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Preparing Building Pros for the Zero-Energy Boom

Locally developed education is a great way to tap local resources to provide the training that building professionals will need

The market for zero net energy (ZNE) residential and commercial buildings is growing rapidly and is poised for a significant evolutionary leap — if not a boom. Building codes are advancing steadily, zero-energy-ready mandates are being implemented in many states, corporations are demanding high-performance facilities, and the sleeping giant of consumer awareness is stirring.

Designers, architects, builders, and tradespeople need to keep up with these rapid changes. To help them get up to speed, local organizations and businesses are stepping up to provide the education these professionals need in order to thrive in the new environment.

A good example of this kind of local initiative is a recent collaboration of two California nonprofits with a local builder and an energy consultant to develop and present their own classes on zero energy design, construction, and marketing.

The best ZNE training responds to the needs of local communities with their unique climates, cultures, economies, and building practices. Locally developed education is a great way to tap local resources to provide the education that building professionals will need as the demand for ZNE homes and buildings grows.

“We knew we needed to do something to make sure our design and building professionals were ready for California’s zero net energy code,” said Andy Pease of In Balance Green Consulting, one of the organizers. “We had 75 attendees, rave reviews, and no organizer burn-out. If that sounds appealing, we humbly offer suggestions for creating a great ZNE learning opportunity on the cheap.”

Pease recommends six elements for organizing and conducting a successful ZNE training program without stress:

Set reasonable goals: Make the series simple, affordable, and really good, but perfection is not required. Seek out enough local technical expertise to provide the content without having the expense and coordination of outside speakers. This keeps the price low enough to attract a lot of attendees.

Conduct the training with a nonprofit umbrella: The California program was co-presented by the American Institute of Architecture California Central Coast Chapter and the Central Coast Green Building Council (CCGBC), a local USGBC chapter. Neither organization has professional staff, but an intern provided graphic and web support. The two nonprofit organizations gave the series credibility, and the series gave the organizations recognition and added value for membership. This was a win-win for everyone that can work in any geographic area.

Form a small steering committee: Dividing tasks between collaborators makes the workload more manageable for everyone. In the case of the California initiative, two firms led the effort: a builder, Allen Construction, and a green building consultant, In Balance Green Consulting. They developed the framework for the training and provided about half of the content. Another eight, hand-picked speakers covered other specific topics. Volunteers handled logistics, including advertising, food, venue, and registration.

Offer a manageable time frame: Consider scheduling meetings at times that make it easy for potential participants to attend. For example, organizers of the California initiative developed a four-part series that was scheduled from 8 a.m. to noon on the second Tuesday of the month for four months. This fit well with the busy schedules of the participants.

Embrace the value of in-person presentation: There are many great online resources now, but there’s no substitute for the value of personal connection and interaction. Pease’s series partnered with an architecture firm that generously offered the use of its 60-person conference room, with the added bonus that organizers could video conference the entire series to a remote location. They attracted 60 people in San Luis Obispo and another 15 in their Santa Barbara conference room, watching together by video.

Keep it inexpensive: The cost to attend was $40 per person for the entire series for members of AIA and USGBC, and $60 for non-members. They offered 16 units of continuing education (CEUs), all of which are coveted, and health, safety and welfare (HSW) units for AIA members. A similar, more commercial course might go as high as $350.

“Any AIA chapter can be a CEU provider,” explained Pease. “The steering committee developed the learning objectives and submitted key presenter resumes, then the chapter submitted for credit, just as they do for any of the regular lunch meetings or other AIA-sponsored events. Attendees provided their AIA numbers and we made sure they signed in for each class.”

None of the speakers was paid, other than reimbursement for travel, so the only expense was breakfast and snacks. Revenue from registration ($3,000) and sponsorships ($5,000) exceeded the $3,000 in expenses, which was mostly for food. The project netted $5,000 for the nonprofits to be used toward funding scholarships.

