Zero Energy Buildings in Massachusetts: Saving Money from the Start

“Many people already know the environmental benefits green buildings bring to our communities and our world, but few understand the economic benefits of this investment. Zero energy buildings can be constructed or retrofitted for minimal upfront costs, if any, and owners can start making money off of their investment sooner than they expect. Our hope is that this report demonstrates that owning, operating, and living in a zero energy building is within reach for many of us here in Massachusetts.”

Meredith Elbaum, Executive Director of USGBC MA

The report, Zero Energy Buildings in MA: Saving Money from the Start, assesses zero energy (ZE) upfront building costs, model performance, and life-cycle costs in Massachusetts. With buildings being a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, scientists, advocates, and local leaders are working to curb emissions and reduce energy use in the built environment by both retrofitting existing buildings and constructing new buildings to achieve Zero Energy Standards. While stakeholders and decision makers frequently cite high costs as the primary barrier to ZE buildings, we and report lead Integral Group found that many types of ZE buildings can be built with no added upfront cost and some commercial buildings can see return on investment in as little as one year.

The report revealed the following five key findings:

  1. ZE buildings are being built in Massachusetts today with virtually no upfront costs.
  2. Return on investment for ZE in Existing and New Office Buildings can begin in as little as one year for ZE ready buildings.
  3. Of the six building types studied, all can be Zero Energy Ready (ZER) for upfront costs of 0-7 percent, and all types breakeven in eight years or less when there are no additional upfront costs.
  4. Existing office buildings retrofitted to zero energy, with renewables, can produce a return on their investment in as little as five to six years.
  5. Building energy demand can be reduced 44 – 54 percent across all building types with technology that’s readily available today.

Throughout this study, we sought to understand how practices, regulations, and legislation could change to further support ZE building construction. When considering local construction practices, costs, building codes, climate conditions, and energy efficiency incentives currently available, our report presents a set of recommendations on how to further advance zero energy building policy in Massachusetts, including:

  • Create a zero energy stretch code as a compliance path to the state energy code and establish date-specific targets for mandatory zero energy code adoption in Massachusetts.
  • Require annual benchmarking and disclosure of energy performance for all commercial and multi-family buildings.
  • Establish Building Energy Performance Standards for large existing commercial and multi-family buildings.
  • Work with residential loan providers to bundle solar installation and deep energy retrofit costs into mortgage at time of sale; investigate mortgage buy-down programs for current homeowners.
  • Commonwealth and municipal governments should develop point-based incentive programs/performance-based procurement protocols for public projects to incentivize ZE projects.

The Commonwealth’s building industry professionals, researchers, advocates, businesses, and local governments are committed to adopting greener building standards. We, at USGBC MA, are working towards educating the broader community on the critical need and economic benefits of green building and providing the tools and resources to take action. Dispelling the notion that zero energy buildings cost more upfront and over the long term, the Zero Energy Buildings in MA: Saving Money from the Start report reflects that creating a zero energy building, from an existing structure or as new construction, is a smart investment for many building and homeowners across Massachusetts. This research was partially funded through a grant through the Barr Foundation.

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