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.  Together the panel painted a picture of the multiple facets of incorporating biophilic design into buildings, workspaces, and products.  The discussion focused on the wisdom and inspiration that we can find in nature to inspire and inform design solutions for today’s evolving workplace; creating spaces that nurture, engage, and enliven humans.

VBSR Panel SessionFour points of view

During the panel session, Steve Kellert, Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology and Senior Research Scholar at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, introduced the essential principles of biophilic design with national examples, including Herman Miller, Genzyme, and Google. As the leader in the field of biophilia, his introduction was reinforced by the other panelists’ work and examples. Bill shared Vermont-based examples of our office which employ biophilic design, including the George D. Aiken Center and Seventh Generation Headquarters both in Burlington, and Renewable NRG Systems’ offices in Hinesburg. Artist Sarah-Lee Terrat  described details of artistic representation of natural themes within buildings. She shared how she finds inspiration in nature and brings that to bear in her work which celebrates these biophilic themes and connections.  Michael Dupee, Vice President of Sustainable Innovation at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc, provided an introduction to biomimicry practice and related applications for businesses.

More on biophilia

For additional information on the topic please refer to our previous post, Finding Harmony: Biophilic Design & Environmental Design – which defines the term and provides further discussion on the need for biophilic design in our built environments.

Sustainable business enterprise

In addition to the afternoon panel session, our work was highlighted by keynote speaker, Alisa Gravitz, the Green America CEO and President.  Her talk praised local businesses in sustainable enterprise, products, and services.  She specifically cited Maclay Architects as an example and leader in the green building movement.

Maclay Architects also donated table space to the Vermont Energy Education Program (VEEP), who had a bike on hand to demonstrate energy required to power CLF, incandescent, or LED light bulbs.  The attendees were shy to use the bike, but eager to talk about energy efficiency, and we were thrilled to have VEEP as a booth collaborator.  While staffing our booth, I had many great conversations with attendees and talked extensively about office environments and creative options for work spaces showing examples from our work.

booth photo_Chris Prado Photo by Chris Prado, VBSR Intern

Overall, it was a beneficial conference with rich discussion and interesting presentations and interactions throughout the day.  We are proud to be involved with VBSR, who continues to organize and draw energetic, inspirational, and innovative leaders to their annual spring conference.


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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, of course, needed to run in parallel with ongoing design work for our clients, so something had to go (like writing blog posts). But that’s looking back. Now I’m glad to be back and look forward to sharing and encouraging discussion about the new net zero.

Cover of The New Net Zero book,  Publish date  June 10, 2014
The New Net Zero book, June 10, 2014


Where shall I start? After three years, much has changed in building design, energy efficiency and emissions control, while much has stayed the same. Debating the definition of terms has not changed, although the definitions themselves have evolved.

What is Net Zero? Defining the rules of the game.

This seems like a simple enough and straight-forward question that should garner a concise answer, but if you’ve asked the question or been in the room among professionals discussing Net Zero strategies or projects, you likely have witnessed the significant discussion and even heated debate the can arise due to the lack of clear definitions around Net Zero projects, goals and strategies.

Why is defining the term important?

Like the old adage states, if you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  More specifically, as Architects we find that the definition or understanding of a problem or opportunity  can directly inform how it is addressed, designed, and resolved.  So depending on the players and their priorities the answers (and their definition of net zero) may differ.

To further reinforce the notion that defining and understanding Net Zero projects and strategies can be complex within a larger context, there are a number of industry resources offering their definition of these terms.

So, why is it so complicated?

The complexity often comes from different assumptions related to energy use quantification and accounting.  In general there are four main Net Zero Energy terms; Net zero site energy building, net zero source energy building, net zero energy cost buildings and net zero energy emissions buildings.

To gain a better understanding of how some of the industry players are defining these four terms, here are two examples for you:

National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in June of 2006, published a 15 page report, Zero Energy Buildings: A critical look at the definitions, aimed at clarifying these terms.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Condition Engineers (ASHRAE) in their Vision 2020 report from January 2008, also offers definitions of these terms.

How does Maclay Architects define Net Zero?

To us, the definition of a net zero project at any scale—a building, a community, a country, or a planet—is simple: it produces more energy than it consumes on an annual basis using only renewable energy in the process. – The New Net Zero

Simply put, that’s my working definition. Don’t be fooled though, I agree that it can be complicated and difficult to define the terms.  To that end, Chapter 2 in The New Net Zero is dedicated to a discussion of the terms and definitions we use to inform, guide, and direct our work. I invite you to add your own voice and definitions to the discussion below.

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[Tree in a rural area] (LOC)

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

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 better environment for living, in both seeking shelter and experiencing the natural world. The latter requires only that design address the external: the building’s impact on the environment. I would argue that when done right, environmental design should address both the external impacts and the user’s internal needs, as encompassed by the tenets of biophilic design.

Defining the Terms

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the idea of biophilia, it is a term that has been popularized in some fields while remaining virtually unknown in others. The concept, first introduced by Erich Fromm in 1964 and popularized by Edward O. Wilson in 1984, can be described as the biological need to connect with the natural world, or the attraction towards that which is alive. The idea of biophilic design is the natural extension of this concept, and posits that since humans inherently seek connections with the living world, architecture and design should nurture this contact in order to create a favorable environment for humans.

As someone working in the architectural field, understanding this concept is unquestionably important, but it is also important to the entire population. All of us are affected by the environment in which we live and work, even more so than we might realize. For most of us, the majority of our time is spent indoors, within these built environments. Though the statistics might be slightly different for Vermonters, the average American spends an almost inconceivable 90% of her/his time indoors. With this in mind, and understanding on a deeper level why some buildings are a joy in which to live and work, while others contribute to a negative experience, the importance of (and path to) seeding an architectural revolution becomes clear.

