Growth In Zero Energy Buildings

Report from New Buildings Institute reveals big picture advances across North America.

Compiled by Facility Executive Staff
From the October 2021 Issue

In September 2020, New Buildings Institute (NBI) released its “2020 Getting To Zero Buildings List,” a document showcasing growth and trends for zero energy and zero carbon buildings across North America. Based in Portland, OR, NBI is a nonprofit organization working in the industry for better performance in buildings, and has been tracking these zero energy developments across the building stock for the past decade. “Getting To Zero” is just one of the initiatives the organization oversees, collaborating with many other industry groups and stakeholders.

New Buildings Institute Shared The Summary

According to the 2020 report, NBI highlighted that the demand for zero energy buildings across the U.S. and Canada is growing exponentially. The “2020 Getting to Zero Buildings List” 16-page document revealed that the number of zero energy and getting to zero buildings had grown to nearly 700—a 42% increase since 2018 findings. The total square footage of zero energy buildings had surpassed 62 million, a 39% jump from 2018. The number of verified zero energy buildings in the U.S. and Canada more than doubled between 2018 and 2020, a sign that designers were gaining expertise for delivering on zero energy targets set by building owners.

Zero Energy Buildings
(Photo: ADOBE STOCK – adrian_ilie825)

A “verified” zero energy building is defined as an ultra-low-energy building that consumes only as much energy as it produces with clean renewable energy. These projects must provide 12 months of measured energy use and renewable energy production data. An “emerging” zero energy building is one that has a goal of achieving zero energy, but has yet to be completed or attain zero energy-level performance.

“In the United States, where buildings are responsible for nearly 30% of the nation’s carbon emissions, zero energy buildings will continue to play an important role as we transition to a low-carbon economy,” said Ralph DiNola, CEO of NBI. “Because so many of the zero energy buildings we are tracking run entirely on electricity and include on-site renewable energy generation, they are proving to be a cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions, achieve deep energy savings, and improve the indoor air quality of homes and commercial buildings.”

Key Findings & Trends From NBI Report

States with climate action goals lead the market.

Projects span all climate zones and nearly every state and province. While they are concentrated in California and the Northeastern U.S., zero energy buildings outside these dominant regions grew by more than 20% over the last two years. The states with the most growth in zero energy projects over the last two years are California, Oregon, New York and Massachusetts—not surprising given the ambitious climate action goals set by state and local governments in these places.

Both public and private sectors see strong growth.

Publicly and privately owned buildings continue to grow at a similar pace. Despite owning less real estate than private building owners, publicly owned government offices, libraries, schools, and universities make up a significant portion of NBI’s “2020 Getting to Zero Buildings List”. In the private sector, several large companies, including IKEA, Walmart, Google, Apple, and Amazon, have completed zero energy projects. Many of these corporations have already set or have committed to setting science-based emissions reduction targets.

Meeting zero energy goals is more attainable than ever.

It was found that 20% of the buildings on NBI’s “Getting to Zero Buildings List” are “verified—the largest percentage to date–signaling designers are getting better at meeting zero energy project goals. Verified buildings have a median energy use intensity (EUI) of 20 kBtu per square foot per year and consume about half the energy of comparable buildings. The remaining energy demand is met with renewable resources.

About NBI’s Getting To Zero Buildings List

NBI’s Getting to Zero Buildings List is a comprehensive record of zero energy and ultra-low-energy buildings in North America. It allows building owners, designers, and builders to receive recognition for their zero energy or ultra-low-energy buildings while helping raise awareness about zero energy buildings.

Submitting a project is open to anyone and these can be submitted to the Getting to Zero Database by reporting energy use intensity (EUI) and renewable production intensity (RPI) numbers. Once approved to the database, users can find project details—such as location, building size and building type using an interactive search and sort tool.

Global Look For Zero Energy

NBI and zero energy building efforts expanded its global reach in this past April when the Institute signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). This formalized the two organizations’ relationship, and defines how the they will collaborate.

“This partnership creates an important alliance to advance our regional and global collaborative efforts,” said Bill Sisson, WBCSD Executive Director, North America, overseeing WBCSD’s global work on the built environment. “We will jointly accelerate meaningful progress on making buildings part of the climate solution by engaging all stakeholders in the value chain.”

Net Zero Energy Project Goes Positive

By Facility Executive Staff

A building project completed in January 2021 and designed by Ashley McGraw Architects is a facility that achieves a notable performance standard—generating more energy than it consumes. Working with the goal set by the Sustainable Energy Fund (SEF), a new Net Zero Energy office building was designed and built to demonstrate that a Net Zero Energy approach can be used for a leasable office building for a similar development cost to comparable office buildings.

Sustainable Energy Fund
The Sustainable Energy Fund’s new office building in Schenksville, PA was designed to be a net zero energy facility.

Zero Energy Buildings
The SEF building offers approximately 12,000 square feet of office space, with shared amenities for tenants. (Photos: Ashley McGraw Architects)

“This project provides a blueprint for achieving net-positive energy within the financial structure of a speculative building,” said Andrew Schuster, an Ashley McGraw Principal and leader of the firm’s commercial architecture practice. “We were excited to collaborate with a client like SEF who set this bold goal and shares our commitment to regenerative design and the proven value it offers to all stakeholders.”

Drawing on Passive House strategies, the design sets a regional standard in sustainability—from both economic and performance perspectives. The SEF Net Zero Energy office building will consume about 75% less energy comparable to commercial structures in the region while generating 30% more energy than it needs—on site. Several design and technological strategies were deployed for achieving this standard of efficiency while delivering the project within budget limitations:

  • The building is oriented carefully on a former apple orchard to take maximum advantage of sun and shade. Its surfaces and openings are positioned to minimize energy expenditures while enhancing the interior environment.
  • An array of photovoltaic panels mounted on the roof of the single-story building will generate all necessary energy for the operation of the facility, with 30% excess to sell back to the utility.
  • The building envelope is designed for high performance, with continuous insulation and an air leakage rate below the Passive House US standard of 0.08CFM75.
  • All building systems—from HVAC to plumbing to electrical and lighting—are selected and engineered for optimal balance between cost and performance.

For this project, Ashley McGraw Architects has been recognized with the 2021 Fast Company World Changing Ideas Award (Honorable Mention, Architecture), and a 2020 Groundbreaker Award, from Green Building United.

Located in Schnecksville, PA, the SEF office is the first net-positive building in this traditional steel-producing region. It provides more than 12,000 square feet of leasable space with shared amenity spaces, including a conference room/classroom, kitchen, and restrooms.

Based in Syracuse, NY, Ashley McGraw Architects is an architectural firm whose work represents a wide range of building types, including K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and community/civic buildings.

Specifically, NBI and WBCSD seek to develop and disseminate solutions for full life cycle decarbonization of new and existing buildings and districts. The collaboration will work to expand the number of businesses and building owners investing in net zero as well as grow capability of the building industry to meet this demand.

Zero Energy Buildings
Map of Zero Energy Projects, from the “2020 Getting To Zero Buildings List:. (Source: New Buildings Institute)

For more about the report from New Buildings Institute, visit

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