Grassroots education drew a full house

The four sessions covered these topics:

Session 1: ZNE on the Central Coast: What, when, and how; policy, codes, and climate-responsive design for this region.

Session 2: Building Science for effective ZNE, heat transfer, air sealing, and vapor control; energy modeling.

Session 3: ZNE technology as a partner, not a crutch; HVAC, DHW, renewable energy.

Session 4: ZNE performance verification; Where we go from here; Toolbox of strategies, financing, and next steps.

Pease and the other organizers hope this example of grassroots education for a zero energy future will inspire professionals in other areas to plan their own courses. An important lesson from this example is to utilize local organizations that already exist, whether that be local AIA or USGBC chapters, or home builders associations, designers associations, trade groups, equipment and material suppliers, environmental organizations, and civic groups.

If you’ve created a similar initiative in your area, please tell us about it in the comments.

This post originally appeared at the Zero Energy Project and is reprinted here with permission.


  1. Jon_R | | #1

    ZNE should be nipped in the bud and replaced with metrics that more accurately measure things that matter - like environmental impact and system-wide cost.

  2. walta100 | | #2

    Yes we should kill this idea before it gets popular.

    It is important we force people into small houses by limiting the number of square feet per occupant just like energy star house program.

    We can’t have people use whatever insulation they want just because it is cheap and effective.

    If you can keep the rules down to one paragraph, anyone could do it without consultants and inspectors.

    Sarcasm over


  3. kevin_in_denver | | #3

    Homebuyers in Denver still don't care about ZNE.
    Yet I will keep building them because they don't really cost more.

  4. user-2310254 | | #4

    I think home buyers have to be educated to care about efficiency and environmental impact in the same way they have been taught to care about stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.

    1. n7ws | | #7

      Let's send them all to re-education camps.

  5. JC72 | | #5

    Speaking of efficiency and ZNE, did anyone read yesterday;s article in the WSJ on the true costs/assumption surrounding Calif "solar mandate"?

  6. Jon_R | | #6

    Compared to utility scale solar, residential solar rarely makes sense (except sometimes in political ease or at the individual finance level). Much more environmental damage could be avoided at lower cost if a more logical approach was used.

    Google "Siting Solar PV Capacity to Maximize Environmental Benefits".

    1. Expert Member
      Dana Dorsett | | #11

      That paper doesn't really address the environmental damage avoided per dollar for utility scale compared to distributed smaller scale (including residential rooftop). It's focus is on the avoided externalities per SUBSIDY dollar for the distributed solar, which varies widely by ZIP code.

      The do suggest (on p.22) that...

      "This policy preference for distributed generation systems persists in spite of economics that may favor utility-scale systems."

      ...but do not attempt to analyze whether or where the benefits of utility scale are actually higher than for distributed solar. They state that the economic efficiency of a flat policy subsidy that doesn't take siting considerations/benefits into account is pretty lousy, and imply that utility scale investors COULD be more responsive to those aspects if those considerations were built into the policy, but that would be true for small-scale investors too.

      They make the obvious observation (bottom of p.22)

      "Given the dramatic variation in environmental benefits both across and within states, a policy preference for uncoordinated capacity investments is difficult to justify."

      Yes, current policy tools have us overpaying compared to an economically optimized approach (duh!), but it's also unclear how quickly it could be optimized, given how long it would take to get political consensus and sufficient data to make those optimizations.

      It's all a moving target, with lots of moving parts. As the grid grows greener, the less marginal benefit for ANY new zero-carb generation is less. As a nation we'd clearly do better applying more of the 30% tax credit subsidy to the coal-heavy states than in already-low-carb California, but the national policy makers seem to be taking long lunch breaks, and California policy makers can only deal with what's in front of them. (Opening their power markets to the WECC could increase their overall influence though.)

      Pricing the externality costs of fossil fuel burning (with a tax or fee-bate) and subsidizing the renewables based on their marginal benefits would be an economists dream. But tuning the subsidies for max benefit would be cumbersome to implement, even if the political hurdles could be cleared to make that change in policy direction.

