So I admit the headline for this column has a bit of an aggressive tone. It’s not meant to. OK - maybe a little.

For the past several months I’ve been researching and reading in preparation for this month’s issue of Snips, which features articles on green building and sustainability. I learned quite a bit, specifically that the “green movement” is moving away from a fad and more toward a mandate.

This was very apparent when I attended the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ conference on “net-zero” energy buildings, March 29-31 in San Francisco. (You can read about the conference starting on page 6).

I had heard of net-zero buildings before the conference. ASHRAE defines them as buildings that “annually use no more energy from the utility grid than is provided by on-site, renewable energy sources.”

I’ll confess that they always seemed like a bit of a fantasy in my mind. It was one of those subjects that was brought up during other conferences to awe and impress the audience about the potential energy savings of a facility.

So I figured that I would attend ASHRAE’s conference and learn about fascinating case studies where net-zero principles are being used. I also thought we’d hear about potential energy savings and how to make buildings more energy efficient. What I wasn’t expecting was to hear that net-zero energy buildings will soon be mandated by the U.S. Department of Energy.

These net-zero buildings, which once seemed like a fantasy, are going to have to be a reality - soon.


By 2030, all new commercial buildings must be net zero. By 2040, the DOE wants 50 percent of all commercial buildings to function as net zero. The remaining commercial buildings must be net zero by 2050.

And it’s not just commercial buildings. The state of California wants all residential buildings to be net zero by 2020.

Several states and municipalities already require publicly funded buildings to be “green” in some way. For example, San Francisco requires all federally funded buildings to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-silver certification. There are several other cities across the nation that also require their buildings to obtain a minimum level of LEED certification.

With that in mind, green building as a mandate is nothing new, but a net-zero energy facility really changes the game. For one thing, the strategies involved in constructing a net-zero building are still in development.

ASHRAE is working with the Energy Department and several other energy labs to create guidelines that will help engineers in reaching these goals. The association has already published a guide that will help engineers reduce the energy use of new commercial buildings by 30 percent. The DOE would like these buildings to obtain that goal by 2010. New buildings should be 50 percent more efficient by 2015 and 70 percent efficient by 2025. Those ASHRAE guides will be available at a later date.


I understand the frustration of contractors when the government starts introducing new building regulations. Every time a new regulation comes along it changes things. But contractors need to start educating their technicians and customers about these new regulations.

The industry has been here before and has always succeeded. Just take a look at the phase out of ozone-depleting refrigerants or the 13 seasonal energy-efficiency rating standard that went into effect in January 2006.

These government mandates came with a lot of headache, stress and worry, but at the end of the day the industry pulled through and became stronger. In my opinion, the ASHRAE net-zero conference proved to me that it could be done again.

The engineers that attended the conference were there because they want to build more energy-efficient buildings and they want to be part of the solution when it comes to improving our country’s energy infrastructure.

I would say the tone at the conference was “cautiously optimistic.” No one at the conference said getting to net zero would be easy. In fact, many of the presentations showed just how complex a net-zero-energy building could be. But the conference presenters, ASHRAE officials and engineers in attendance seemed to be having a real dialogue.

No one stood up after a presentation and said, “This is impossible. How do you expect us to do this?”

Instead, many of the questions asked after each presentation were of genuine curiosity. These were engineers that really wanted to learn and be part of the solution. They want to help the U.S. reduce its energy use and help building owners save money on skyrocketing utility costs.

We might not be thrilled when the government comes in to tell us we need to be more “green,” but it’s hard to argue with the benefits of being more energy efficient. Maybe we all need to think more about how we can also be a part of the solution.

James J. Siegel is the associate editor of Snips magazine.