Aiming for net zero in public buildings: Eight principles

Cross section diagram of possible renewable energy and energy reduction strategies for a public building.
Photos courtesy Finegold Alexander Architects

Wind turbines

Wind turbines may be connected to the electric utility grid and provide credits when producing more power than the building is utilizing. Considerations include access, available wind, shadows, and noise.

Hydro power

It is a traditional source of electric or mechanical power for buildings. This is particularly effective in older manufacturing cities with canal systems. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the benefits of local hydro power at a district level.

It is important to note, incentive programs for these renewable energy strategies vary by state and utility company.

6. Assess energy generation options

Assess all renewable energy options based on long-term costs and viability. When planning building systems, the design team must view the complete picture including initial construction and operating costs, evolving technologies, site design impacts, and energy delivery reliability.

The team should focus on the selection of balanced systems for building occupancy that support each other regarding the energy needed daily, seasonally, and year round. The anticipated near term development of new technologies (such as biofuels), and the logistics of obtaining and storing fuels should be considered.

7. Assess feasibility and adopt options

Will the energy produced onsite offset the building’s remaining energy needs after maximizing the site and building energy reduction? Site, building design, occupancy, and cost constraints may preclude achieving NZE. However, setting the goal creates a highly energy-efficient project that can adapt to changing needs, technologies, all the while helping the planet.

8. Commission and verify

During design and construction, the team must pay close attention to maintaining the goal through project design and occupancy. A commissioning agent should be brought onboard early to provide feedback on maintaining energy conservation integrity. The agent should review design submissions, bid specifications, contractor checklists, functional performance test procedures, building system submittals, monitor building system installation and operation, prepare a final commissioning report and systems manual, verify staff training, and conduct post-occupancy reviews before the end of the warranty period.

Commissioning is an important safeguard for ensuring an energy-efficient building is built and operates in accordance with the design goals. The performance verification process should continue indefinitely, including education of occupants about the energy-saving features and optimization guidelines for passive and active controls. Maintenance staff must understand energy conservation goals and operating procedures to meet the systems’ design parameters.

To be certified in NZE, building owners collect and submit the building’s energy use and generation data for a year, and also get it verified by a third party. The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) is one overseer.


The preceding principles is a solid starting point for design teams seeking NZE certification, enabling them to understand how to balance three primary interrelated elements—function, strategy, and cost. Here are some final considerations.


What purpose will the building serve? Function influences design, site orientation, building accessibility, and occupant use.


The design team must develop an early strategy for ECMs that balance with the needs of the building’s occupants.


Designers must assess the most cost-effective path to functional design for the occupants, efficient operations, and maintenance.

Designers and owners, in partnership with municipalities, can achieve the goal of NZE, or come close, when designing projects. NZE is quite a challenge, but one that can be met through close coordination of designer, owner, and a real commitment to sustainability.

Jeffrey Garriga is a principal at Finegold Alexander Architects and oversees the firm’s public project work. He has managed a variety of restoration, adaptive use, and new construction projects. Garrga is also the firm’s director of technology, and has been instrumental in implementing building information modeling (BIM) technology. He can be reached at

Pat ‘Sherman’ Morss, Jr. has led and served on architectural design teams at Finegold Alexander Architects for 46 years. He has worked on projects for many building types and brings special expertise in developing solutions for design and engineering challenges associated with renovation, historic preservation and restoration, adaptive-use, and integration of new additions. Morss is also a long-time advocate and expert in sustainable design. He can reached at

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