Getting to Net Zero National Forum, Washington D.C.

I was fortunate to attend the Getting to Net Zero National Forum in Washington, DC on February 1-3 which was promoted as “A gathering to share perspectives on the growth of zero energy buildings, learn about best practices for successful projects and collaborate on opportunities for zero energy to transform the built environment.”

Opportunity for Change

While I found all of the presentations, sessions, and networking informative, broad and deep in content, as well as inspiring, I was particularly struck by the interest, commitment, and seriousness of national and global design, construction, and real estate companies; utilities; governments; and non-profits in making net zero happen now. They see that our culture is at the tipping point of permanent change and in a transition of energy sources for our future. Also they see a significant opportunity in diversifying portfolios, avoiding risk, and being the leaders in what will become the standard practice for the future. Across the board, participants and speakers stated that net zero energy (NZE) buildings are game changers that support and inspire donors, investors, and occupants far beyond the immediate economic benefits.

A driving force and the competitive edge

The New Buildings Institute (NBI), “a driving force for advancing the energy performance of commercial buildings”, is also a leader in documenting the growth of NZE buildings. They published the 2015 List of Zero Energy Buildings with 29 verified net zero buildings and over 50 emerging buildings—buildings that are in planning, design, construction, or operation for less than a year so do not yet have one year of verified energy data to show NZE performance. Maclay Architects has two projects that have been verified NZE, The Putney School Field House and the Bosarge Eduction Center at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. From the conference, it was clear that this is not a fringe movement, but in fact, where all real estate is headed—and those at the forefront will gain a competitive edge in this immense, emerging global market. It was interesting to me that the larger players in real estate are even more interested in NZE buildings and projects than smaller players, as they seemed to see the benefit in pursuing a unique and rapidly growing market segment.

Resources and More Information
For more information, visit the NBI website, which offers much valuable information on energy efficiency in general and NZE buildings specifically.




rmiThe keynote speaker was Ed Mazria who is the founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, a non-profit research organization promoting planning, policy, and design solutions for low-carbon, resilient built environments worldwide. For more information on Architecture 2030 visit

2030Amory Lovins and many others from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI at also contributed to many sessions of the conference in support of RMI’s mission to scale market-based solutions to climate change.


The rapidly evolving revolution in power generation, storage, and distribution.

The rapid transformation in renewable energy technologies and plummeting costs for renewables, generation, storage, and distribution systems is now revolutionizing the global energy sector as powerfully as the Internet, social media, and other recent high technology sectors. It is also transforming our energy infrastructure and delivery to the greatest degree in the last century. The shift to renewables with the decentralized generation of renewables is changing the century old energy utility model with centralized power generation. While power companies have been solar panelstrying to stop this trend, market forces continues to drive the evolution to a global decentralized energy system.

Global examples and trends

By way of example, the German government has subsidized the wind and solar industries to the extent that China has entered both markets and has led to the drop in renewable costs below fossil fuels. Importantly, Germany has accomplished this solar benchmark while maintaining the most competitive energy rates in the European Union – disproving the argument that renewable subsides increase energy costs. As is summarized in the September 13, 2014 NY Times article, Germany is only third globally when looking at percentage of renewable production of power from renewables. In recent years, renewables account for over 20% of German’s energy production. Brazil is first with over 80% and Canada is second with over 60% renewable generation. The US is in 9th place globally with about half the percentage German renewable power.  However, even in the US, states like California have renewable energy goals of 33% by 2020 and appear to be headed towards that goal. The second largest US homebuilder, Lennar Corporation, has picked up on this opportunity and is providing solar photovoltaic on all of their new homes with a 20 year contract guaranteeing a 20% discount from utility rates. This is a further demonstration that net zero and renewables are financially prudent today. (Gillis) For further details on these US, German, and global trends follow this NY Times article. While this decentralized renewable trend gains momentum, most US utilities are trying to buck the trend by controlling the market under the old and outdated centralized model.

Renewables and Vermont

However, in Vermont, as the Burlington Free Press reported on in these two articles (September 4, 2014 and windturbineSeptember 14, 2014), the city of Burlington is moving with the times by supplying 100% renewable powered electricity to the entire city of 42,000. The Burlington Electric Department will source 1/3 of its power from wind contracts, 1/3 from hydro (including a new local 7.4 megawatt plant and Hydro-Quebec), and 1/3 from a city owned biomass electric generation plant. Burlington is likely the largest community to reach 100% renewably sourced electricity. Burlington joins the likes of the Washington Electric Cooperative, which became 100% renewable this year and has about 11,000 customers. In addition, Vermont’s largest utility, Green Mountain Power has been a national leader in encouraging renewables such as wind, solar, hydro, biogas and biomass. The renewable future is increasingly obvious in all of this, but who the winners and losers will be in this “disruptive” transition is yet to be seen. That said, utilities in Vermont are leading the way.

Reference article:

Gillis, J. (2013). Sun and Wind Alter Global Landscape, Leaving Utilities Behind. The New York Times


In our GBA guest blog on August 26th , and our Net Zero Energy Vermont blog, we posed a question concerning net zero (NZ) statistics and metrics.

What are the metrics that will move us toward our net zero goal and future?

