Net Positive Conference 2016: The Surprising Best Source for Innovation Acceleration

The International Living Future Institute (ILFI)  held its third annual Net Positive Energy + Water conference last week in San Diego, discussing strategies, challenges, and opportunities to designing net-positive buildings and communities.

The Institute evolved from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), the certifying agency for the LEED program.  LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a certification for buildings, and now communities as well, that provides the conceptual framework for standardized understanding of the sustainability of a building’s components and operations.  LEED-certified, -Silver, -Gold, and -Platinum projects are significantly more energy-efficient than their more conventional counterparts, requiring minimum numbers of points across different categories (water, energy, siting) in order to qualify.

There have been valid critiques of the program; that it is increasingly bureaucratic with diminishing environmental returns; that the money invested into obtaining a LEED certification would be better spent within a project itself; that LEED focuses primarily on design and less on operations.  This last carries the greatest weight because buildings are intended to be in active operation for 20, 50, 80, 100 years or more; and regardless of how locally-sourced the materials are or whether all conventional bulbs have been replaced by LEDs, a building that is inefficient with its resources is going to be a constant drain on its environment.

Enter the Living Building Challenge.  Conceived of in 2006 as a radical evolution of the LEED program, it too is a certification, but it takes the idea of sustainability to an audacious new level.  Understanding sustainable building more holistically, Living Building certification is understood as a flower with all its petals, in this case seven.  The ILFI, launched in 2009 to oversee the Living Building Challenge and its related programs, has developed additional certifications, including “petal” certifications (meaning a building can certify as sustainable in categories such as Materials or Water,  and its newest, the Net Zero Energy Building certification.  (Just last year Michigan’s first NZEB certification was awarded, to Ann Arbor resident Matt Grocoff for his 1901 home restoration.  The oldest home in America to go net zero energy!)

ILFI, already good at educating its members and requiring community education and outreach, launched Net Positive in 2014, stating as its mission that the conference would be “dedicated to the exchange of technical expertise, bold strategies and provocative case studies—all aimed at accelerating the global shift toward Net Positive Energy and Water buildings and communities.”

This author did not attend in 2014, but did in 2015, where the repeated message was: The technology is there.  Renovating and constructing nonparasitic buildings is no longer inventing the wheel.  The key now is implementation, measurement, education, and advocacy.

This year the same message was carried even further, with tongue-in-cheek phrases like “bleeding shelf” and “state of the shelf technologies” being uttered often.  One San Francisco engineer discussing a net-zero-energy (NZE) case study mentioned that the only real challenge the project presented was its price point: the client required a $200/s.f.  cost(instead of a more conventional $350-400/s.f. for this project type) because, as the client said dismissively about the latter, “At that price, anyone can go green.”  The point was taken, the challenge accepted, and met; and through such straightforward strategies as white paint and situating the highest-use spaces in the most consistently daylit areas, the team accomplished a NZE retrofit of a two-story building, even though the building was hemmed in on three sides by existing buildings and not optimally oriented for solar power.

The most radical message to come out of Net Positive 2016 was most eloquently called for by speaker Julian Mocine-McQueen.  In your messages and missions, he urged, can you honestly put “for all” at the end of the statements and still have them be true?  In other words, true innovation in sustainability is no longer about technology, but about access and inclusion.  Paraphrasing a Silicon Valley programmer’s offhand comments from a different event, “If what you’re doing isn’t making things more affordable or more accessible, then what you’re doing is NOT innovation.”

NZE and NZW are still incredibly difficult to accomplish, but now it’s due less to technology and more to social perception and policy obstacles.  For a commercial or civic building to source, treat, and manage all its water on site, for example (net-zero water, in other words), that building is then deemed a “water works” utility and has to comply with an entirely new set of regulations.  As SmithGroup JJR sustainable design leader Greg Mella said, “It requires a visionary and dedicated client to commit to something like this.”  (Or, as the client for the project in question, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s vice-president Mary Tod Winchester, said wryly, “Visionary is just a synonym for ‘glutton for punishment.'”)

Why bother, then?  Why go through the often prohibitive financial, political, and legal hoops to design, build, and retrofit NZE and NZW?

The World Economic Forum provides a clue.

According to its 2016 Global Risks report, the first and third greatest perceived risks in terms of severity of long-term impact are, respectively, “failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation” and “water crises”.  Other perceived high risks – food security, extreme weather events, and interstate and regional conflict – are intimately related to resource management and scarcity.  Consumption is no longer about simply deciding what you want and buying it, if it ever truly was; now it’s about knowing how your lifestyle impacts the lives of the people and planet around you, and being accordingly mindful of and frugal with that consumption.

One of the conference’s early discussions focused around transformation: “How do you create and sustain change?” The uniform answer, from nonprofits to regulatory agencies and the largest businesses to the smallest communities: work WITH.  Not for, not against, not in spite of, not on behalf of: with.

Perhaps this is the message that designers and engineers can take forward into events like 2016’s Venice Architecture Biennale and new projects with their own clients: that great work comes not in spite of regulators, clients and coworkers, but in collaboration with them.

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