To lead with climate action, architects can start by reducing emissions
Zero net carbon buildings are possible now. An industry game changer describes how Architecture 2030’s ZERO Code is a pathway for architects and clients.
Ed Mazria, FAIA, is an architect who has been called “game changer” since the early 2000s. That’s when he saw, in energy data, just how much buildings were contributing to emissions. He recognized then the leadership opportunity for the architectural profession.
Mazria is still crunching numbers and pushing the industry toward greater, faster impact. Today, he leads Architecture 2030, identifying leverage points and suggesting focused solutions based on collective intelligence. Since the United Nations’ Paris Agreement, the group has been looking at how the industry can help meet those targets. The most effective way is by creating zero carbon buildings -- those whose carbon-based energy consumption, such as coal and natural gas, is reduced first through building design strategies and efficiency measures, then through mechanical and electrical systems, then by adding on-site renewable energy generation, and finally through procurement of locally produced off-site renewable energy. Right now, there are only a few hundred zero net energy buildings, according to the New Buildings Institute (which are automatically zero net carbon buildings when they generate enough renewable energy on-site to operate the building). But almost any new building that meets current national energy code standards can be zero net carbon by employing off-site renewable sources for its energy use.
We talked with Mazria about the ZERO Code developed by Architecture 2030 with leading expert Charles Eley, FAIA, and launched this year to spur— and then scale—the zero net carbon trend in new construction.
What is the ZERO Code’s reason for being? Why did you and Architecture 2030 see the need for this?
Mazria: We are running short on time. We must substantially reduce emissions now, both in the US and globally. We are also undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in human history. By 2060, two out of three people will live in cities. By that same date, projections from the International Energy Agency suggest that we will add approximately 2.5 trillion square feet of built space -- this is an area that equals the entire current global building stock.
Improvements in building sector energy efficiency and growth in renewable energy generating capacity have been occurring but have not been enough to offset the increase in emissions from new construction. Only by eliminating CO2 emissions from new building operations will we begin to reduce building sector emissions.
The good news is that every new project can get to zero net carbon today through existing standards and technologies, and it’s now cost effective. To encourage this, we need a national and international building standard that we can put in place quickly and that can scale globally, otherwise we will not get the reductions needed.
What is ZERO Code and how would it work?
Mazria: We created the ZERO Code as a national and international building energy standard for new building construction that integrates cost-effective energy efficiency standards with on-site and/or off-site renewable energy and results in zero net carbon buildings. It includes prescriptive and performance paths for compliance based on current standards that are widely used by municipalities and building professionals worldwide.
The latest commercial building energy code (ASHRAE 90.1) is very efficient and is a national and international standard and applies to prevalent building types in urban areas -- it made sense to use that standard as the efficiency part of the ZERO Code. The ZERO Code for California is a building energy standard for new nonresidential, high-rise residential and hotel/motel buildings, based on the 2019 California Building Energy Efficiency Standards (BEES).
By incorporating national code standards, the ZERO Code takes advantage of well-known implementation tools and software such as ComCheck, Energy Plus and other design and energy simulation software-- so we have the benefit of all that product development. The ZERO Code also comes with a calculator that computes how much electrical energy can be generated from rooftop PV and other renewable systems, and then the offsite energy your building will need to procure to achieve zero net carbon.
How is ZERO Code gaining traction now? And what are some examples where people and communities are beginning to use this?
Mazria: The State of Oregon adopted the ZERO Code as a statewide alternative method. Massachusetts is considering adopting a zero net carbon standard now, possibly as a Stretch Code, and then making it mandatory in 2030. Other states and many cities are also looking at the ZERO Code.
The tri-annual International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) update deliberations have just taken place, and the ZERO Code Appendix was approved by the commercial buildings committee and will now go to a full vote in the fall. This would codify the ZERO Code as an option for cities to pick up (when they adopt the 2021 IECC).
What we’d really like to see is for California to step up and adopt the ZERO Code for the state. It would influence further adoption in the US and other countries if that were to happen. The ZERO Code International Standard has spurred, in China, the development of a nearly net zero plus on site / off site standard. This has just been released as a voluntary standard.
Why is this good for architects and their clients?
Mazria: The ZERO Code will help architects and clients focus on designing buildings with zero emissions. Once they realize that they can design to zero emissions now, with readily available and cost-effective standards and tools, it all falls into place.
We received a small grant from the AIA to develop the ZERO Code, and AIA submitted the proposal to the IECC for the ZERO Code Appendix adoption. The ZERO Code provides AIA’s members a straightforward and cost-effective path for designing buildings that are zero net carbon today.
What can architects do to get their local communities to adopt this as an ordinance?
Mazria: There are many ways that this can be done. Cities can adopt the ZERO Code or adopt ASHRAE 90.1 2016 or 2019 and then require, by ordinance, the ZERO Code renewable energy requirements for new buildings to reach zero net carbon.
Architects can also lobby their local and state code officials to engage in the IECC process and vote for the ZERO Code Appendix proposal in the fall.
But most importantly, architects should design to the ZERO Code standard now.
Kira Gould is a communications strategist, writer, and convener; through her communications practice, Kira Gould CONNECT, she advises clients on media exposure, knowledge leadership, and storytelling. She is an Allied AIA member and serves on the AIA Committee on the Environment.