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The Complete 101 Guide to Net-Zero Buildings

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People around the world have placed a growing emphasis on sustainability, which means many now look at ways to build more eco-friendly buildings. Constructing net-zero buildings is perhaps one of the best ways to do so.

This guide answers five common questions about those structures for anyone who wants to learn more about net-zero-buildings and perhaps even live in one.

What Is a Net-Zero Building?

A net-zero building produces as much renewable energy on-site or in the surrounding area as it consumes yearly. Its design and materials are ultra-efficient, which also means it relies on the grid substantially less than conventional buildings do.

How Do Net-Zero Buildings Impact the Environment?

Net-zero buildings have both obvious and less-evident benefits for the environment. First, they depend less on electricity from the grid, which often requires fossil fuels.

However, research indicates that net-zero buildings can help modernize the grid and even aid the structures that don’t primarily rely on renewable energy. When net-zero buildings produce more energy than necessary, the surplus is fed into the grid, ultimately supplying power to those who need it. Over time, that effect could make the demand and use of fossil fuels go down as people choose renewable energy more often.

Net-zero buildings can also help scientists evaluate the worthiness of techniques to increase energy efficiency in all kinds of homes and office buildings. Consider, for example, the results of a net-zero test residence operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

By making small alterations to the building’s climate control and ventilation systems during the home’s second year of operation, researchers quadrupled the amount of surplus energy sent to the grid in one year. This excess energy equals about 1,000 gallons of oil or more than 7 tons of coal.

Buildings account for 39% of the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and consume 70% of the electricity load. As such, there is an ongoing push to figure out how to make buildings less responsible for CO2 emissions. The NIST model is a residential home, but once people see what’s possible with the technology it uses, they may become more enthusiastic about developing net-zero structures in the residential and commercial sectors alike.

What Non-Environmental Advantages Could People Anticipate With Net-Zero Buildings?

Most benefits cited about net-zero buildings mention the environment. However, other associated perks don’t directly link to the planet. For example, net-zero buildings have predictable operating expenses to a larger degree than conventional ones do. Thus, the people who build them are potentially not as impacted by fluctuations in electricity, oil and natural gas, which could give them more financial stability.

Moreover, a Harvard study found a connection between green buildings and better cognitive function. The researchers did not focus on net-zero buildings, specifically. But, their findings could prove significant to managers and other executives that want to look at creative ways to boost productivity and well-being.

Tax breaks are also available, and people who decide to build net-zero homes or upgrade their abodes to be more energy efficient could qualify for them. The specifics grant a tax credit of 30% for people who install renewable energy equipment such as solar panels. Similarly, if people perform other energy-efficient upgrades not related to renewable energy, they could get up to $500 through a separate credit.

These examples show that net-zero homes pay off in other ways besides helping the environment. Such advantages make them appealing for people to consider even if their priorities span beyond environmental sustainability.

How Do Net-Zero Buildings Factor Into Broader Climate Change Mitigation Aims?

When people talk about net-zero buildings, they often think of the impact those structures will have on their personal lives and in their communities. But, they may stop short of thinking about how net-zero buildings fit into the climate goals of countries around the world. Scientists warn that there is only a 12-year window in which to mitigate climate change and prevent catastrophes. Net-zero buildings could help.

In some cases, making progress requires retrofitting buildings to meet net-zero goals. When Colorado’s McWhinney real estate did such with 10 of its properties, the results caused expected 10-year cost savings of $3.6 million. Also, a research team at Northumbria University says the global value of real estate is $217 trillion — and if owners don’t act now, upcoming climate change mitigation measures will make non-energy efficient buildings obsolete.

The United Kingdom set a goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2030. Politicians responded by asserting how building upgrades must become a national priority there. They pointed out that it’s impossible to think realistically about meeting any climate change goals without taking buildings into account.

Other nations must also recognize that reaching future emissions targets requires taking an all-encompassing look at where and how to make improvements. Those in charge often agree that building efficiency aligns with overall climate goals.

How Could Net-Zero Buildings Empower Future Generations to Make Positive Changes?

Many of the discussions surrounding climate change and the planet center on the need to teach today’s younger generations how to live sustainably. Today’s older adults typically didn’t learn about climate change awareness in school because scientists didn’t yet know the severity of the issue. It’s undeniable now, and forward-thinking educational representatives could use net-zero schools as teaching aids.

Net-zero school construction has increased by 850% across the U.S. and Canada since 2010. The energy footprint of one net-zero elementary school in New York was 52% smaller than a traditional school a year after it opened.

More recently, the National University of Singapore opened a six-story net-zero building in January 2019. The facility’s roof features more than 1,200 solar panels that should generate about 500 megawatts of electricity each year. The learning institution keeps a daily account of the amount of energy generated versus supplied by the grid. Efforts are also underway to help students adapt to new habits that could reduce energy demand by up to 60%.

Students who learn in net-zero buildings could come away with tips and techniques to apply to their daily activities for life. Of course, teachers can quote statistics from textbooks or take students through interactive lessons that discuss how climate change and environmental sustainability affect their lives. But, net-zero buildings enable scholars to view learned concepts in action.

Net-Zero Buildings Could Lead the Way Into the Future

This detailed overview of why net-zero buildings make sense for the needs of the planet and society should give people food for thought as they investigate how to live responsibly.

Living in a net-zero home or working in a net-zero complex doesn’t necessarily mean constructing something from scratch first. Retrofitting options are available, which may be more feasible for some organizations or individuals.

Kayla Matthews is a green tech and smart energy writer. Her work has appeared on VICE, Electrical Contractor Mag., The Week and others.

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