policies are going to set a long-term deadline, and very few buildings and their capital investment cycles are going to hit the policy deadlines,” she said. “The cycles are independent when you have policy deadlines. How we account for costs and how to account for that going forward, is key.”

The main goal is that the policies and legislation are centered around saving kilowatt hours of electricity and reducing building energy costs, overall. But even with the Paris Agreement and the United Nation’s 2050 goal of carbon neutrality, there’s still a misalignment between the policy and emissions goals of a carbon neutral future.

“There’s enough people having this conversation that solutions are going to be figured out,” Cheslak said.

A program was needed. The NBI created Codes for Climate, which helps provide a path for U.S. states and cities to decarbonize buildings. There isn’t a rep in every single state, but they do work with local state reps and building code officials to enforce policies.

The states leading the way right now are California, New York and Massachusetts, and Washington DC and Illinois have begun to make progress.

“Even within the Midwest, it’s overlooked, but great work is being done in Minnesota, trying to get their code on a trajectory,” Cheslak noted. “There are conversations around decarbonization in cities like St. Louis, which is also taking climate updates seriously as they align with their climate goals.”

The biggest hurdle, Cheslak said, is the national model codes. Most cities and states can’t write their own updates, which proves to be a huge challenge. “It’s time and resource-intensive to create your own code,” she said. “Historically, we’ve relied on national model codes and international energy conservation codes to provide a good baseline, so cities and states don’t have to go down the rabbit hole of making a whole new code by themselves.”

But the code making bodies are not keeping up with the needs of cities.

“We see more and more cities looking to a stretch code model; setting themselves up to write their own stretch codes too,” she said. “It’s not readily available code — they don’t write it themselves.”

To push building energy efficiency forward, developers and code legislators need to focus on looking at energy codes through a different lens.

“Right now, we are hearing industry professionals ask: ‘How much more efficiency is there?’” Cheslak said.

There are two main efficiency concerns. The first is how a building interacts with the electric grid, as energy grids are moving toward being 100% renewable.

How buildings are measured is also changing. Ideally, a zero-energy building uses as much energy as it produces in a year, but “the amount a building uses in a year is no longer a credible metric,” she explained.

The bottom line is that this progress is dependent on how construction firms move forward, as well as education and training across the building industry and real estate sectors.

“I could write the best building code I can feel exists, but it means nothing until it’s enforced,” Cheslak said. “People building that way, without failing an inspection, we need to do a good amount of training for us to move the building sector from where it is now to where it needs to be.”

That training has to be across the board, as designers need to know what to consider with their blueprints, building inspectors need to know the latest clean energy developments, as well as builders, developers and city officials.

“They all need to know what it means to review plans and walkthroughs, and the inspections industry needs to understand the pain points that building officials are experiencing,” Cheslak said.

It starts with having it on paper, but then the building industry needs to work together to make it happen through construction.

It’s obviously easier to create decarbonization codes and provisions in new buildings, which is a blank slate. In existing buildings, the code is more complex. And with many real estate professionals thinking one simple “green energy” sticker pasted outside a building is enough, there’s a lot of work to still do.

Breaking it down, the NBI has three program areas: codes and policy, getting to zero carbon and building innovation teams who are working with new technology.

“It’s harder to build the first building than the second, learning new regulations,” she explained. “Having the solution on paper is not the solution, having it in construction is where we want it to happen.”

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