Zero Code: How to Build a Carbon-Neutral Future

The current global building boom provides an unprecedented opportunity to change the built environment’s carbon footprint.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

By Laurie Mazur

It’s no exaggeration to say that the planet’s future depends on how we plan, design, and construct the built environment today. Now, a new building standard — ZERO Code — aims to make sure that future is sustainable and carbon-neutral.

An initiative of the nonprofit organization Architecture 2030, ZERO Code is the first global standard for buildings that produce no net greenhouse gas emissions. By adopting the new standard, local jurisdictions, builders, and architects can improve their bottom lines and the health of the planet at the same time.

ZERO Code starts with state-of-the-art, cost-effective energy-efficiency standards for new commercial, institutional, and mid- to high-rise residential buildings. It then takes those standards a step further by specifying the source of energy for these high-performance buildings: on- or off-site renewable energy. By integrating efficiency and renewables, the code achieves the holy grail of sustainability — zero-net-carbon buildings.

No Time to Waste
The need for carbon-neutral buildings — and cities — is clear. We’re adding about 1.5 million people to the world’s cities every week, a trend that will continue for the foreseeable future. To accommodate those new city dwellers, some 2.5 trillion square feet of buildings will be constructed by 2060. That’s the equivalent of building an entire New York City every 34 days for the next 40 years.

At the same time, our collective emissions of greenhouse gases have brought us to the brink of climate catastrophe. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has reached levels not seen in human history; record-breaking heat is now the norm in the U.S. and around the world. To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, the Paris Agreement seeks to limit the rise in global average temperatures to below 2 degrees C.

To achieve that goal, all new construction must be designed to high energy-efficiency standards and use no CO2-emitting fossil-fuel energy to operate, starting now. By 2050, the entire built environment must be carbon-neutral.

Photo credit: Architecture 2030

But while there have been worldwide improvements in building-sector energy efficiency, as well as growth in renewable energy–generating capacity, they haven’t been nearly enough to offset the increase in emissions from new construction. As a result, building-sector CO2 emissions have continued to rise by nearly 1% per year since 2010.

This is the problem ZERO Code aims to solve. The code includes prescriptive and performance paths for building energy-efficiency compliance, based on current standards that are widely used by municipalities and building professionals worldwide — ASHRAE Standard 90.1–2016 and higher. These standards call for energy-saving building envelopes, daylighting, passive cooling and heating, and efficient systems and controls.

“These efficiency standards have been thoroughly vetted by the industry,” says Edward Mazria, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, “so there’s no need to reinvent that wheel.”

Efficiency standards have proven economically — as well as environmentally — beneficial. Efficient buildings offer substantial cost savings for owners and tenants alike. For example, LEED-certified buildings use 25% less energy and cost 19% less to operate than noncertified buildings. Green buildings are increasingly valued by a growing group of corporate, public, and individual buyers: 73% of single-family builders and 68% of multifamily builders say consumers will pay more for green homes.

Photo credit: Architecture 2030

Energy-Source Spec Breaks New Ground
In addition to stringent efficiency standards, the ZERO Code breaks new ground in specifying a building’s energy source. The code calls for incorporating on-site renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal) into the building’s design and/or the procurement of off-site clean energy. This provides opportunities for buildings with limited on-site generating capacity — in dense urban environments, for example.

But what if on-site renewables aren’t feasible, and there are no off-site renewables in the local energy market? The ZERO Code’s developers thought of that possibility too. Where options are limited, builders can meet the code by contributing to a renewable-energy investment fund, which can spur local development of clean energy. And, if no other option exists, builders can purchase renewable-energy credits (or certificates), which support renewable generation elsewhere.

“It’s a very flexible approach,” says Vincent Martinez, COO of Architecture 2030. In other words, there’s no longer any excuse not to build carbon-neutral.

The ZERO Code is supported by software that eases the implementation process and reduces errors. It also includes an application program interface (API) that enables access to the software through a website and via smartphone or tablet.

If we hope to meet the Paris goals and avert climate catastrophe, there’s no time to waste. The good news is that the current global building boom provides an unprecedented opportunity to change the built environment’s carbon footprint. Armed with the ZERO Code, local governments, architects, and builders can help seize that opportunity.

Laurie Mazur is the editor of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

This article was originally published May 16, 2018 in Multifamily Executive.

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A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future. www.islandpress.org/URP