Net Zero vs. Sustainable Housing

Under the bare bones definition or concept, Net Zero Energy does not take into account things like carbon loads and greenhouse gas emissions for the energy that the building consumes, nor does it require water conservation, sustainable materials choices or any environmental responsible practices.

It’s simply a target for balancing out the equation:

Energy in = Energy out

There are several national and regional building standards/programs that combine all the layers and nuances of sustainability in housing, are but most of them do not go as far as Net Zero Energy in the requirements under ‘energy efficiency’. Yet Net Zero Energy does not go far enough in other aspects of sustainable housing.

It’s a complicated place, this part of the building industry: so many valid options to choose from, but very few of them cover all aspects of sustainability and require a net zero energy target as well. The commonly used terms and names are starting to shake themselves out as different sectors agree (or agree to disagree) on concepts, definitions, and terms.

I’ll compare the program heavyweights in the next post.

The problem is: you can have a house that meets the NZE target that does not address anything other than energy efficiency, missing the boat on long-term sustainability. You can also have a certified sustainable building that incorporates green material choices, water conservation, site planning, occupant health and broader planning issues, but addresses actual energy efficiency in the most minimal way, also missing the boat on long-term sustainability.

And you have homeowners, homebuyers, builders, contractors, realtors, appraisers and lenders who know a little, or a lot, about one program or another. These different players in the game are all separate from each other and have no common language or way of shepherding a sustainable house project from the bar napkin design to the final occupancy permit.

But here’s the crux of the matter:

You can have an energy efficient building that is not sustainable.

You can’t have a sustainable building that is not energy efficient.

So what is sustainability?

We can simplify that discussion by saying there are three essential pillars to sustainable construction:

  • Energy Efficiency
  • Resource Efficiency
  • Environmental Responsibility

Each of these aspects must be addressed fully throughout the design and specification phases of new home construction so that the people left holding the long-term costs for the house — the owners — can be sure that they are getting the best value for each of their hard-won homebuilding or renovation dollar.

Watch this video from Blue House Energy about sustainability to get a better idea of the three pillars.

About this post

This is part 2 of a 25-part blog series will focus on getting to Net Zero Energy-ready (NZE-r), because that can drive many other choices to do with green and sustainable building practices. There will, of course, be lots of side trips into the three pillars of sustainability. The series also focusses on residential construction, because that’s what I know best. (Much of it will also apply to commercial and institutional buildings at the basic level.)

I like stupid buildings, so the approach in the series is to drill down into design and construction considerations first, minimizing the need for heating and cooling right off the bat, optimizing the mechanicals using the simplest of smart controls, and then integrating renewable energy systems as you can afford them.

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