The Universal Low-Carbon Building Standard’s Path to Adoption

To decarbonize the building sector, we need to align our efforts. Let’s get to it.

This is the final article in a five-part series introducing a comprehensive, universal carbon standard for buildings. Part One explains how “net zero” has failed us. Part Two introduces the six building blocks of a proposed low-carbon standard. And Part Three provides details on each of those six things.

Part Four explains why we need to prohibit offsets and RECs, and eliminate other distractions, and Part Five (below) offers a condensed recap as well as a path toward adoption of this comprehensive low-carbon standard across the building sector.

In the near decade since the Paris Agreement was signed, the building sector has made enormous strides towards decarbonization. We understand the magnitude of the problem, and we have the tools and the capability to solve it. All that remains is to act in concert.

The goal of this series is to return us to a simple but comprehensive Universal Low-Carbon Building Standard for new buildings, and a way to think about existing buildings that aligns with the science-based-target approach. The condensed requirements for new buildings are:

  1. Meet the current energy code (either IECC or ASHRAE), including an envelope-efficiency backstop.
  2. Go all electric with heat pumps.
  3. Install solar on available roof space.
  4. Address transportation emissions by reducing the number of trips and vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and by facilitating the shift to electric vehicles (EVs).
  5. Include managed EV charging to reduce and shape loads for grid interactivity, as discussed in Part Four of this series.
  6. Limit refrigerant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by meeting LEED’s Enhanced Refrigerant Management credit.
  7. Reduce embodied carbon by 20% relative to a baseline, using established whole-building life-cycle assessment (WBLCA) methodologies, and increase  demand for and investment in low-carbon building materials.
  8. Don’t bother with offsite renewables, renewable energy certificates (RECs), or carbon offsets.

Taken together, here’s how those emission reductions would play out in terms of both a current and a 2030 U.S. grid emission factor.

a bar chart demonstrating dramatic decarbonization over time through adoption of the universal low-carbon building standard.
Source: Josh Radoff

The net result is a 70% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030, which will continue to improve as more transportation is electrified and the grid continues to become cleaner.


  • The first bar is the baseline building, described in Part Two of this series.
  • The second bar is a low-operational-energy scenario:
    • Energy use intensity reduced 20%
    • Electrification to replace all gas usage
    • Annual heat-pump coefficient of performance of 2.5
    • 20% of energy needs met with onsite solar in 2030, when U.S. grid intensity will be reduced by another 75%.[1]
  • The third bar reduces embodied carbon emissions by 20% (amortized over 50 years) and refrigerant emissions by 75%.
  • The fourth bar adds a low-VMT mode split and electrified transportation:
    • 15% use transit, from the baseline of 10%.
    • 15% walk or bike, up from 5%.
    • 30% use single-occupancy ICE vehicles, down from 75% SOV ICE.
    • 40% use single-occupancy EVs, up from 5%.

And for existing buildings, the standard would adopt the science-based-target approach for individual buildings or whole portfolios—reducing scopes 1, 2, and 3 to zero by 2050, with a short-term goal of 50% by 2030, and a linear progression from 50% to 100% in between.

This isn’t a revolution

None of this is particularly bleeding edge or especially advanced—but that’s the point. It is universally achievable, comprehensive, and focused on the areas that matter most.

Certifications for the leading edge of the curve are appropriate when a technology or practice is emerging and we wish to give recognition to early adopters. But for building-related carbon reduction, the technologies are here. The intent is not to award the front of the pack but rather to bring everyone along, everywhere, and all at once.

If someone still wants to become Living Building Challenge certified, break records for EUI and load reduction, install facade solar, or demo the latest electrification technology, they should do it! Doing so will guide those projects and the industry to more and more emerging possibilities. But those achievements are by their definition niche, and we need something that can be adopted universally.  

This low-carbon standard would eliminate “net-zero energy” once and for all.

There shouldn’t be a choice about whether you want a net-zero program to address energy or carbon, or whether to address transportation emissions or embodied carbon emissions, or the ability to address those emissions with reductions, RECs, or offsets.

