Zeroing In

Zero net San Francisco Bay Area DPR Construction ZNE International Living Future Institute FME Architecture LEED New Buildings Institute Mountain View AP+I
Zero net San Francisco Bay Area DPR Construction ZNE International Living Future Institute FME Architecture LEED New Buildings Institute Mountain View AP+I
Photo courtesy of Daniel Gains

Zero net is quickly becoming a new sustainable baseline across the region and nation.


By Neil Gonzales

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]rom the outside, 945 Front St. in downtown San Francisco is nothing to write home about. It’s even easy to miss—a dull-greenish low-rise structure sandwiched between two slightly taller, red-brick buildings and obscured by sidewalk trees.

But the array of solar panels poking up from the rooftop hints at something more going on at the otherwise typical urban industrial building, which underwent a renovation to serve as the new Bay Area regional office for national builder DPR Construction.

The renovation was far from standard, incorporating not just the solar panels but a whole host of other sustainable features such as “daylight harvesting” and the use of locally salvaged wood. As a result, 945 Front late last year became the first commercial building in San Francisco to be certified zero-net energy (ZNE) by the Seattle-based sustainability nonprofit International Living Future Institute.

“Sustainability is no longer a fringe interest. It is very much in the mind of a large portion of the population,” said Eric Ibsen, chief design officer for San Francisco-based FME Architecture, which worked on 945 Front. “To be involved in a groundbreaking project in a very progressive city, frankly it feels good.”

Building ZNE structures—which consume only as much energy as they generate from clean, renewable resources—was close to science fiction several years ago, but DPR’s San Francisco office and an increasing number of other super-sustainability projects nationwide are showing that this level of green construction has gone beyond the experimental stage and is now more than feasible.

These projects, most of them in California, represent an emerging new baseline for sustainable building in the coming decade just as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program has provided the benchmark for almost the past 20 years.

ZNE “has become the new ambitious target and goal,” said Ralph DiNola, CEO for the New Buildings Institute, an energy-efficiency nonprofit based in Portland, Ore. “People in the real estate industry see it as a differentiator, and differentiation is a way to market your product.”

ZNE can also resonate with potential office tenants and buyers in the amenity-hungry technology industry and be in line with a company’s culture or values pertaining to environmental responsibility, DiNola said.

According to the New Buildings Institute, the number of projects—ranging from office to multifamily and educational space—confirmed to be ZNE or on that path has almost tripled since the organization released its first count of such structures in 2012.

The tally in 2012 was 99 and grew to 256 last year, according to figures from the New Buildings Institute. Verified ZNE buildings numbered 41 in 2015—up from the 21 in 2012.

By far, California leads all states in high-efficiency projects. California had 16 verified and 54 emerging ZNE buildings in 2015, according to the New Buildings Institute.

California has been the clear frontrunner partly because of its large size and population, but other drivers include its aggressive energy plans.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law requiring the state to generate half of its electricity from solar, wind and other renewable power by 2030 while doubling energy efficiency in homes, offices and factories.

The state already has goals to see all new homes achieve ZNE beginning in 2020 and all new commercial buildings do the same by 2030.

A recent study by the Bay Area-based Net-Zero Energy Coalition also indicated that momentum is strong for ZNE homes. According to the study, nearly 6,200 residential units across about 3,300 buildings in North America are ZNE or on track to be.

ZNE is becoming the homebuilding method of the 21st Century and is projected to grow more than six-fold by the end of this year according to the group.

The DPR office in San Francisco serves as a model that can help accelerate the ZNE movement.

In the past, Ibsen said, the thinking was that a ZNE project could only be accomplished in a new build scenario. But the DPR project illustrates how this kind of rejuvenation can transform a 1950s-era warehouse into a high-performance contemporary building and still “pencil out,” he said.

The green elements at 945 Front include 343 photovoltaic panels producing enough power throughout the office, a natural-light capturing system, an efficient heating-and-cooling program, low-flow plumbing fixtures, vegetated walls and reclaimed redwood from the deconstructed Hangar One at Moffett Field in Mountain View.

The approximately 20,000-square-foot remade office was designed at just $185 per square foot—or $3.7 million, according to the International Living Future Institute. “The final cost landed marginally above the market cost of standard construction and mirrored the current (Class A) projects in the region.”

DPR—a builder focused on complex and sustainable projects—has “learned some creative approaches to making ZNE more accessible and more affordable,” company Regional Manager Mike Humphrey said. “We have put our money where our mouth is and can show others how to make ZNE work for them, too. Our San Francisco office will pay for its ZNE improvements in about 10 years and every year thereafter will be saving us money.”

But beyond that, Humphrey said, the project benefits the environment and workers’ health. The ultra-sustainability factor has also become an important employee recruitment and retention tool, he said.

945 Front is “an example for existing millions of square feet in the Bay Area,” Ibsen added. “I see it as the tip of the iceberg. There will be a lot more projects like this.”

Among the other more recent ZNE efforts in the region are Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer Delta’s 180,000-square-foot new American headquarters in Fremont and a rehabilitated 14,300-square foot building in Mountain View that houses AP+I design studio.

The AP+I project is just one of a handful of high-level sustainable remakes by San Jose-based builder Hillhouse Construction and Portola Valley-based developer Sharp Development Co. This partnership has also produced neighboring ZNE sites in Sunnyvale—the 32,000-square-foot office at 435 Indio Way and 35,000-square-foot space at 415 Mathilda Ave., both leased out to tech tenants.

In Washington State, the New Buildings Institute verified three ZNE structures, most recently the 52,000-square-foot Bullitt Foundation Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction in Seattle.

But although ZNE has moved away from being an exploratory to viable endeavor, it has yet to see mass adoption. “It’s no longer conceptual but still not mainstream,” DiNola said.

Upfront costs remain a barrier for many companies, especially for small ventures with limited resources or those that don’t specialize in sustainability.

“The state and federal rebate structure for energy performance is decreasing,” Humphrey also pointed out, “so there is less financial incentive to go zero net.”

What can help drive those initial costs down are alternative solar-panel financing plans, energy-efficient equipment and streamlined operational approaches, he said.

Another challenge is the difficulty in pursuing a ZNE project in a dense urban setting. “With tall buildings, in general, you don’t have enough surface area on the roof to collect solar energy,” DiNola said.

Then again, he said, ZNE “may not be appropriate for every building.” Sometimes, he said, doing ZNE on a campus or community scale might be a better approach.

An example of that is University of California, Davis, West Village—the largest multifamily ZNE community in North America with nearly 2,000 residents.

Sustainability experts agree that LEED, established by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2000, remains the ratings standard-bearer for environmentally conscious construction in the country and internationally.

In 2014, 5.3 percent of the total office buildings across the 30 largest markets in the country attained LEED certification—a continual rise from the less than 1 percent in 2005, according to the National Green Building Adoption Index report by the commercial real estate services firm CBRE.

ZNE represents the next level of green distinction while the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge status is an even more sublime feat. Living Building Challenge certification requires a project to meet a series of rigorous criteria, including ZNE, over at least a year of continuous occupancy and could be the benchmark for green construction further in the future.

“LEED is still the long-recognized measuring stick,” Ibsen said. “I can’t say ZNE is taking over LEED right now, but the stakes have increased.”

DiNola describes ZNE as a journey not a destination. “You go from focusing on certification to maintaining performance over a long period of time,” he said.

LEED and other ratings programs will be improved upon, he added, just as ZNE offers “good fertile ground for evolution.”

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