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Net-Zero: a new construction goal that asks ‘are we actually making our community a better place?’

The construction industry is a primary consumer of energy and materials, making it ripe for potential for focusing efforts on more sustainable practices. In recent years, construction firms and their partners have worked tirelessly to create new methods of waste reduction, including sustainable practices to ensure that resources are used in an environmentally responsible way.  

In the early 2010s, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification became the prevailing method of affirming that a construction project was designed and built sustainably. LEED offers a prescribed method of establishing a project’s sustainability, providing a set of checkboxes that an owner must meet to earn certification.  

Over a decade ago, LEED certification requests began to increase, and construction professionals pursued becoming LEED APs (Accredited Professionals)As the focus on sustainability became more widely incorporated into standard practices during project development, some owners began to contemplate whether formal certification was worth the investment. It became clear that there was a need for more diverse approaches to sustainability which are more accessible and customizable to the needs and goals of each client. 

We watched some owners in our market pivot from LEED to what was frequently referred to as “LEED-equivalent” projects. These projects still strove for sustainability and energy efficiency but did not strictly follow the LEED certification process. As technology improved in building envelope, HVAC, and energy production, it became easier to select building materials that boasted high efficiency ratings but were manufactured in a high carbon production process– offsetting the owner’s original goals of negating the project’s carbon footprint.  

The exodus from certifications noted above has been enabled by a steady improvement in sustainable technologies, materials and practices within the industry, giving the sense that one did not need to climb the certification ladder to be sustainable. As this has occurred, the questions of sustainability have also grown more complex.  

Swarthmore College selected the Living Building Petal Certification for its dining and community commons project. PHOTO / WARFEL

Design and construction professionals are not just making more efficient buildings but are considering how project choices are connected to larger environmental or industrial systems. For example, materials that enable highly energy efficient buildings may be produced from materials that take an extraordinary amount of energy to produce, which effectively negates broader goals of having a positive, or even net neutral, effect on the environment. While certification systems are not a guarantee of sustainability, lack of a certification process in this endeavor can result in a finished building which does not truly deliver on the owner’s intention. 

Sustainability remains an important goal for many building owners, and the market demanded a new methodology for construction projects to be held accountable. Enter the newest philosophy in the sustainability marketplace: net-zero. A construction project achieves net-zero emissions when any remaining human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are balanced out by removing GHGs from the atmosphere.  

Rather than providing one prescriptive approach (i.e., do X, Y, and Z and your project will be sustainable), net-zero can offer a more holistic approach that encourages owners to do as much good to the environment as our existence and building processes cause the planet harm. It causes us to ask the question “from beginning to end, are we actually making our community a better place?”  

A construction project can achieve net-zero status by selecting a sustainability organization’s certification process and pursuing their prescribed method. A wide variety of organizations (driven by the many needs of our current construction market) permits owners to select a sustainability certification process that most closely meshes with their values and goals. This allows construction consumers to take a more creative approach toward sustainability, picking a path to net-zero that is more attainable for their organization. 

One of the emerging net-zero focused certification tools we have seen a growing interest in is the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). ILFI aspires to a truly holistic approach – measuring whether a building meets the organization’s metrics for everything from energy to social and economic equity. Additionally, buildings that earn the Living Buildings designation demonstrate that they have achieved not just net-zero, but net positive energy, net positive water, and net positive waste. This results in Living Buildings generating more energy than they consume. 

Most recently among our clients, Swarthmore College selected the Living Building Petal Certification as the most appropriate accountability tool for their dining and community commons project. After significant research and project evaluation, the Swarthmore team found that the Living Building Challenge best fit the personality of their organization and would help them meet their sustainability goals.  

If you are considering pursuing a sustainable building for your next construction project, it’s important to select a partner who can help you identify the best measuring stick to meet your net-zero goals. The right design or construction professional will help you both aspire to truly sustainable solutions while also finding creative and right-sized paths to accountability. 

Brett Calabretta is vice president and principal at Warfel.  

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