SALT LAKE CITY — Skeptics have dismissed net-zero energy buildings — buildings which create the same amount of renewable energy they use — as expensive and cumbersome to build.
But multiple real estate developers across the country, including a nonprofit called Giv Group in Salt Lake City, have been working the past few years to prove critics wrong by demonstrating that net-zero buildings can be constructed for close to the same cost as conventional structures, with just a little extra planning.
Giv Group claims its new $16 million, 112-unit apartment building at 355 N. 500 West is the tallest net-zero apartment building in Utah, and is the first in the state to be built for less than the traditional cost, with savings of $565 per unit in mechanical and electrical systems. The developers named the complex “Project Open” because they plan to make the designs and data from the development publicly available so others can learn from their approach.
At an open house on Tuesday, Utah’s Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox called Project Open “truly remarkable,” and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski called it “a role model project for our city,” praising the building’s energy efficiency and the fact it is made up of 70 percent affordable housing units, which can be rented for as little as $250 a month.
Nationally, commercial and resident buildings account for 40 percent of all primary energy use, 73 percent of electricity consumption and 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. Data from the Net-Zero Energy Coalition shows that less than .1 percent of all residential buildings in the United States are net-zero energy.
While some net-zero builders are motivated by energy savings, others are motivated by housing’s impact on climate change, the health effects of air pollution or simply a desire to set themselves apart in the market.
According to Giv Group’s executive director Chris Parker, an effort to reduce emissions is especially salient in the Salt Lake area, which has been identified by the state’s Division of Air Quality as having dangerous levels of particulate matter and ozone, byproducts of combustion that have been proven to exacerbate health conditions like asthma and heart disease.
“Salt Lake is an amazing place to live, except for the air,” Parker said.
Biskupski also emphasized Salt Lake’s air quality Tuesday as well as the need for affordable housing, pointing out the city’s “serious air quality problem which disproportionately affects the low-income community members.” Project Open’s low-income units were made possible by low-income federal tax credits and the state’s Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund.
“We know we need to clear our air. And it is projects like this that are powered on 100 percent renewable energy that will help us get there,” Biskupski said.
The concept of net-zero energy buildings has been around for about a decade, according to Brad Liljequist, Zero Energy director for the International Living Future Institute. Liljequist said he developed the first multi-family certified zero energy building in Issaquah, Washington, six years ago. The cost for the premium building was about 20 percent more than typical construction.
“The biggest challenge was that we simply did not know how to do it,” Liljequist said.
Over time, with more know-how in the construction industry and design world, the development of new materials and decreased costs for solar panels and other technical equipment, the cost has come down substantially, Liljequist said. Now zero energy builders can expect the average additional cost of about 5 percent to 10 percent, he said, and multiple developers, including Giv Group, claim no additional cost at all.
“Anytime you build a building, there's a fair amount of discretion about what to put in the building — a fancier kitchen, a bonus room — that will affect the price.” Liljequist said. “Now zero energy is just another choice that people can make.”
As costs have decreased, the number of net-zero buildings in the U.S. and Canada has grown rapidly, from roughly 6,177 units in 2015 to 13,906 in 2017, according to self-reported data on net-zero or net-zero-ready projects in process or completed, collected by the Net-Zero Energy Coalition.
“The barriers that remain — they’re not technical or financial for the most part, they are cultural and institutional,” said Anne Edminster, interim executive director of the Net-Zero Energy Coalition.
“People think net-zero is 10 years away, but it’s here now,” said Parker.
The Project Open building stands out with its trendy blue metal siding and a colorful five-story tall mural, sandwiched between railroad tracks and several dusty lots with scattered construction equipment.
Big metal electric metering boxes surround the ground floor of the all-electric building, cluing visitors to the fact this isn’t a regular apartment. But inside the neat one-bedroom units, the thermostat and hot water works just the same as any gas-powered home — even better the developers would argue.
The conventional definition of a net-zero energy building is one that produces all the energy it uses on-site through solar panels and/or a geothermal source. But Project Open’s developers knew they wouldn’t be able to power a 5-story building with panels on the roof, so they pushed the boundaries of the net-zero concept by opting to have solar panels off-site. All the electricity residents use is offset by 3.5 acres of solar panels in Millard County, part of Rocky Mountain Power’s Subscriber Solar program.
It’s one of the ways Project Open developers were able to meet their goals and still keep costs down. They also found heating and cooling systems that were less expensive.
“We said to ourselves, if in 10 years we want everyone in Utah to be doing this, what do we have to prove today?” said Parker. “We knew we had to do it for the same cost.”
Amanda Bearden, a project developer with Giv Group, said the official definition of zero energy is “ambiguous,” but developers have used that term until now because the building is highly efficient and creates the same amount of energy it uses.
Bearden said the non-profit also plans to purchase several electric cars and bikes, which residents will be able to use as part of a ride-share program. More Giv Group apartment buildings, which will be even more efficient and cost even less, are already in the works.
Joe Emerson, president of the Zero Energy Project, a nonprofit that educates builders designers and homeowners, thinks any type of building can be net-zero, from single family homes to skyscrapers.
The biggest difference between zero energy buildings and a standard building is more planning, he said, and getting architects, builders and energy consultants to coordinate from the beginning.
“There is a learning curve, but it's basically using standard building techniques in different ways,” he said. “The tools are available to anyone.”
Charlie Woodruff, the U.S. Green Building Council’s director of community for Utah and the northern Rockies, noted how difficult it is for builders to learn new techniques, considering the market pressures they face.
“Growth is happening so fast in our region, and the demand for housing and office space is so great that just to find labor and keep projects moving is challenging,” he said. “To say, let’s take a week of training to get everyone up to speed on green building is tough. People are just trying to do projects as fast as they can.”
Woodruff added that resistance to change is part of the human condition.
“People get into their routine,” he said. “They say this is how I’ve done it for the last 10 years, and it’s working, so this is how I’m going to keep doing it.”
Zero energy advocates like Emerson hope builders will independently realize the value of net-zero buildings without coercion. But in the meantime, some state and local governments are stepping up to accelerate the adoption of zero energy techniques.
The California Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan, adopted in 2008 and updated in 2011, says the state has a goal for all new residential construction to be zero net energy by 2020 and for all commercial construction to meet that standard by 2030.
In November 2017, the governor of Oregon issued an executive order, laying out a goal to achieve net-zero energy-ready residential buildings as standard practice across the state by 2023.
And Washington, D.C. has a new plan called Clean Energy DC that identifies actions to be taken between now and 2032 and also includes goals for net-zero standards.
Though none of these goals are codified in law or enforceable, Liljequist says they are “one step away.”5 comments on this story
In Utah, Park City’s City Council voted unanimously in October 2017 to approve net-zero energy requirements for all new municipal buildings, making it the first in the country to enact such a resolution, according to Celia Peterson, Environmental Sustainability Project Manager for the city. She said Park City was first because people there can “see climate change happening with their own eyes,” as snowfall has been less consistent and the local economy has suffered as a result.
“There’s so much uncertainty surrounding climate change and the future of our air,” Peterson said. “Net-zero really is the future of building.”