Inside the Zero-Carbon Building Certification Program

By Senior WriterPublished On: November 15, 20215.5 min read

Earlier this month a grocery store in Seattle announced that two of its food markets met the world’s most rigorous green building standards. The PCC Community Markets met the Living Building Challenge to become a Petal-Certified building, making it the world’s first grocery store to receive such recognition.

As part of the certification, the two PCC locations — their West Seattle and Bellevue co-op locations — were built with 97% of building materials within the country, building managers and have invested in the local community.

“We are working toward our vision to inspire and advance the health and well-being of people, their communities and the planet,” said Brenna Davis, PCC Community Market’s Vice President of Social and Environmental Responsibility. “We’re taking small but important steps for the health of our staff, local communities, and our planet.”

It taps into a growing trend. Almost everyone in the building sector is talking about zero carbon buildings — a popular topic considering only about 150 buildings have so far been certified by this high standard.

But what goes into a zero-carbon certified building? The International Living Future Institute has become the industry standard of zero-carbon certification. With their team in Seattle, the ILFI grants the official certification (they also grant the LBC Petal-Certification, among other certifications).

There’s a whole slew of new building certifications that are popping up, such as the new WELL Building Standard that monitors the “wellbeing” of a building. However, the ILFI has raised the bar.

“We see new standards starting to emerge,” said Hendrik Van Hemert, the Managing Director of Edo Energy, a building-to-grid (B2G) integration firm that is familiar with green building standards.

“Generally, the way they play out, there is a bit of confusion as they pop up, then they merge together and then you have a market leader that becomes the standard, like what the LEED certification became,” he said.

The ILFI is the leader on zero-carbon certification, and is performance-based. Getting to that zero-carbon certification standard is no easy feat. The ILFI’s business director, Shawn Hesse, said the evaluation is based on a building’s performance over a 12-month period. Then it’s registered and certified through the ILFI standards.

“We focus on certifications that validate actual performance with actual utility data,” Hesse said.

Their flagship program, the Living Building Challenge, is a multi-attribute holistic certification framework that looks at water, energy and health impacts on occupants and whether materials have toxic chemicals in them. “It also focuses on equity, social justice and beauty,” he added.

Both the zero-energy and zero-carbon certifications follow strict site energy regulations. For the zero-energy certification, 100% of the energy used by a building is produced onsite through renewables, typically solar, in a calendar year.

It depends on the threshold you’re looking at. “Zero-carbon certification requires work; it’s not like you could just install solar panels to offset a really wasteful building,” Hesse said. “The zero-carbon standard requires buildings to not burn any fossil fuels onsite.”

All of that energy must be renewable energy.

“We expect all teams to calculate, disclose, reduce and offset the embodied carbon that’s associated with the carbon project itself,” he said. “Looking at everything from raw material extraction to transit shipping and installation, all the energy and carbon impact associated.”

So far, of the individual buildings that the ILFI has certified to the zero-carbon and zero-energy standard, the biggest challenge is eliminating onsite combustion.

“That has often come up in varying degrees; it’s a challenge for some and others say it isn’t a challenge at all,” he said. “The industry is coalescing around the idea that we need to stop building fossil fuel-based infrastructure. Building codes are moving in that direction. It’s an amazing turning point; we’re now seeing electric buildings becoming more of the norm.”

It’s a high standard, but many buildings are stepping up to the plate.

“We’re not interested in a world that’s just a little less bad, we want to certify a world that’s actually good, one where the world is better off because we built these buildings,” said Hesse.

He added: “All our certifications are framed around the idea where the ideal is the metric of success and measuring and holding everyone accountable to how close we can get to that ideal.”

Out of their full suite of certifications, the ILFI has certified 170 projects that are either living buildings or zero-energy buildings, with the full spectrum in between.

“Every single one of them has an amazing impact and ripple effects into the marketplace,” said Hesse. “It sets the bar so high, it demonstrates that a high bar is achievable.”

The standards are calculated using carbon calculators, including the Athena Impact Estimator and the Environment Agency’s Carbon Calculator for Construction Activities, as well as eTool, One Click LCA and Tally, which are used by project teams.

When Hesse started the job in 2017, most of the conversations were answering whether it was possible for a building to achieve these standards. Now there’s been a shift where the conversations are based around: “How do we do this at scale?”

“It’s a different tenor,” he explained. “We’ve proven that we can do new construction projects that are achievable. We’re excited to work with organizations at a scale that has an even larger impact.”

With the International Energy Agency’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, pressure is on governments worldwide to boost clean energy and reduce fossil fuel consumption to make net-zero in reach and at scale.

To Hesse, this goal is possible before 2050. “There are two different aspects; is it technically feasible, and do we have the will and ambition to make it happen?” he asked. “We’re not waiting for a magic technology that doesn’t exist. We have the tools we need today. It’s proven it’s possible.”

In fact, one of the biggest challenges is not aiming high enough, as energy goals are set too low. One pattern Hesse and his team have observed over the past couple of years is that when a client asks for 30% energy efficiency, nothing is achieved beyond that. “It’s not 45% energy efficiency, or even 60%, but just 30%,” he said.

Where a client has asked for 75% energy efficiency, the ILFI provided that, too.

“The challenge is that we are not setting goals and targets that are ambitious enough,” Hesse said. “We’re reaching the targets but stopping. We need to instill the confidence in those organizations, the kind of targets we need, and the belief that we’re capable of achieving them.”

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