As reported by the city of Boston, building operations account for nearly 70 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Committed to reducing these emissions, the Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance, or BERDO 2.0, has set emissions standards for large existing buildings in Boston with the goal of all buildings achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
But how is this achieved?
Many in the design profession have committed to reducing carbon emissions from the built environment by becoming signatories to the 2030 Challenge. Finegold Alexander Architects, through the launch of the firm’s FA Energy division and as a signatory of the 2030 Challenge, is committed to helping our clients meet their commitments toward a carbon-free future at all scales, from individual buildings to campus-wide or portfolio bases, by providing streamlined and informed recommendations to enhance energy-efficiency.
Conversations with clients around this commitment to decarbonization have changed substantially in the last five years. Originally a conversation almost exclusively with public and private institutional clients, it is now being had with private developer clients. Why has the conversation changed and what tools are we using to work towards decarbonization in our building projects?
The chief reasons for this shift include marketability, incentives and an evolving regulatory environment, including the BERDO standards. While Boston and New York City are early leaders in energy-use reporting, more municipalities across the country are working to adopt Net Zero Carbon goals for new developments. This drive to zero carbon leads to an all-electric approach to HVAC and domestic hot water. To assist in designing all-electric projects, many utility companies offer incentive programs tied to energy use reduction demonstrated during design through whole building energy modeling and ongoing review of design details throughout the process.
Multifamily Projects That Prove the Case
To increase building performance for our multifamily projects at Finegold Alexander we begin with the envelope. Our office’s in-house sustainability team led by Lara Pfadt has developed prescriptive envelope performance standards that exceed code. Our targets are R-40 for exterior walls, R-60 for roofs and a glazing percentage of 25 percent. Designing a well-sealed, high R-value envelope is critical for all-electric buildings served by modern heat pumps and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery.
Our firm finds itself currently working on several multifamily projects pursuing all-electric approaches, potential Passive House studies and photovoltaic installations. The projects range from a 159-unit development for independent and assisted living at the Balfour Brookline, to La Victoire, the redevelopment of a former Bay Village church into 18 high-end condominium units, to plans for the first all-electric development in Milton and a power purchase agreement for solar panels at a 54-unit transit-oriented development in Natick.
At the Balfour Brookline project, there was a push among town residents to avoid natural gas or other fossil fuel connections to new buildings. As a part of extensive regulatory and zoning review processes and discussions with the town around sustainability goals, the owner elected to pursue an all-electric approach for space conditioning.
During the design of La Victoire, typical marketing questions were raised relative to the scale of units and their amenities, as well as questions about mechanical systems and project sustainability. It was determined that the all-electric approach was not only sound environmentally, but also a good marketing approach. Sustainability is increasingly important to younger buyers and tenants. While there were some added costs for a slightly increased size of the main electrical service and unit panels, there were also cost savings due to not having to run gas piping throughout the building to each condominium unit.
What does all of this cost? A robust 2019 study from Built Environment Plus determined the additional costs to achieve a project whose energy use is reduced to create a Net Zero Ready building was 5 percent. This number will no doubt continue to fall as energy codes, local goals, permitting requirements and the demands of the market push developers toward more zero operational carbon developments. The next frontier is embodied carbon, an area where our work with existing buildings and energy retrofits helps support a holistic approach to the zero-carbon future.
Rebecca Berry is president, principal and director of sustainability at Finegold Alexander Architects.