As part of the evolution of Green Building Law Update, I have started an interview series with leaders in the green building industry. My first interview is with John Kennedy, Autodesk’s Senior Manager of Sustainable Analysis Products. My interest in interviewing John was piqued when Autodesk’s Vice President called for reform to the federal government’s procurement process in order to further support green building developments. I never quite understood the concept of a "net zero energy building" until this interview.

Thanks to John for explaining the concept and being my first guinea pig for an interview.

In the future, I plan to keep these interviews much shorter so please contact me ( if you are interested in being my guest. And note, John did not mention his company’s name once (it’s Autodesk) but provided invaluable insight into his specific interest, net zero energy buildings. Well done, John.

Chris: What type of regulations do you think could best move the green building industry forward? I tend to think of building codes, incentives, even cap and trade legislation. What would be the best for the green building industry?

John: Well, if you look at a state like California as a model, since the late ’70s, they’ve been ratcheting up their energy code in terms of the efficiency and how efficient a building has to be, and they’re targeting by the end of this decade 2020 that all new residential buildings have to be net zero energy and that by 2030 all new commercial buildings have to be net zero energy. And so that’s pretty much the end game for targeting green building energy focused regulation is the net zero energy — are you familiar with that term, Chris?

Chris: If you want to explain it, that would be great.

John: So generally the typical definition is from a site perspective that a building has some means of generating energy typically electricity from renewable sources either photovoltaic electric panels or a wind turbine, and that electricity powers the energy use in the building and if there’s excess it goes onto the grid and when those sources aren’t available when the sun is down or the wind isn’t blowing, that building will pull electricity off the grid and over the course of time, typically a year, that meter on the building rotates backwards and forward depending on which way the electricity is going nets out to zero.

And so that really changes the game in a lot of different aspects. Number one, it’s very easy for someone to determine whether their building is meeting that performance and then it’s very easy for people to understand that concept whereas today if you look at energy codes they typically have reference buildings that you have to build theoretical models of and compare your design to. It’s very abstract, very complex, and then it’s very difficult for the industry to confirm that that building is really meeting the performance that the law is saying it’s supposed to meet.

So, with these net zero energy regulations coming up, the Industry is rushing to try and figure out how to meet them, owners are becoming very cognizant of the risk to their portfolios these building regulations will have. As we see more successful stories of net zero energy building put in place and performing well, these regulations are going to accelerate and we’re going to see net zero energy building regulations pretty much mandated everywhere.

Chris: One of the issues that I’ve seen with green buildings is they’re not performing like they were modeled to perform. How does that differ with net zero energy buildings? I think you indicated there is a difference in net zero buildings so that the performance gap is less likely. Can you expand on that a little bit?

John: That’s a great question and you point out one of the difficulties and complexities with the current regulation approach. In order for someone to determine whether the building is performing well or not they’re going to have to spend money and they’re going to have to hire experts and they’re going to have to do a study on the building. And there’s only been a handful of studies that have actually looked at the building’s actual use and how well the green building industry is delivering energy performing buildings.

The buildings certainly are comfortable buildings, and they are certainly attractive buildings. There are other aspects of the green building that are definitely performing. But on the energy side, a high percentage were found to not be performing as well as expected.

And so if you have this net zero energy requirements, that simplifies and basically allows everyone to track the performance of the building much easier without spending money. The design teams can get much faster feedback on whether their design processes that deliver these type of buildings are successful or not. So, currently the entire industry is delivering code compliant buildings or green buildings, the industry doesn’t really know if these buildings that they’re delivering are performing to the specifications. With a net zero energy requirement they will have a greater understanding of the building’s performance.

Chris: In a city like Washington D.C. where we have a green building act that’s going to require LEED Certification for buildings, it seems like it will be more effective to require all buildings be net zero energy buildings in order to ensure energy efficiency compliance. It might be a bit of a leading question but if you can elaborate.

John: Yes. I would agree with you. There would be a lot of people arguing that it’s not cost-effective to put in place a net zero energy building today due to the cost of photovoltaic and the current design approach of buildings. It would be difficult to get such a standard passed. I think the approach that is a transition to net zero energy codes is that you need to show that the building is net zero energy capable, that it’s efficient enough to be net zero if you had the budget, within reason, for the photovoltaics or other renewables to be placed on or around the building. This approach would evolve the design process to ensure long-term investments are sound, without burdening initial capital investments with the renewable expense.

