Net Zero/Net Positive Energy

The transformation to renewably powered and positive carbon buildings, communities, and planet is happening now with healthy, sustainable, regenerative, resilient, living buildings and places, connected to and built on biophilia and biomimicry (nature’s design principles).

How can we move there quickly?

Net Zero / Net Positive Energy: What is it? Why now?

Every day we hear of the potentially catastrophic impacts of carbon induced climate change. How can we go from being overwhelmed and helpless to engaged positive action? What can we do to move toward net zero impact and even have a net positive influence on our world? We are in the process of creating a renewably powered future—a vision, path, and future that is more productive, healthier, and life enhancing—simply a better place for us to live.

This transformation occurs from reducing, and ultimately eliminating, our fossil fuel use and switching to renewable energy production in our buildings, transportation and world. This is changing everything and is one of the most radical, disruptive revolutions in human evolution. While we live in a time of monumental challenge, it also is a time of great opportunity—a time to work together to shift and create a new and better path into the future. We have the opportunity to significantly reduce the impact of our buildings and communities on our world. Please join us in this transformation for us and future generations.

Let’s work together for a NZ/NPE future

Together with others we work to create buildings, communities, and a planet that are productive, healthy and thriving. Maclay Architects is a nationally recognized leader in sustainable Net Zero Energy and Net Positive Energy buildings— we offer proven and reliable solutions to create buildings and communities that are productive, healthy and beautiful; as well as, a prudent investment for today and for future generations. We provide this in three interrelated ways: Living Building and Community Design, Net Zero/Net Positive Energy Design, and Carbon Positive Design.

Living Buildings and Community Design

A new design approach and philosophy of the 21st Century is founded on an emerging paradigm for buildings –not as physical and mechanical objects, but rather as “Living Buildings.” This approach combines connections to nature (Biophilic design) and design based on nature’s principles (Biomimicry). This design paradigm sees organizing buildings, communities and cities as living organisms, also known as organizational ecology. This is a new and emerging paradigm for healthy engaged living in a carbon positive world. These buildings maximize daily and seasonal rhythms of daylight, use natural forms and low-embodied carbon materials, and are founded on restorative and regenerative design thinking, building science, and low energy strategies and approaches.

These design approaches improve occupant productivity and satisfaction, through connection to nature, daylight, enhanced indoor air quality, and integrated and sustainable design strategies. Ongoing research documenting the improved outcomes of these qualitative benefits show they reach far beyond energy savings (see - Why NZ/NPE is the best investment today—the financial case for more information).

Net Zero/Net Positive Energy Design:

Since 1971, our practice has delivered the highest performing and renewably powered buildings in cold climates. Since 2000 we have focused on Net Zero Energy, Net Zero Energy Ready, and Net Positive buildings for our clients. We accomplish this by analyzing comparative capital and operating costs and cash flow analysis during early design phases to show clients long-term financial benefits of NZ/NPE design.

To achieve this, we have 4 core competencies:

1. Expertise based on understanding and innovating NZE strategies, technologies, and practices. We have documented this work in writing the most comprehensive book on NZE and speaking nationally and collaborating with other professionals seeking new and innovative solutions.

2. Experience successfully, and cost effectively, delivering more NZE and low EUI (Energy Use Intensity) buildings in cold climates than any other architecture firm.

3. Based on our years of net zero experience we are intimately aware of NZE challenges, constraints, potential problems, quick solutions and lowering risk for our clients

4. Developed reliable and proven NZE design process, including an energy modeling and financial analysis methodology that ensures that NZE design and performance is the most cost effective and typically provides a positive cash flow for our clients.

Given that buildings generate 40% of annual global CO2 emissions, net zero and net positive energy buildings are a key element to shift from fossil fuel use to renewable energy. Net Zero Energy buildings are all electric and produce as much energy as they consume on an annual basis with renewable energy. Net Positive buildings produce more energy than they consume on an annual basis.

The fundamental components of NZ/NPE design are relatively simple and include 3 elements:

1. Substantial envelope improvements and energy conservation to reduce loads.

2. High efficiency mechanical systems including energy recovery ventilation and air source heat pumps (VRF’s) and/or ground source heat pumps to provide comfort.