      The speed at which PV + battery lifecycle costs are falling, by the time policy optimizations could be realized they could easily be moot, and PV isn't the only player. The actual first tranche bid PRICING of the offshore wind power that is slated to be built in the early 2020s ($74/Mwh) is cheaper than the COST estimates of the THIRD tranche investments for 2029 ($79/Mwh) in analysis done just two years ago.

      Also note- that's about the same LCOE that onshore wind projects in the US were as recently as 6 years ago. Onshore wind is getting cheaper too.

      1. Jon_R | | #15

        Support for my first sentence is elsewhere, but the typical (not always) superior cost effectiveness of utility scale PV over residential is so clear that it isn't worth discussing (again).

        Agreed, wind is often a cost effective renewable source (and clearly it shouldn't be done at the residential level).

  7. ecdunn | | #8

    Steve Knapp, I sell them on COMFORT. Energy efficient homes are very comfortable. That is something everyone can wrap their head around and is an aesthetic value, just like a granite countertop.

  8. user882465 | | #9

    Regardless of the source of the renewable energy, can you agree that making a home more comfortable and energy-efficient, which is at the core of all zero energy discussions, is a good thing to do? I'm in California and with the widespread fires currently burning, the urgency of making buildings more efficient and achieving deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is getting pretty obvious. Maybe there are better ways to achieve that than through California's energy code requirements for 2020. Let's discuss what those would be. Also, no one in California is saying renewable energy shouldn't be grid-supplied. We have a requirement that 33% of grid-supplied energy be renewable by 2020 and 50% by 2030. And we're on track to meet those goals.
    Whatever you think of California policy, the state is taking climate change more seriously than most other areas of the country. See this report for more information: E3 is a contractor to the California Energy Commission.

  9. Jon_R | | #10

    I suggest that the difference in comfort between a well built, current code min house and a similar one with further reduced energy usage is typically undetectable. But more quantification of comfort claims would be helpful.

    What's the better thing - X reduction in environmental impact for $1 in home energy efficiency improvements or two X reduction for $1 via other things? Unfortunately, doing the less good things ends up being an excuse for not doing the better things (eg, forcing utilities to pay for pollution so that they are motivated to use more renewable energy).

    There's a very limited supply of environmental protection dollars available - encourage everyone to spend them efficiently.

    1. Expert Member
      Dana Dorsett | | #12

      Kevin Dickenson's comment in response # 3 is probably true:

      "Homebuyers in Denver still don't care about ZNE.
      Yet I will keep building them because they don't really cost more."

      Whether it's really more comfortable or not, if designing and building to ZNE doesn't really cost any more than current code-min. it's an effectively $0-cost policy upgrade in "... environmental protection dollars...".

      That's a pretty easy spending decision.

      I'm expecting that to be pretty true in CA too (it's easier to do in most of CA than in Kevin's CO), as the designers & builders become better educated on the process, and the all-in installed costs of renewables (whether distributed or utility scale) continue to fall.

      1. Jon_R | | #13

        I suggest that anyone who thinks they can build a ZNE house for the same cost as an intelligently built IBC code min house is wrong. As Dana has said before, even code min homes are overbuilt in terms of simple $ effectiveness. But let's see the numbers....

        1. Expert Member
          Dana Dorsett | | #14

          Kevin seems to imply that that NZE is effectively pretty close to the "..intelligently built code min house...".

          The first order of business for getting to NZE for the CA tract house & custom house designers and builders alike is to build them more intelligently, but I suspect at the very bottom of the new housing market they will be more expensive than current code min houses by at least a bit. For custom houses or mid-range tract housing that might be a razor thin cost difference. The increased thermal bridging/lower thermal performance framing for a gazillion bump-outs & dormer type features add cost that could be recovered with simpler footprints & framing, with simpler air sealing & insulation too.

          Since CA is already on this path, we surely WILL be seeing the numbers.

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