Giving credit to the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), this new standard wouldn’t be a huge departure from what they already have as part of their Zero Carbon program. They would simply need to:

  • Eliminate their Zero Energy standard.
  • Modify their Zero Carbon standard to allow IECC 2021 or later to be the efficiency standard.
  • Eliminate the illusion of “zero” and the fruitless pursuits of the offsets, offsite renewable energy, and RECs that go with it.
  • Add in transportation emissions and EV adoption.
  • Include low-GWP refrigerant impacts.
  • Recognize that this is no longer a niche standard, and promote this as the set of best practices that should be adopted as the baseline by the entire new construction industry. 

We need alignment

We can’t expect the building industry—let alone the owners, developers, tenants, and building occupants they serve—to make sense of or navigate the thicket of claims and standards that exist out there.

More importantly, if we agree with the global GHG emission reduction goals of the Paris Agreement, then science-based targets (SBT) are the one sheet of climate-mitigation music we all need to read from (see Part One). To do so, we need recognition from the industry on the relevant emissions we need to address (Part Two), and then an approach we can apply to both new and existing buildings that can meet those targets (parts Three and Four). 

Having alignment across programs and platforms will be critical to minimizing the confusion that otherwise exists. Here are a few of the big building-sector players that should be getting involved:

  • The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) should adopt the standard as the foundation of LEED v5, where no new construction project should be certified if it isn’t also low carbon. It should drop LEED Zero Energy and align LEED Zero Carbon with this approach.
  • IFLI should also drop its Zero Energy standard, adopt this as the basis for the Living Building Challenge, and provide standalone certification of the low-carbon standard for everyone who wants a third-party review.
  • The New Buildings Institute (NBI) could tailor its helpful code overlays for details like electrification and embodied carbon to align with it.
  • ASHRAE could align its net-zero standard (228 for operational carbon and 240P, which is in progress, for embodied carbon) around it, while also moving away from net-zero energy.
  • The Carbon Leadership Forum should continue to support the process for embodied carbon analysis and benchmarking.
  • GRESB should base its existing building portfolio reporting and ratings around the emissions scopes and SBT-aligned targets and timelines.
  • The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and Architecture 2030 could adopt this as a foundational target that every project pursues.

Industry alignment would then make it easy for the hoped-for uptake and adoption to take place:

  • Cities and states could readily adopt it as a code amendment, or a stretch or reach code, and as part of their climate action plans.
  • Developers, corporations, universities, Federal and State governments, and other portfolio building owners could adopt it as the foundation of their new building requirements and their existing-facility climate action planning. Because of its simplicity, their adoption of the low-carbon standard wouldn’t require a lot of bespoke certification consulting or certification review to figure out how to apply it.
  • In addition to all that, the developer community could focus more on its supply chain and on investments in and market support of industries that need to decarbonize to reduce the building sector’s scope 3 emissions.
  • And building owners can take on more investment in the transportation solutions needed to support reduction of vehicle-related emissions.

Imagine a building sector where it was clear to everyone what all developers, owners, and designers should do with regard to decarbonization, now and into the future, while the various voluntary certification programs played the role of demonstrating distinction beyond this baseline in the many ways that distinction would still be warranted.  

Let’s schedule a constitutional carbon convention

Because we need alignment, coordination is the first step.

I would love to see representatives from across the North American building sector convene to draft a set of principles—a Paris Agreement or constitutional convention of sorts for building decarbonization—that outlines and codifies the fundamental tenets and principles of this proposed standard.

The final product would be open source, meaning it would allow administration of the standard by code officials (AHJs), existing certification bodies like ILFI or USGBC, building environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs like GRESB, or local benchmarking and building performance ordinances.

In addition, any company that owns, develops, or manages buildings could implement the program internally as part of its sustainability programs and report its efforts through GRESB, SBTi, or CDP. As with other environmental claims or financial disclosures, falsely claiming that one’s building meets the low-carbon standard would become a violation of the Federal Trade Commission’s greenwashing provisions (the “Green Guides,” which are currently being updated). 

