A New Year’s Reality Check, 15 Years In… Where does the time go?
Just last week we celebrated the arrival of 2015, in all of its New Year’s freshness and possibility. And while I’m happy to greet the new year with streamers and champagne, I have to admit I’m feeling a bit more serious than that.
15 is a significant number, a milestone worthy of note. We’re 15 years into the 21st century. 15 years into the modern green building movement. 15 years to 2030 and halfway through our timeline for the 2030 Challenge. And while there is no question the building industry is dramatically different today than it was the last time someone uttered the expression “Y2K,” let’s not kid ourselves: we have a lot of work to do in the next 15 years. Let’s focus our attention on what we believe to be the priorities for the future.
At NBI we’re drawing a line in the sand. We are putting all our chips on the table, anteing up for rapid market transformation toward a net positive energy future. You’ll be hearing more about our programming to this end in the coming months, but to get the party started, let’s set our collective intentions on the task at hand.
So without further ado, here are NBI’s top ten priorities for the next 15 years.
Implement the Roadmap to 2030
At this point, the goals of Architecture 2030 are familiar to everyone in the green building movement: by 2030 all new and substantially renovated buildings will operate with a “dramatic reduction” in the use of fossil fuel energy. The roadmap has been adopted by countless organizations, including the AIA, the US Conference of Mayors, and local, state and federal governmental agencies. Architecture 2030 has garnered the commitment of hundreds of professional firms and governments.
But here’s the thing: It’s 2015. We need to get moving.
To stay on target, every new building project or major renovation must operate at a minimum of 70% below the regional (or national) average/median for that building type. Are you ready for that? It’s a hefty mandate, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. If you’re looking for a place to start, dig into some of NBI’s resources, especially our new New Construction® New Construction Guide which has been endorsed by Architecture 2030 as a path to achieving the 2030 Challenge
Create Healthy Buildings
Not only are humans an increasingly urban species; we are also living our lives indoors. On the one hand this should serve as a reminder to get outside! Go for a walk. Bike to work. Ride a skateboard! But even the most outdoorsy of us must acknowledge the indoor environment has a major impact on our health and the health of our larger ecosystems. That’s why it’s absolutely essential that the race to efficiency not result in unhealthy buildings that perform well no matter the environmental consequences.
Luckily we don’t have to start from scratch. Take a look at the Health Product Declaration, Declare, and ASHRAE’s Standards for Ventilation and Indoor Air Quality. A new generation of ultra-low energy and Passive House buildings are integrating energy recovery ventilation systems and eliminating toxic materials, providing occupants with life-affirming living, working and learning environments.
Foster Accountability through Benchmarking and Disclosure
We measure what matters. It’s a simple concept with profound implications. That’s why we identified benchmarking and disclosure as one of the first steps in our Top Ten Policies for ZNE. We need to set very clear interim goals, regardless of whether we are acting as building professionals, policy makers or developers, and we need to measure our progress against those goals and make them public. It’s both a carrot and a stick, and it keeps everyone focused on the finish line.
Support Advanced Codes and Policies
The innovators will lead the way to our clean energy future, but it’s wise, well-implemented codes and policies that will bring everyone along. For years NBI has been deeply involved in progressive code development. As our recent successes with Outcome-based Energy Codes and California’s ambitious new Energy Code Cycles demonstrate, ideas people once dismissed as too challenging are rapidly becoming reality.
Rethink the Utility Nexus and Support Distributed Generation and Renewables
While it’s easy to think of our current system of centralized power generation and massive grids as a permanent fact of life, the vertically integrated utility has only been around since the 1930s. (See the energy journal, Burn, for a fascinating history of the grid.) The fact is, our means of receiving the energy we use on a daily basis has evolved continually since the beginning of the last century. It should come as no surprise that we’re in for even bigger changes.