Telling the Story

Kellert and Finnegan’s movie is doing the important early work of collecting the anecdotes and the statistical knowledge base that starts to frame this new understanding of the built environment. A compelling storyline in the movie discusses the long-term benefits of building better schools, as taken from a 2006 report “Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits” by Gregory Kats.

The upfront cost of greening schools, while at least roughly following the tenets of biophilic design, is on average 2% more than not doing so, or an extra $3 per square foot. These well-designed schools provide better learning environments and ultimately higher test scores for their students, alongside the better recognized energy and water costs savings. What is more amazing in this study is the quantification of this small investment in green building, in terms of the potential future earnings of the students. The better learning environment and test scores on average result in a $49 per square foot increase in future earnings. As these long-term benefits of good design continue to be recognized, a transformative change could take place in the market, advancing our built environment into its next evolutionary stage.

Envisioning the Future

It is my hope that the stories of good design begin to reach a larger audience and spur more of us to request the best from our built environment. Offices no longer need to be windowless rooms filled with endless rows of cubicles, lit by flickering fluorescent lights. Hospital rooms need not be painted in sterile tones, filled only with bright blinking lights and beeping machinery with no thought of the outdoors or even a leaf moving on the plastic greenery decking the halls and waiting rooms. We have an ability to build better buildings, following the tenets of both biophilic and environmental design. The places we live and work can nurture the environment through the use of sustainable materials, by producing more energy than they consume, and by being places we truly want to spend time — as relaxing as a mountain spa, as vibrant as a bustling marketplace, and as productive as well-managed farmland.

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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 to be completed in the state of Maine.

Image copyright of Robert Benson Photography

The grand opening ceremony provided an opportunity for those in Maine to collect over the idea of net-zero and high-performance building. With representative attending from all of Maine’s governmental branches, ample discussion moved towards the challenges of high-performance building and the goals achievable in building and energy policy in the future. It is my hope that these relatively small building can have a wide reaching audience and begin to change minds in Maine and New England about green building practices and the ability to build net-zero.

This unique project didn’t become a net-zero building by accident. From the very beginning the board at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens set out strict environmental goals for this project. Compared to many other projects, where Maclay Architects has spent time bringing the client and team on board with high-performance design practices, this project hit the ground running with goals of both net-zero energy and LEED Platinum. I believe it is because these goals were understood clearly from the beginning by the entire project team that the design was able to morph quickly into the construction of the building, even allowing for a shortened construction schedule, which was required by the Gardens to preserve their visitor’s experience during the busy summer season.

With thousands of visitors each year to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, in addition to the programs to be housed in the new Bosarge Family Education Center, there is a great opportunity for this building to teach many about the process and advantages of building net-zero. Solar panels cover the south-facing roof, which can be seen from the parking lot, prominently displaying the building’s green energy features. High-performance characteristics of the building that are not as readily visible to the visitor’s eye are highlighted throughout the Education Center by signage and an interactive building dashboard. These educational tools provide opportunities for visitors to learn about the design process and green features installed in the building, as well as interact with the building to understand energy production, energy consumption, water consumption and daily use patterns.

Image copyright of Robert Benson Photography

The Garden’s ultimate vision of creating a building that both meet the goals of being net-zero energy and achieving LEED Platinum has been met, but the further vision, and I believe more important vision,  of communicating to visitors the importance of resource and energy conservation still continues to be developed. A teachable mantra brought forth at the building’s grand opening, one that describes the finished product, “If a plant designed a building…” continues to grow this learning experience. Visitors to the Gardens can now complete that sentence with firsthand experience, “It would be powered by the sun,” “It would use natural materials as its building blocks,” and “It would harness the daylight.”

If you find yourself in the Boothbay region, I invite you to come visit and explore the building, the larger site and the gardens.


The Bosarge Family Education Center at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens was designed by Maclay Architects of Waitsfield, VT and Scott Simons Architects of Portland, ME.

For More Information:

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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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Building Energy Statistics – Do they make sense?

November 29, 2010

Image via Wikipedia There are many measures used for building energy efficiency: total kBtu, kBtu/sf/yr, kWh/yr, therms/yr, kWh/sq.m/yr, $/yr or kBtu/person, and more. But determining when to use which metric, and even more importantly, how to make sense of a comparison of the energy efficiency of two different buildings, is no easy task. An Example […]

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Net-Zero Energy Buildings: Semantic Antics

October 26, 2010

Is obfuscation one of your goals? I didn’t think so. It does seem to be a goal in many architectural, energy efficiency and sustainability circles though. The terms zero energy building, net-zero carbon, net-zero energy cost, zero net energy, net-zero energy site, net-zero electricity, near net-zero, and net-zero ready…are all tossed about to describe a […]

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Net Zero Energy and Innovation

September 24, 2010

I tend to think of net zero energy as a mindset rather than a single end point. True, there are those who favor purity, specific definitions and exact measurements whenever the term net zero energy is used, but for a layperson like myself interested in change, there’s value in thinking in terms of a never-ending […]

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Building Design Choices at UVM

August 21, 2010

As pleased as I was to see the new Jeffords building at the University of Vermont featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I must confess to being somewhat disappointed by the article. Although Dean Tom Vogelmann appears amiable and approachable in the first photograph, the remaining photos do little to convey the “functional elegance” […]

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Same Size, But 33% Renewable in Upper Austria

July 14, 2010

Image via Wikipedia Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) recently invited Christiane Egger from O.O. Energiesparverband, an organization similar to VEIC located in Upper Austria, to visit Vermont. O.O. Energiesparverband functions to promote energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy in the federal state of Upper Austria. What is interesting is that the state of […]

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