Feature Article

The Problem with Net-Zero Buildings (and the Case for Net-Zero Neighborhoods)

It can be tough to make an individual building into a zero energy building, while working at the community scale can offer up opportunities for energy efficiency and cost-effective renewable energy generation.

SERA is working with Portland State University as one of five pilot EcoDistricts designated by the Portland Sustainability Institute in a program aimed at removing institutional barriers to creating sustainable neighborhoods. The team is looking at cogeneration, waste-to-energy, lots of heat exchange among the energy strategies they’re hoping will help them get to net-zero.

Rendering: SERA Architects

Achieving a net-zero building with today’s technologies and occupant expectations is hard. There are projects out there proving that it is possible—for the right building in the right setting with the right team. But sometimes going after the goal of net-zero energy use in the building can have unwanted side effects. For example, a low-rise building on a low-density site will have a better chance of being net-zero with onsite renewables, but that type of development is often known as “sprawl.” The investment in dollars and resources to get to net-zero are significant and might be better spent on more cost-effective energy saving options, such as a more efficient building envelope or creating a district energy system that can serve an entire campus.

For all those reasons and more, some argue that while both have an important role to play, it’s more useful and important to work toward net-zero-energy communities rather than net-zero buildings. Individual high-performing buildings don’t mean so much if the neighborhood as a whole is wasteful, while if an entire community is net-zero, that’s meaningful even if the individual buildings within it are not.

Originally published July 30, 2010 Updated May 4, 2020

Malin, N. (2020, May 4). The Problem with Net-Zero Buildings (and the Case for Net-Zero Neighborhoods). Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/problem-net-zero-buildings-and-case-net-zero-neighborhoods