When we purchase a car we generally know what the fuel mileage is. When we buy, own, renovate or build a new building there isn’t a simple metric to compare buildings. To accomplish this goal the critical questions are:

  • How do we compare different sized buildings?
  • What is a simple and easy standard that is as intuitive as miles per gallon so it is understandable, applicable and useful?
  • What is the typical energy consumption?
  • How do we compare different building occupancies and uses (like office, residential, retail, dining)
  • What is a standard that is appropriate for a net zero building?

To compare different sized buildings we can total annual energy consumption and divide by the size of the building. This metric is called energy use intensity or energy utilization index (EUI).  For a step by step method to accomplish this, you can use this EUI Calculator that we’ve developed.  This resource can also be found through the Maclay Architects Resources page on our website.


We can benchmark typical existing building EUI’s by checking the EPA Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) data at We can estimate typical new code complaint building EUIs. Also, ten US cities have required that large commercial, institutional, and residential projects disclose their EUIs, so those can be used for comparison.

02.02_EnergyConservationStandards copyFor net zero buildings we can establish recommended EUI metrics. For cold climates, the chart shown here identifies our recommended EUI metrics for net zero ready (NZR) buildings and compares them to existing and code compliant buildings without excessive process loads like kitchens, manufacturing, labs, etc.

This benchmark, metrics, and goal process is not perfect. It does not fully account for density of use, different building occupancies, capacity of people served and other variables. It is a metric that buildings can be designed to and then measured with past occupancy monitoring. Comments on our recent GBA article (Aug. 26) have offered useful considerations. Related to that, in Chapter 2 of The New Net Zero we have also offered additional considerations. However, in summary, we think EUI most effectively serves the need to have a simple, comprehensive, and easy metric that is similar to gas mileage for cars that can be implemented and used today to move toward a net zero world and future.


We are alive at a unique and remarkable time – this moment in history marks one of the most major changes in
human civilization.  Today, fossil fuels no longer make economic sense.  We have reached the tipping point where using renewable energy costs less than using fossil fuel energy.  This cost consideration even excludes the externalities and negative monetary effects of climate change and environmental issues from using fossil fuels.  Yet this is still a secret for most people, and there is an opportunity to make the shift now.

Five reasons why net zero buildings are affordable today:

1)      Renewable Energy Costs:

Renewable energy is less expensive (and less volatile) than fossil fuel energy.  With Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), we can be using renewable energy with NO capital outlay and with energy prices equal to or less than fossil fuel and nuclear energy.

2)      Energy Conservation Costs:

We can build very high performing buildings that we call net-zero-ready for $5-$10 per square foot additional cost

3)      Advanced Heat Pump Technology:

New air-source heat pump (ASHP) technology provides reduced operating costs compared to fossil fuels, including cheap natural gas.  While capital costs are more for ASHP systems, leasing programs offer options to reduce the initial capital requirements.

4)      Low Interest Rates:

Envelope efficiency, heat pumps, and even renewable energy systems, can offer higher than 10% return on investment, particularly given the current low interest rates and the rising costs of fossil fuel energy.

5)      Lowest Operating Costs:

The bottom line is reduced cash outflow when combining cumulative energy and financing costs of net-zero-ready buildings over code-compliant buildings.   Simply put, it saves you money!!



Exploring an Integrative Path to Replicable Net Zero Energy Projects

July 30, 2014

The International Living Futures Institute, the parent organization for the Living Building Challenge, hosted an “unConference” on May 23rd  Portland, OR.   Among the highlights, Maya Lin, renowned international architect, and Lance Hosey the author of The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design both spoke.  I presented as a part of a panel with Mark […]

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Biomimicry and Biophilia as a Powerful Business Tool

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On May 14th Bill and I attended the 24th annual Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility’s Spring Conference in Burlington, VT.  Bill presented as a member of an afternoon panel session titled “Nature’s Inspiration: Biomimicry and Biophilia as a Powerful Business Tool”.  Other members of the panel included Dr. Stephen Kellert, Sarah-Lee Terrat, and Michael Dupee.  […]

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New Net Zero: Explaining the hiatus

May 27, 2014

While I’ve been absent from the blog scene lately, I’m excited to be back and re-energize our team’s online writing efforts. During my blog hiatus I’ve been far from relaxed and “on-break” — instead I’ve written a book, The New Net Zero, which will be released this June by Chelsea Green Publishing!  The book effort, […]

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Finding Harmony : Biophilic Design & Environmental Design

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A recent screening of an in-progress film, The Architecture of Life by Stephen Kellert and Bill Finnegan at the Yestermorrow School in Waitsfield, Vermont, started me thinking about the connection — or more possibly the disconnection — between biophilic design and environmental design. The former focuses its efforts on the user, attempting to provide a […]

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Net-Zero Building Design Comes to Maine

September 13, 2011

On a sunny day in July, I was happy to find myself in Boothbay, Maine for the grand opening of our most recent net-zero project, The Bosarge Family Education Center at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Heralded by the press as “The Greenest Building in Maine”, this educational center is the first net-zero commercial/institutional project […]

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Net-Zero: Lessons from the Field

July 20, 2011

I recently had the chance to travel to Montreal and present one of our Vermont projects, the net-zero Putney School Field House, at the international ASHRAE conference. This was an exciting chance for us to share with others how it really is possible to achieve net-zero in the cold climate of Vermont. This was also a […]

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