New Net Zero: Explaining the hiatus

Bill Maclay on 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, 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.

Post written Bill Maclay on May 27, 2014 in Buildings & Environment,Carbon footprint

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