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Net-Zero raises bar for building movement.

The economy may be struggling, but that hasn't put a damper on the booming green building industry.

Green and sustainable building trends have continued to surge as homeowners end companies alike discover the many benefits of sustainable building technologies.

That's great news since buildings account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption. That's more than any other sector, including transportation and industry. In addition, buildings contribute a similar share to greenhouse gas emissions, the majority of which can be attributed to the pollution created by electricity generation. If we're to improve our environmental performance, improved building energy consumption will be key.

Fortunately, technology and sustainable materials are improving at such a rate that the pioneers of the green building movement are now setting their sights on an even higher goal than sustainability: net-zero building.

Where the aim was once to cut down on a building's energy use by adopting low impact materials and building techniques, the net-zero approach seeks to develop buildings that generate at least as much energy as they consume.

To achieve this, the net-zero approach takes advantage of natural elements such as sunlight, prevailing breezes, topography end other environmental features to consume less fossil fuel energy. Designed with optimum energy efficiency, net-zero buildings are equipped with a range of self-supporting energy-generating technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, energy management systems or other power producing technologies. Since these technologies utilize an area's specific environmental conditions to power themselves they offset energy consumption, thus, yielding a "net-zero" building.

Once just a green pipedream, net-zero buildings, both residential and commercial, are now becoming a reality. Improved technology and design tools are producing great advances in green building designs. For example, recent advances in computer technology enable designers to perform extremely complex and precise environmental analysis. Designers can model their plans with a great degree of accuracy to test the impact of potential designs. In fact, we now have programs that give us almost real-time feedback on how well a particular design will perform.

From this wealth of data, architects can ensure that their designs are completely optimized for the environment in which they're built. Each design can be tailored to create the most efficient possible flow of air and light and the retention and distribution of energy.

Many of the new building technologies also allow the buildings' energy performance to be monitored and studied long after construction is complete, making them useful not only in a building's design but in its maintenance as well.

Impressive as is the success of building new net-zero structures, the fact is, ninety-nine out of one hundred buildings are existing structures. That means renovation and upgrades, especially in New York City, will be the key to producing widespread net-zero buildings. My firm, Spector Group ( is studying our clients' portfolios of New York City structures, to determine the best methods for converting to net-zero as well as the costs and benefits of conversion to net-zero buildings.

There's no doubt that sustainable renovation can be done successfully. New York City's iconic Empire State Building is a prime example In 2009, the building owners launched a $500 million building makeover, with the goal of reducing energy use by more than one-third by 2013. Renovation strategies have included window replacements, insulation, electrical upgrades and tenant education to reduce the building's more than 105,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

Project planners predict that, when renovation is complete, the Empire State Building, will eventually fall in the top 10 percent of ENERGY STAR office buildings.

Builders and owners are not the only parties pushing for net-zero buildings: government agencies at various levels, as well as an increasingly environmentally conscious public, are advocating for energy-independent buildings. In October, 2009, President Obama set sustainability goals for all federal agencies All buildings must be designed to be net zero by 2030.

The General Services Administration has particularly ambitious plans. GSA has announced that the renovation of the 92-year old Wayne Aspinall Federal Building and Courthouse in Grand Junction, Colorado, will include installing an energy-saving geothermal heating and cooling system that uses the warmth or cold of the ground to control temperature, and a solar panel array that is projected to generate enough energy to balance out the electrical demand of the building If successful, the Wayne Aspinall Federal Building and Courthouse will be the first net-zero building on the National Register of Historic Places.

Net-zero building, though still in its infancy, offers a clear path away from the pollution and energy dependence of non-green construction.

There's also research that shows that sustainable and net-zero approaches create better working environments where people are more productive, healthier and happier

Net-zero energy consumption and better living and working environments: that's a great goal and it's within our reach.
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Author:Spector, Marc
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jul 27, 2011
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