The move to renewables, energy storage and demand response will necessitate a complete rethinking of the centralized utility business model. This is a moment of incredible opportunity. Let’s embrace it and start envisioning the energy generation models that work for a robust clean energy economy.
Frankly, we’re not going to hit our energy targets if we retain our current building-by-building focus. It’s time to scale up. The first 15 years of the 21st century were about making huge leaps in the science of building performance. For the next 15 years, we need to think bigger. It’s time to scale up. There are great programs out there dedicated to doing just that: from the 2030 Districts built around very specific energy goals, to holistic, process-oriented community regeneration platforms like EcoDistricts and the Living Communities Challenge. These and other programs differ in their specifics, but they are all dedicated to looking at how the built environment can be reimagined to share resources on the neighborhood scale. We’re also excited to continue our focus on portfolios, through projects like our Community Building Renewal efforts with the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance and the City of Boise and our consulting on building prototypes that scale nationally and/or globally (stay tuned for a Q1 announcement).
Target the Existing Building Stock
There’s no question maximizing efficiency in new construction is important. And let’s face it, there’s something refreshing about having a clean slate to work with. But the vast majority of the building stock we’ll be living and working in 15 years from now already exists –and many of those buildings are energy sieves. From simple to deep energy retrofits, there are many things building owners can do today if they have the right information. Simple and low-cost virtual assessment and auditing tools like our Retrofit Savings Estimator and FirstView® provide owners and their consultants with actionable information about available retrofit opportunities. We must focus our energy on the buildings we already have and move aggressively to adopt energy retrofitting programs for commercial and private buildings alike.
Engage the Occupants and Operators
The simple truth is that we will never hit our 2030 targets if we don’t teach the people who occupy the built environment how to act as wise energy stewards. NBI’s Sensitivity Analysis demonstrates just how critical human behavior and plug loads are to building performance. As building design and construction becomes more efficient, the human factor will play an even greater role in how buildings actually perform. While this may seem like an insurmountable task, the work has already begun, and the early signs of progress are clear. Products like Nest are making it easy for people to see their energy use in real time and remotely control their home for deep energy savings. We’re just beginning this new chapter, but the opportunity is huge. When it comes to achieving our desired energy performance outcomes, we have to find new ways to engage and enlist the help of the occupants and building operators.
Design Matters – Embrace Passive First!
Every project—be it new construction or renovation, single building or district scale—must begin by optimizing passive design solutions that are climate responsive and take advantage of the local climate. That means starting with the right team and setting clearly defined goals. It means investing in the right envelope and high-performance glazing. It means getting on top of HVAC and lighting with integrated control strategies.
While the cost of renewable energy systems continues to drop, we need to use every tool in our toolbox. We’re not going to generate our way out of the carbon economy—we must reduce our consumption to a fraction of current levels. It all starts with good design. Passive design solutions have been around for decades, if not centuries. Next-generation buildings combine passive design strategies with the most advanced thinking on active and renewable energy systems to get to previously unachievable levels of performance, comfort and health.
Disrupt the Status Quo with Zero Net Energy Buildings and Communities
In 1997 Clayton Christiansen introduced the world to the concept of Disruptive Innovation. Since then we have witnessed disruption across entire industries and displacement of entire technology platforms. For the building sector, zero net energy buildings are our disruptive innovation, the game changer for our industry. As this emerging paradigm takes hold, owners of conventional buildings face increasing pressure to compete based on performance and operating cost savings. In 15 years, ZNE will be standard practice. Our next big step? NBI, NASEO and RMI are convening leading policymakers, design professionals, building owners and commercial real estate representatives to share perspectives on the growth of ZNE policies and projects and discuss the future of these extremely efficient buildings. The Getting to Zero National Forum will be held in Washington DC, February 1-3.
That’s an ambitious Top Ten to begin the year. The warm-up round is over. NBI is ready to tackle the next 15 years and achieve the 2030 goal. Will you join us?
Ralph DiNola, CEO