Getting to 50 and Back Again

2005 was a tumultuous year and it was in those challenging times that I got the call that Jeff Johnson was gone – a mountain bike accident in the Columbia River Gorge. I knew Jeff as the Executive Director of New Buildings Institute (NBI) and as a friend. I knew that he cared as much about energy codes as he did about mountain biking and wind surfing, which was certainly a unique combination. A few months later, I was the Executive Director at NBI.

Getting to 50
Within my first year at NBI, we asked the question of how far could buildings go in their efficiency over traditional construction practices. The new bar in high-performance buildings we found would be 50% better than the current energy codes. NBI searched out examples of these efficient buildings and connected with them throughout the country. These buildings were remarkable – beautiful daylighting, usually some natural ventilation, elegant lighting design with controls that actually work, and mechanical systems that I did not fully comprehend. This stuff was exciting, leading the way for even greener buildings. But there were not many examples, only 1 in 1,000 buildings met the “Getting to 50” (GT50) goal.

But what we came to understand was that although there were only a few dozen examples, by spotlighting these projects we could create strong models for others to follow. NBI staff conducted training, case studies and conference presentations. A key piece of the GT50 movement was to get other people and organizations on board with the Getting to 50 concept. We decided to get everybody we could think of that was doing work in this range of performance together to share the lessons learned and build a plan for the future.

A Great Convening
We made a list of architects, engineers, energy organizations, green building experts, state officials, and utility staff that worked exceptionally hard to sell fewer kWhs and called them together at Emory University in Atlanta. One hundred people were invited, and 84 of them stopped what they were doing, bought a plane ticket, and headed to Atlanta for the meeting.

It was a deeply engaging event and a new standard and role for NBI had begun—as an organizer and collaborator. NBI kept doing things like that for years after —and will hopefully keep doing it. It’s tremendously fun and motivating when you have a small, dedicated group of people working on the world’s problems (thank you, Margaret Mead). But at some point, you have to get to scale.

Introducing: Zero Energy Buildings
Just a year or two after we got all excited about Getting to 50, we caught wind of this thing called “zero energy” (ZE). I had seen some British examples, but now both California (through the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC) and the Northwest (the Cascadia Green Building Council) were talking about buildings that were grid connected but generated enough renewable energy on site to meet their annual needs. In California, NBI Research Director Cathy Higgins, now-retired Senior Project Manager Mark Cherniack, and I began attending meetings to develop California’s Long-Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan along with many others. With the depth of knowledge and networks we had in the Getting to 50 buildings research, we continued to work with the CPUC in further planning. In 2009, we were awarded a contract to develop a network—an Action Plan for Commercial Buildings that included trainings and case studies. NBI Technical Director Mark Frankel provided a link to Cascadia Green Building Council work (which later became the International Living Futures Institute). NBI provided training and support there as well along with many of our Getting to 50 friends.

What happened to Getting to 50?
ZE became a major focus of work for NBI in the last decade. We started to support organizing early adopters and efforts on ZE nationally, write policy and market papers, manage a database of buildings including energy use information, issue status updates, and present on ZE around the country. The first Getting to Zero National Forum was organized in Denver for the fall of 2013. When I stepped down at NBI a few months before the event, Ralph DiNola stepped in to take things up another notch. The National Forum has become a regular event, attracting people from around the world, and thousands of people now participate in NBI webinars, read NBI research and reports, and attend gatherings.

Sometimes an NBI Board member or other energy professional will ask me, “Dave, whatever happened with GT50?” The answer: It’s probably going to be the next energy code. ZE could be the one after that and that won’t be 1 in 1,000, but at scale as it should be done. By mid-century, buildings built to code will have beautiful daylighting, some natural ventilation, excellent lighting designs with integrated controls, and small-scale HVAC systems that hardly have to do anything at all.

Note: To celebrate our 20th Anniversary we’ve invited Dave Hewitt, NBI Fellow and Executive Director from 11/2005-12/2014 to share some of his stories.