Tech and policy can make Bill Gates’ ‘energy miracle’ a reality

With icons like Leonardo DiCaprio and Bill Gates using their powerful brands and personal convictions to turn the world’s focus toward the crisis of climate change and the long-lever arm of energy efficiency, it’s time for policy makers and practitioners to get serious about finding ways to take better care of our planet.

In his most recent annual letter co-authored with his wife, Gates went so far as to say we need “an energy miracle” to solve this global crisis.

Turning our attention to buildings as a significant emissions source could be one way to effectively address Gates’ concerns about energy consumption. Residential and commercial buildings account for more than 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption. Innovation in this arena could have sizable impact on a national energy strategy.

However, a vast majority of the national building stock is privately held and subject to regional market forces and near-term profitability. This is a place where thoughtful state and national policies can play an important role in curbing our national emissions.

While government intervention is often opposed in principle, national building policies actually create long-term confidence to develop innovative building components and design strategies. Take California’s Title 24 Building Energy Code, a great example of how we can reform our building standards to help curb energy use.

Thanks to the energy efficiency standards in this progressive policy, which have continually been updated since 1978, Californians use half the energy of other Americans nationwide on a per capita basis. Furthermore, that same policy has made California an ideal early market for now ubiquitous technologies such as compact fluorescent light bulbs, LEDs, low-albedo roofs and small-scale solar.

When given the choice, owners and renters choose the most efficient buildings available.

California is now ambitiously targeting Net Zero Energy (NZE) for all new residential construction by 2020 and all new commercial construction by 2030. Although some states are beginning to adopt forward-thinking regulations like Title 24, acceleration of building efficiency requirements could make a big dent in energy use, as buildings carry a larger carbon footprint than the industrial or transportation sectors.

In this election year, both sides of the aisle are debating which energy policies should last into the next presidency. While the topic of climate change has become over-politicized, disagreements take away from the real issue at hand and the positive impact the guiding hand of the government can have on the built environment.

On the surface, it can appear putting these policies into action could be harmful to a private real estate market, but the opposite is actually true. As evidenced by collaborations like the Mathilda project in Sunnyvale, California, progressive developers can voluntarily undertake market attractive NZE buildings that cost less to build and rent for a premium. Completed in 2015, Mathilda is a blueprint structure for NZE and Zero Net Carbon building that leverages eight innovative building technologies, including advanced comfort controls and dynamic windows.

These technologies, and their application at Mathilda, demonstrate the power that the Internet of Things, nanotechnology, smart systems and next-generation architectural thinking can have when deployed in concert for the purposes of net-zero construction.

Getting specific, Mathilda offers unique insight into how barriers to green building are being removed:

Profitability. A common objection to high-performance building is the perception of additional upfront costs. While it’s true that initial construction costs were higher, this cost was significantly outweighed by the near-term benefits of reduced operating expenses, accelerated lease-up and premium rent over the life of the occupant’s lease. This is a critical aspect of making sustainable building a practical economic reality.

Flexibility. While new construction is the primary focus of building efficiency policy, it is equally important that existing buildings can be retrofitted to achieve NZE status. Mathilda’s renovation transformed a 40-year-old two-story racquetball club into a Class B+ commercial office NZE structure. This, too, is an important consideration as we think about remaking the built environment on a sustainable model.

Scalability. To achieve true scale, NZE strategies must be broadly replicable. Using an integrated package of “state of the shelf” building technologies, the Mathilda approach has already spawned clones and is applicable for a wide variety of commercial and residential buildings. This requires both technologies and policies to scale.

Projects like Mathilda highlight the ability of the construction industry and building occupants to thrive in a progressive policy environment. Legislators need to recognize that industry is ready for their mandate to make buildings as efficient as possible. Building technology is ready and designers have the experience and ingenuity to use them to their greatest benefit. And, when given the choice, owners and renters choose the most efficient buildings available. With these in place, suddenly Mr. Gates’ miracle seems quite possible.