Shifting to net-zero building practices is a way for the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry to help communities achieve climate and greenhouse gas reduction goals.

The AEC industry can significantly limit future climate impacts by developing high-performance buildings that meet net-zero requirements. New buildings can be designed and constructed to standards that focus on energy efficiency, reducing embodied carbon and limiting dependence on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, re-examining and re-imagining existing buildings can lead to significant emission reductions through retrofits. 

Net-zero can mean different things. The table below examines various net-zero terms and the limitations of each: 

  • May use fossil fuels or electricity for heating.
  • Could become net-zero energy with the addition of solar panels or other renewable sources.
  • Emits carbon pollution if using gas on-site.
  • Not all buildings have solar potential.
  • Generation may not match demand; fossil fuel- burning power plants may still be needed during peak hours, leading to higher electricity rates.
  • May use fossil fuels or electricity for heating.
  • Generates as much energy on-site or nearby as it uses on an annual basis.
  • Emits carbon pollution if using gas on-site.
  • Not all buildings have solar potential.
  • Generation may not match demand; fossil fuel- burning power plants may still be needed during peak hours, leading to higher electricity rates.
  •  May use fossil fuels or electricity for heating.
  • Fossil fuel use (on-site or through the grid) is offset with the purchase or generation of low-carbon energy.
  • Emits carbon pollution if using gas on site.
  • Carbon offsets are achieved only if purchased clean energy displaces high-emissions energy.
  • There are multiple definitions of when carbon balance is achieved.
  • No fossil fuels burned on site.
  • Only uses clean electricity or low-carbon fuels.
  • Increased demand on clean electricity grids.
  • Biofuels emit carbon pollution and can only be considered carbon-neutral if feedstocks are sustainably managed and fugitive emissions are addressed.

Organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) and the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) offer net-zero certifications. USGBC and IFLI offer zero-energy and zero-carbon certifications, while CaGBC has a Zero Carbon Building Standard certification. 

Offset the project’s site and source energy use with on-site renewable energy exported to the grid, off-site renewable energy, or carbon offsets.

Reduce and offset the project’s operational energy use with new on- or off-site renewable energy. Reduce, disclose, and offset the project’s embodied carbon emissions with on-site carbon sequestering materials or carbon offsets.
Offset the project’s carbon emissions from operational energy and occupant transportation with on-site renewable energy exported to the grid, off-site renewable energy, or carbon offsets.

Offset the project’s operational energy use with on-site renewable energy.

Offset the annual carbon emissions associated with building materials and operations. Procure carbon-free energy or high-quality carbon offsets or produce them on-site.

We can help our clients meet their net-zero needs in a variety of ways. We have a robust network of in-house subject matter experts with extensive experience in delivering sustainable, resilient and smart buildings. They are well-versed in building envelope, mechanical and electrical systems, sustainable construction and green building certifications, mass timber construction, renewable energy and building systems. Our experts advocate for a holistic approach to construction that minimizes emissions while driving improved performance.

We can provide the most value when we are brought onto a project as early as possible. This allows us to work with the entire team to establish shared performance and design goals. Our estimating and cost engineering experience supports in-depth review and analysis of design options, allowing us to recommend solutions that meet budgets while delivering on sustainability goals.

Other ways we can help our clients meet their net-zero goals include:

  • Producing models to check against designs and ensure the final product will meet its intended performance goals. Our team can use BIM models and third-party tools like EC3 or One Click LCA to analyze a project, or we can support the design team partners with their analysis.
  • Supporting the material selection process to ensure choices meet cost and performance objectives while optimizing for embodied carbon.
  • Consistently communicating sustainability and certification-related requirements to all team members working on the job site. Our communication with trade contractors begins early in the project; we conduct workshops with potential bidders to alleviate concerns and dispel misconceptions of the material reporting process.
  • Ensuring a project meets all construction-related requirements for the certification being targeted.
  • Using technology to limit resource use, mitigate risk and improve employee safety during construction.
  • Providing on-site or off-site solar energy as part of the project, or through a separate agreement as needed, to meet renewable energy requirements.

Each of our experts brings passion, perspective and complementary strengths to a project team. We work collaboratively with the owner, engineers, architects and trade partners to deliver high-performance buildings that reduce carbon emissions and provide healthier spaces for occupants. By working together, we can meet the owner’s vision and construct net-zero buildings that exceed expectations. 

A growing focus on climate change and the need for sustainable and resilient buildings is driving unprecedented demand for high-performance construction. The AEC industry has an opportunity to help reduce emissions and meet climate-related goals by drawing down carbon from the built environment. Whether a new build or a retrofit, there are plenty of opportunities for the industry to work collaboratively to support the shift to net-zero. Working together, we can accomplish great things that improve the future for everyone.