Typically, if you’re targeting that net zero energy capable building, you’re going to be delivering a very efficient building that will be much better than code. And today’s tools make it easy to very quickly evaluate the design using building information modeling or BIM process with the analysis tools that tie into that building information model. So, the design team can very quickly see is this building is net zero energy on the computer and then show that to the regulatory agency. The first step in delivering such a building is making it very efficient that will no doubt comply with strict regulations on energy and definitely on the green building certification energy criteria. This sets the building up for short-term requirements as well as long-term requirements.

Chris: But it sounds like we’re back to modeling again if we’re relying on net zero capable buildings and it seems like the same issues can pop up where you model a building to perform a certain way but it’s not used or operated in the right way and so you have the same issues going forward.

John: That’s right. The same issues are there but the process of designing and analyzing and delivering that building should be less risky investment for the owner for the future. A building that is put in place in the next couple of years that’s designed to be net zero capable is going to have an easier time meeting future energy codes than one that is not designed to be net zero. For that building, during its next major renovation it’s going to have to comply with a net zero energy or carbon neutral requirement. The owner is going to be very confident that the building is designed meet these future energy codes versus a building that’s just barely meeting that energy code today or is LEED Certified.

Chris: What’s the role of green building rating systems in the green building industry? Do you think we’re relying on them too much or too little or how should they be incorporated in the regulations and into just buildings and the industry overall?

John: They are a very effective way for an owner to point to an industry standard and say this is the green building I want, the type of indoor air quality, the level of energy efficiency and water efficiency, and low environmental impact for this building in a standardized way. Someone in Washington request a specific certification level and request the same level of quality as someone in California, or someone in Florida.

It gives the industry this standardized way for asking for a level of quality in the buildings that meets these environmental regulations. I think that’s a huge benefit for the industry to have a common terminology and process.

Without that, the design industry would be trying to meet all these different interpretations of what someone calls a green building. So I think that’s the biggest benefit. There is work that could be done on the system to improve it and make it better and easier for the industry. I definitely think there’s room for improvement and anyone in the industry would agree with that.

Chris: What step would you take to improve green building rating systems that are out there?

John: Well, I would try and give some prioritization to it. My perspective is we have real serious situation with regard to the use of fossil fuels in our economy and the largest portion used in the building sector. I think the studies that I’ve mentioned earlier that refer to the energy performance of these green buildings really aren’t what people were expecting is being recognized and being addressed. The last version of the LEED criteria, actually nearly doubled the number of points for the energy aspects of the building. The USGBC recognized the need for emphasizing a larger focus on energy and water use.

I would love to see the green building rating systems start focusing on net zero energy buildings more aggressively as the criteria at a lower level rather than just the top levels. Regarding net zero energy capable, I would encourage them to consider that just for certification, their lowest level, for the benefit of the owners who are really looking for a standardized way to minimize costs in their portfolio.

It would push the industry to accelerate meeting these needs that will benefit the industry in the short term and long term. It is inevitable, so why wait.

John F. Kennedy, Senior Manager of AEC Sustainable Analysis Products at Autodesk, Inc., AIA Allied member, and a licensed mechanical engineer, has over fifteen years of experience developing and expanding the market for building energy analysis solutions. Mr. Kennedy is the lead creator of the open Green Building XML (gbXML) schema and the Autodesk Green Building Studio web service. The gbXML schema is used today to intelligently contain and transfer building and product information between applications such as Autodesk’s Auto CAD Architecture & MEP, Autodesk’s Revit and many other BIM and engineering applications. Mr. Kennedy was the President and CTO of Green Building Studio, Inc. prior to its acquisition by Autodesk. Mr. Kennedy has degrees in mechanical engineering with an emphasis on resource sustainability and received top honors from San Francisco State University. Mr. Kennedy presented his resource sustainability thesis to the Clinton administration’s Interagency Material and Energy Flow Workgroup in 1997.