This convention would also establish working groups to provide continued guidance in evolving areas, such as facilitating the supply chain for low-embodied-carbon materials, or standards for grid interactivity.

Most importantly, the industry would clearly communicate that there is only one approach to reducing emissions from the building sector: the Universal Low-Carbon Building Standard. And it would be on all of us—developers, REITs, institutions, campuses, local governments, industry organizations like AIA, ULI, AASHE, etc., and building owners and professionals of all stripes —to promote and require the use of that standard as our default baseline for sector-wide decarbonization.

Are you on board with this? Use this form to express your interest and let me know how you can help. I will get back in touch about any next steps to move this forward.

For a refresher, you can link to the other parts of this series here:

  1. Net Zero Has Failed. We Need a Universal Carbon Standard for Buildings.
  2. This is the Universal Low-Carbon Building Standard We Need
  3. The Universal Low-Carbon Building Standard Does Six Things
  4. The Universal Low-Carbon Building Standard Avoids RECs and Unnecessary Complications



[1] NREL: Evaluating Impacts of the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law on the U.S. Power System. This estimates a grid reduction of 72% to 90% by 2030 from a 2005 baseline. I’m assuming 80% since 2005, which, with a 40% reduction already achieved, would be an additional 75% between 2023 and 2030.

Published September 14, 2023

Radoff, J. (2023, September 14). The Universal Low-Carbon Building Standard’s Path to Adoption. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/universal-low-carbon-building-standard-s-path-adoption

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September 25, 2023 - 9:38 am

The two Passive House standrads, PHI and Phius, should be included in the "alignment strategy". Both systems are becoming the standard in several state/municipal energy codes and they both are developing low embdoied carbon analysis modules to be incorporated into their building modeling systems . 

November 11, 2023 - 5:14 pm

Thanks for this great exposition of the way forward!  Inspiring!

December 7, 2023 - 5:43 pm

Thank you so much for putting this together!!  We need clear direction like this, so our efforts are most effective and we don’t get bogged down and loose time. 

But I've got two comments for you and I'll get right to it:

1) For the energy efficiency target, you've indicated for buildings to comply with current IECC or ASHRAE code.  Speaking for a number of passive house proponents (and NYPH) and we would like to convey that PH energy modeling for heat/cooling loads, is more reliable than other energy models typically because it requires all buildings (of any size) to verify on site a very low air infiltration rate.  It also seriously takes into account thermal bridging mitigation.  (Also, it requires high efficiency ERV everywhere which should be baseline code for health reasons.) The reliability of the airtightness and thermal performance of the enclosure, allows engineers to truly right size their equipment.  Without this, we are not getting optimal designed systems.  To my knowledge IECC and ASHRAE 90.1 have not incorporated these requirements to the level of rigor and on site verification of PH.  These are not unattainable or too complicated. We are finding PH to cost max 1-3% more once teams know what they are doing, don’t believe it has diminishing returns as noted in your Part 3 item 3. Insulation levels are optimized by climate.  We should, and could, demand more from our energy codes to get closer to PH or even just straight incorporate the approach as they are looking to do through ASHRAE 227. 

2) LEEDv4 Enhanced refrigerant management seeks to lower refrigerant use (and/or its GWP) which is great, but split VRF systems are here to stay and we can do a lot better on site in terms of quality control of installation of all those field connections, no matter what refrigerant we are using. (Its going to take some time to move to R32.) This is low hanging fruit as well that could incorporate now.  For example, HPD in NYC has an electrification pilot and they developed installation guidance that is not code yet but probably should be:  See Appendix: https://www.nyc.gov/assets/hpd/downloads/pdfs/services/space-heating-heat-pump-technical-requirements-split-systems.pdf   or this is the main site: https://www.nyc.gov/site/hpd/services-and-information/hpd-nyserda-retrofit-electrification-pilot.page

I'm working on developing what our firm's North Star should be and your guidance really helped! I'll reach out to you to see if I can help!