Preparing Buildings for a Carbon Neutral Future

Preparing Buildings for a Carbon Neutral Future

By Tim Bailey, AIA, LEED AP

According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, residential and commercial buildings in the United States are responsible for almost 40% of carbon dioxide emissions and use an almost equal percentage of the country’s energy for lighting, heating, cooling, and appliance operation. In Boston, 70% of greenhouse gas emissions are from buildings, prompting the state to take large strides to reduce this alarming statistic. Cities and towns across Massachusetts are now more stringent with energy codes and introduce ordinances of their own to combat this climate crisis. In fact, as of July 1, 2024, Massachusetts energy codes will become more restrictive, and some municipalities may choose to adopt energy codes that go beyond the Commonwealth’s.

Boston is leading the way for the region in support of all-electric, carbon neutral buildings. As lawmakers here and in surrounding municipalities pass legislation that dictates the path to carbon neutral building functionality by 2050, owners are faced with the challenge of evaluating, improving, and future-proofing their property assets. Pursuant to Boston’s Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO), buildings over 20,000 square feet must report their annual energy and water use to the city and reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time as stated in the BERDO regulations and policies and procedures adopted in January 2023. It is a game changer for developers, owners, and project design teams when it comes to designing a new building or renovating an existing one. Building owners will have three options; Update their buildings to comply, utilize alternative compliance payments, or ultimately face hefty fines for non-compliance.

With these new regulations there are a multitude of design considerations and decisions to be made. Architecturally, an energy efficient building envelope will take the strain off mechanical systems, so they don’t have to work as hard. Think triple-glazed curtain wall; increased insulation with attention paid to thermal bridging; use of recycled construction materials; and integrated lighting control systems. For mechanical systems, the goal is elimination of fossil fuels in favor of clean electric power. The issue now facing electricity providers is making sure they have enough capacity for these all-electric initiatives. Another tactic is switching from traditional building management systems to energy management and information technology that connects multiple building systems to optimize integrity and performance.

Other factors to consider are renewable energy opportunities such as solar panels, geothermal heat pumps, and off-site options. Up until now, geothermal may have been seen as a “nice to have,” but looking toward the future, that philosophy may change as we look at energy consumption. Geothermal technologies and solar opportunities go a long way to help reduce energy consumption of a building, thus reducing its electric load significantly. Smart building technologies can play a major role in achieving carbon neutrality and provide additional energy savings. For natural light control, options include automated shades, electric glass, and switchable films. For HVAC, energy efficient variable feed drives that can be installed in boiler pumps, condensers, water pumps, cooling tower fans, and chiller motor pumps could result in energy savings of up to 60%. Additional resources include lighting controls and tenant controlled plug-in electrical loads.

Meeting these new regulations comes with a cost—several costs, in fact, including, up-front inflated construction costs, technology upgrade costs, penalties for failing to meet regulatory requirements, and potential loss of revenue if your building does not meet prospective tenant expectations regarding local ordinance requirements or their cultural sustainability model. An April 9, 2023 Banker & Tradesman article by Steve Adams presciently addressed green leases, which align the financial and sustainability interests of building owners and tenants: “Typical green lease clauses include requirements for submetering of individual tenant spaces, cost sharing of capital improvements and agreements for tenants and landlords to share data on energy use.”

In preparation for a greener and cleaner future as set forth in BERDO and similar ordinances adopted by other municipalities, building owners, and developers need to begin to assess their buildings now. As architects who have been actively involved in retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency and designing new buildings to net zero and carbon neutral standards, we offer the following tips to help you get started:

  1. Confirm energy loads associated with existing buildings in your portfolio
  2. Determine the capacity of and cost for adapting buildings to accommodate converting gas service to electric
  3. Develop a detailed master plan for the next 25+ years based on specific municipal requirements per building location to bring your buildings into carbon neutral compliance by the stipulated date


This article was featured in Banker & Tradesman.