3. Install renewable energy systems, which are most frequently solar electricity from Photovoltaics (PV), to supply power.

Energy conservation levels are established with specific metrics based on how much energy per square foot (similar to miles per gallon for cars) will be consumed. This metric is called an Energy Use Intensity (EUI). For typical buildings in cold climates this will be around 15-25 kBtu’s/sf-yr. This corresponds to insulation levels that consist of R60 roof, R40 walls, R20 below grade, R5 windows, and air infiltration of 0.06cfm50/sf of gross envelope. A critical aspect to the envelope construction is controlling air infiltration, which is accomplished through detailed drawings, attention during construction, and progress air barrier testing. Our air sealing standard is 0.06 cfm/sf of gross envelope area at 50 Pascal’s, which is also the standard used by the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). These and many other design and construction measures indicated in our book, The New Net Zero, are required to build an efficient and cost-effective NZ/NPE building.

To find out more about our NZ/NZP projects go to the following links which include the EUIs and environmental performance of most of our recent buildings, design measures included in our net zero design process, and an RFP template for assisting building owners and developers in selecting a NZ architect.

Carbon Positive Design

In the last 10 years, the environmental community has realized that all carbon impacts are critical. So what is Carbon Positive Design and Buildings? And why does it matter? Carbon Positive buildings account for and lower both the energy used in operating the building and the energy captured or “embodied” in the materials in buildings.

When we think of energy and carbon impacts, we typically are considering the energy that is used for heating, cooling, lights, and plug loads known as operational energy, which has a negative carbon impact. In addition, there is energy consumed to extract, transport, manufacture, and install materials used in construction, which also has a significant impact on carbon use. Carbon impacts of materials are fully released (or stored) during construction—so on the day of construction completion the full carbon impact from materials is complete—as opposed to the operational energy which begins when the building is completed and increases with the life of the building. In general, this means shifting design and construction away from excessive concrete, steel, aluminum, foam, and other materials using fossil fuels and towards wood, mass timber, cellulose and other materials with low embodied carbon impact.

So why is this relevant? If we care about carbon impacts of buildings, and if we believe the science that says we need major change before 2050, then the embodied carbon impacts are equal to or greater than the operational carbon impacts from today to 2050. Thus, there is urgency in assessing and reducing all carbon impacts of our buildings immediately. While we and other environmental architects have been considering embodied carbon for multiple decades, there has been little quantification of embodied carbon.

To make this happen, three actions are important: first selecting materials with full consideration of carbon impacts, secondly to estimate the embodied carbon and to work towards net positive embodied carbon, and third to calculate the operational carbon. Through these three measures we can perform whole carbon accounting and work toward the ultimate goal of whole carbon net positive buildings and address today’s necessity to decrease carbon and climate impact from our buildings.

Why NZ/NPE is the best investment today—the financial case

NZ/NPE Buildings are Cash Flow Positive

Maclay Architects has developed a proven and reliable energy modeling and financial methodology, which, along with cost optimized net zero standard design and construction practices, mean that we can accurately estimate energy performance as well as project financial performance based on our client’s financial criteria. We have discovered that typically our NZE buildings provide a positive cash flow from day one when the additional incremental net zero costs over a typical building are financed. This means that NZE buildings are less expensive than typical new buildings including capital, operating and financing costs. Below are graphs and links to reports showing the financial performance of various building types and sizes. These include a typical 1,600 sf modular home with savings of $60,000; a 29-unit affordable housing project with savings of $600,000; a 65,000 sf renovated office building with savings of $1 million; and other examples. When clients say they cannot afford net zero, we respond that they cannot afford to not be net zero.

Example Energy Reports of different project types and sizes

300,000 sf Mixed Use Net Zero Energy Community Masterplan

In 2015, very few large-scale net zero communities existed. This study funded by Efficiency Vermont, examined the feasibility of a net zero community on a 60-acre property with 300,000 sf of new buildings added to the existing 77,000 sf of near net zero buildings. It examined the energy and financial implications of building net zero compared to a code community. The results showed the entire project, as well as each of the building types (single family, multifamily, industrial and office buildings), could be net zero and cash flow positive. As the property is developed, this analysis encourages the planning and construction of net zero buildings, as well as demonstrating the prudence and profitability of net zero new construction.

