I have a proclivity to discuss topics that no one else seems to want to chat about, in greater detail than anyone wants to hear.

When I worked in the healthcare industry and people asked me, how was your day, they would often get a story in graphic detail. My best friend once told me to never talk about work at a dinner party because my “shares” had the potential of deterring guests’ appetites. You would think that I would be better now, right? More sensitive?

Sadly, I am aware of my mistakes and can repeat them exactly, which brings me to the discussion of net zero buildings. Although net zero is a real thing, most don’t seem ready to believe in it. When discussing new construction and at most industry conferences, we tend to talk about the fancy-pants amenities that are going to be offered. Package lockers, fitness equipment with built-in screens, Wi-Fi, clubhouses with game rooms, gas ranges, smart thermostats, etc. What about net zero?

First, what exactly is a net zero? Wikipedia gives a detailed definition, but basically a net zero building for multifamily is a building that can generate, on an annual basis, the same amount of energy that it is anticipated that it will use; this includes the energy consumed in the units, not just common areas.

So why should we be talking about net zero? It’s being integrated into our building codes. Those states that have integrated zero energy policies and programs are New York, Arizona, Massachusetts and California. It’s important to note that California’s 2014 Title 24 construction code moves all buildings in California toward net zero. Title 24’s goal is that all new residential construction three stories or less must be net zero by 2020, and by 2030, all residential construction four stories and above will need to be net zero.

Additionally, changes to California’s Title 24 will also affect certain levels of rehab or renovation. So existing construction is not exempt. Even if you don’t have properties in California, you may not be off the hook.

Policy makers in other states are watching California’s integration of net zero into its construction codes, and using it as a template to add net zero into their codes. To get a better sense of what markets might implement a net zero code, I recommend perusing the EPA’s website; you will see that over 275 states, countries and tribes have green building codes. It stands to reason that a market already implementing green building codes, may seriously consider net zero; it seems a safe prediction that what is happening in building codes in California will not stay in California.

When I have talked with multifamily developers about California Title 24, there is a tone of wonderment on how it is even possible to get a multi-unit building to net zero—especially since we cannot control the resident’s consumption. My mind wanders back 60-plus years ago to similar musings of the time like “how is it physically possible for a human to run less than a four minute mile.” Or “it’s impossible to break through the sonic wall (sound barrier).”

I think that the most important thing to consider when thinking about net zero is that anything is possible.

Currently, there are multiple net zero multi-unit buildings in the United States. It has already been done. The biggest misconception is that it’s all about solar and getting enough panels on the property. In reality, it’s all about efficiency, including the fixtures and design of the units themselves.

If we consider net zero in our design phase, we can build smarter and create a tight building envelope. We can include efficient fixtures within the units, building controls that help the on-site teams manage their consumption, and controls within the units themselves to assist the residents in managing and reducing their consumption including plug loads.

Once you develop a plan that is tight and right, including the tools our residents need to understand and control their energy consumption, the on-site renewable generation is really just icing on the cake.

Net zero building codes are coming. I believe that we have the right stuff to do it, we just need to start the conversation. Let’s chat on how we are going to create net zero buildings and how our existing product is going to compete with it. Let’s develop best practices in the industry rather brush net zero off as impossible or only for those developers looking to be “bleeding edge.”

If anyone would like to discuss net zero, feel free to jump in at UMAdvisory.com. I feel ready to have a conversation, do you? 


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