EDF Climate Corps Fellow Helps REI Examine Buildings of the Future: Net Zero Energy Buildings

EDF Climate Corps fellow | August 17, 2012

Fellow: Kristen Demeter, 2012 EDF Climate Corps fellow at REI (Recreational Equipment Inc. ), Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Yale University

Organization: REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.)

Opportunity: The chance to revolutionize the way a building consumes energy

Summary: What if a building could be so efficient that it didn’t need to buy any energy? REI fellow Kristen Demeter found that this is more than possible – it has already been done! "Net Zero Energy Buildings" are technologically advanced facilities that minimize their energy needs through a process called "integrated design;" what little energy they still need is provided by onsite, renewable generation.

As an energy efficiency enthusiast, I was excited to start an EDF Climate Corps fellowship at REI this summer. Upon my arrival, I learned that the previous three EDF Climate Corps fellows had already found many financially favorable efficiency projects, adding to REI's admirable list of energy accomplishments.

And although my predecessors did a fantastic job of finding valuable opportunities, soon after my arrival I was "picking fruit" – projects in LED lighting, HVAC and retrocommissioning. All fruit grows back, and continuous streams of opportunity to improve energy efficiency are common.

Then, I was given the opportunity to help REI answer a few important questions: could future buildings be so efficient they don’t need to purchase energy? Could they be built this way and still be financially sustainable?


A net zero energy building (NZEB) is a building that produces as much energy as it uses over a year, according to the Department of Energy (DOE), usually by maximizing energy efficiency and generating renewable energy onsite.

At first, this sounded “pie-in-the-sky,” even for a forward-looking company like REI. But my initial research revealed that there are already 10 NZEBs, and many “net zero energy capable buildings.” I strived to learn as much as I could about NZEBs to help REI determine if it is technologically and financially feasible for REI to create its own NZEBs.

I dove into the NZEB literature. Now, after researching countless case studies, white papers and reports from DOE and the New Buildings Institute (NBI), as well as experimenting with tools such as solar energy calculators and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Target Finder, I have come away with five key lessons about NZEBs.

1. Plan early

For new construction and retrofits, developing an NZEB requires a holistic, system-wide approach. This means the design process may require more lead time – make sure to set net zero energy use as a design goal before starting.

2. Make sure all relevant teams buy in

Senior leadership, the building owner and the architecture, operations, corporate social responsibility and finance teams each have a role in the design process, so it's essential to have support from each before starting the project. Everything will run more smoothly if everyone is involved from the beginning.

3. Utilize integrated design

When designing a building, energy use is often an afterthought. But to create an NZEB, energy must be considered at every step of the process. Integrated design maximizes energy savings by focusing on the interaction of physical structures, mechanical systems and how occupants use the building. Compared to traditional design, this approach can provide energy savings of up to 70%.

4. Utilize existing energy efficiency technologies

A recent report from NBI shows that the technologies most frequently used in NZEBs, such as daylighting, high efficiency lamps and cool roofs, are already widely used elsewhere. The key to net zero is to design these technologies into a positively-reinforcing system of energy generation, distribution and end use, maximizing their effectiveness.

5. NZEBs can be created affordably and with existing technology

While NZEB cost data is limited, anecdotal evidence shows that it doesn’t cost significantly more to build an NZEB. Especially when accounting for life-cycle costs.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in fact, built its net zero Research Support Facility with a fixed budget. By integrating efficient energy use into the facility's design, they eliminated the need for large mechanical systems normally used in buildings of its type. The money they saved paid for the more-expensive process of integrative design.

So it is possible to build an NZEB with existing technology at affordable prices. Maybe there is an NZEB in REI's future. Or even yours.

EDF Climate Corps places specially trained MBA and MPA students in companies, cities and universities to develop practical, actionable energy efficiency plans. Sign up to receive emails about EDF Climate Corps, including regular blog posts by our fellows. You can also visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to get regular updates about this project.