65,000 sf Office Renovation and Addition Energy Analysis Report

Often the public perceives net zero buildings as too expensive and poor investments, particularly for existing, large-scale, and office buildings. This report shows Maclay Architect’s typical process analyzing a code and net zero ready 65,000 sf office renovation and addition. Through this process we showed over $1 million in savings to the owner over a 20-year timeframe and cash flow positive from day one. This publicly bid net zero ready project had an additional incremental cost over a code compliant building of less than $6/sf (3% of the total construction cost). Our clear analysis supported the decision for the client to upgrade the envelope to net zero standards as the most prudent choice.

150,000 sf Lincoln School Financial Assessment

Can large complex net zero public school renovation and addition project be cash flow positive, reduce taxes, and gain support from a broad spectrum of taxpayers? Maclay Architects consulted on a 150,000 sf Feasibility Study by SMMA for the Lincoln School in Lincoln, MA. Using energy modeling and financial analysis, our study investigated multiple code compliant and net zero options in a location with low natural gas rates and high electric rates. The net zero options show $1-$4 million in savings over 30-years, which lowers taxes and ultimately enabled a bond vote to pass that had previously been voted down by the town residents.

Productivity and Health Benefits

NZ/NPE buildings offer greater value than the monetary savings due to reduced energy use. While more difficult to quantify, NZ/NPE buildings have much greater financial benefits from improved productivity and health, reduced environmental impacts, community benefits, and increased property asset value as listed below.

Health Benefits

  • • Improved air quality
  • • Improved thermal comfort
  • • Improved daylighting and artificial lighting
  • • Improved connection to nature and view
  • • Reduced hospital stays
  • • Higher mental function and memory
  • • Improved acoustic environments

Environmental Benefits

  • • Reduced energy and carbon impact
  • • Enhanced ecosystems and natural beauty
  • • Improved water and air quality
  • • Reduced waste
  • • Conservation of natural resources
  • • Improved resilience

Community Benefits

  • • Improved support of, and connection to, the broader community through reduced environmental impact
  • • Higher productivity of workers
  • • Strengthening local economy with building infrastructure that is based on renewable energy
  • • Contributing to a more healthy and sustainable community

Financial benefits

  • • Reduced operating expense from energy savings
  • • Financial gains from improved productivity and satisfaction from health benefits above
  • • Marketing potential
  • • Increased rental rates and profit
  • • Increased asset/property appraisal value
  • • Potential shortened permitting/regulatory time and expense
  • • More resilient/climate adapted and thus less expensive over time
  • • Reduced maintenance expense

The benefits above may have secondary impacts such as reduced absenteeism; increased employee retention; increased test scores; avoidance of risk of mold, mildew, freezing pipes; and other financial gains.

Calculating the actual value of these benefits is not as straightforward as calculating operational energy savings, but research shows these benefits have a larger impact on the bottom line of organizations and businesses than the energy savings associated with net zero buildings. Employee-related costs account for over 90 percent of the 30-year life cycle costs of buildings, while operational energy is 5 percent of the total costs. Savings in employee health and productivity can have an additional significant impact. This indicates that relatively small additional capital costs for high-performing buildings features are highly profitable over a building’s lifetime.

Life cycle cost of a commercial building over 30 years

Financial benefit of green building per sq. ft.

A widely recognized study indicates employee-related productivity savings in LEED Gold and Platinum buildings to be ten times greater than energy savings alone, as shown in the table below. Other examples demonstrate improved learning in schools and reduced stays in hospitals with daylight and views to the outside.

The links below are resources that estimate the value of some of these benefits

How much energy has Maclay Architect’s projects saved our clients since 1995?

Over 100 million lbs. of CO2e

Over 60,000 acres of forest

Over 115 million miles driven

Over 6 billion smartphones charged

Over $13 million accumulated client savings

Over 12,000 megawatt hrs produced

Maclay Architects has been designing energy conserving buildings since 1980 and have estimated our total energy savings and renewable energy production for our clients since 19951.

Our historic office underwent phased renovation and conversion to all electric and has been net zero energy since 2011 with a 17 kW solar carport. It is Zero Net Energy Certified through the International Living Futures Institute.

You can look at past and current renewable energy production for the office here. Our certified NZE office is interconnected with 2 apartments, a home, and a share in the local community solar array. To find out more about the NZE features of our office visit the project page here.

For over a decade, we have been monitoring most of our projects’ actual energy consumption based on 12 occupied months of energy bills. This enables us, and our clients, to know how close our estimated energy consumption and renewable energy production are from design to actual use. In doing this we, or our clients, occasionally find operational issues that are quickly fixed. This process also validates our energy models and EUI estimations, which continue to inform our future project energy use projections.

The estimates of carbon dioxide equivalent savings are based on actual monitored energy use where we have that information compared to a baseline building2, as well as conservative estimates of project energy savings going back to 1995. To see more information on some of the energy performance of our projects, the energy performance (EUI with and without solar) is indicated on most project pages. Also, if you go to link here, you will find a spreadsheet of recent EUI’s with and without solar, as well as other measures of environment performance.

1 CO2 equivalent emissions have been calculated for savings over a baseline building. Our tracked projects have shown all fossil fuel use is saved with some minor electrical increases with air source heat pumps. The savings are calculated using a conservative metric of 0.2 lbs CO2e/kBtu, which is an average CO2 equivalent emissions from propane, oil, and natural gas. This is less than the New England grid tied electricity of 0.35 lbs CO2e/kBtu) so therefore a conservative estimate of overall savings. Accumulated dollar savings use an average of heating fossil fuels (propane, natural gas, and heating oil in New England) costs per MMBTU over the last ten years of $2.73/unit. All CO2e metrics are derived from the EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator with explanations of metrics and calculations available at the following link:

2 For the baseline building, we compared renovations to the pre-renovation energy use, or to a code modeled building if that data was available, if neither of those were options, we used CBECS data of similar building types as the baseline

Sustainable Certifications

Numerous organizations are working to support more sustainable buildings that incorporate design based on Net Zero/Net Positive, sustainable, and healthy building design principles. Some of these organizations also provide certifications and third-party verification to encourage this new direction in design and construction. The following are the leading organizations that certify different aspects of new sustainable, green and living building design and construction:

Living Building Challenge (LBC) Certification

The International Living Futures Institute (ILFI) offers Living Building Challenge (LBC) Certification which is recognized as the most advanced measure of sustainability—providing a framework for design, construction and the symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the built environment. It is one of most rigorous performance standards in the industry. They define a Living Building as:

  • Regenerative buildings that connect occupants to light, air, food, nature, and community.
  • Self-sufficient and remain within the resource limits of their site.
  • Create a positive impact on the human and natural systems that interact with them.

The ILFI offers different levels of LBC certification; from full, partial, and/or zero energy and zero carbon certifications. ILFI offers an accessible NZ certification using a rigorous certification process.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) provides the most widely used green building rating system in the world. It is available for virtually all building project types, from new construction to interior fit-outs, communities, and operation & maintenance in existing buildings. LEED provides a framework to create healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings. LEED certification is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement. The USGBC’s Mission is, “to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life”.

Passive House Certification

The Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) is an organization committed to making high-performance passive building the mainstream market standard. Its mission is: "To develop and promote North American passive building standards, practices, and certifications for buildings, professionals, and products to create structures that are durable, resilient, comfortable, healthy, and super energy efficient." The PHIUS+ Certification program is built on the PHIUS+ 2018 passive building energy standard. PHIUS+ combines a thorough passive house design verification protocol with a stringent Quality Assurance and Quality Control (QA/QC) program performed on site by PHIUS+ Raters.

WELL Certification

The WELL Building Standard is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing, through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. It is the premier standard for buildings, interior spaces and communities seeking to implement, validate and measure features that support and advance human health and wellness.

NBI Zero Energy Database

NBI (The New Buildings Institute) maintains the most comprehensive list of zero energy (ZE) commercial and multifamily buildings across North America. NBI tracks both verified buildings (with review of 12-months of ZE performance) and emerging buildings (with a stated ZE goal, but not yet verified). NBI has been leading the market development of zero energy buildings and works to identify, research, analyze, and promote commercial and multifamily buildings that are leaders in low and zero energy. To see buildings in their database go to the following link