Michelle Christopher and I attended our first DMV NZE Building Coalition meeting on November 1, 2019, at the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C.

For anyone unfamiliar with the DMV Net Zero Energy Building Coalition, it is “made up of a community of visionary building professionals and citizens mobilized to bring about the widespread adoption of NZE buildings for all people in the National Capital Region. The coalition sees net zero energy buildings as a key development in the transition to a future of diverse, inclusive, healthy, resilient, thriving, and sustainable communities.”

The group is led by a diverse group of professionals, including volunteers from DCRA’s Green Building department who have worked diligently to organize and engage more people from our region.

This meeting’s keynote speaker was Rob Winstead, Principal at VMDO. Mr. Winstead is an architect and is well known for this award-winning work on net zero schools in the DMV region, which brought out some education professionals from the area to learn more about net zero energy.

Here are some of our key takeaways and impressions from the session:

There are several reasons to be interested in NZE if you are an architect, developer, or real estate owner in the DMV area, not the least of which is the Omnibus Act passed earlier this year. According to Winstead’s keynote, there are 400,000 SF of net zero projects in the DMV region today.

Different projects pursue NZE for different reasons. Winstead was able to speak to the motivation for the Arlington Schools portfolio, where the big selling point for net zero in schools was the reduced operating costs, averaging $0.11/SF compared to $1.32. I did a little research and found this case study about Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, VA, which pursued net zero energy and LEED Silver certification. VMDO worked on the project, and the results show that Discovery School’s annual energy costs are projected to be $72,000/year, compared to $120,000 in annual energy costs for a school that is similar in size.

It was particularly interesting that in addition to the net zero conversation, the presentation took it a step further into embodied carbon. For any given project, if the energy consumption can be reduced, then the conversation can shift to embodied energy and emissions. In a typical building, the embodied energy (the materials that make up the physical building) is a smaller piece of the energy pie. In a net zero energy building, however, the embodied energy makes up a bigger piece of the pie because operating the building requires less energy.

The biggest opportunity areas to reduce embodied carbon are in the structure, envelope, and finishes. Project teams should be talking about mass timber structures, especially in DC where mass timber structures are allowed to be anywhere from 9 to 18 stories (they are allowed to go up to 6 stories in Washington state). If you’d like to learn more about the connections between mass timber and embodied carbon, you can start with this post from Passive House Buildings.


The most important part of the event was the call to action – this is where theory gets turned into practice. There are things we should be doing today to progress towards net zero energy goals:

Practice what we preach: If we are going to promote net zero energy designs and operations strategies to our clients, we should start by looking at our own offices and evaluating our workplace standards. In addition to leading by example, this will also provide opportunities to learn first-hand what is needed to achieve the net zero goal.

Communicate effectively: A lot of people don’t understand what net zero means. We need to update the definition for people to easily understand. The better they understand it, the more likely they are to want it. This also means that we need to be at the table, advocating for net zero energy, during the design phase.

Track and share data: Take every opportunity to share lessons learned in the design process and from tracking building performance data. Put the data on display in your buildings! Offer transparency to building occupants to get them engaged. Net zero is a goal that we can get to faster and more effectively with collaboration.

Keep learning: Tour net zero sites and learn from previous projects. I’m going to make it a priority to tour AGU’s new net zero project. The building is going through its first year of data collection and providing tours of the facilities. You should tour it too! Contact AGU at netzerotours@agu.org for more information. And of course you should download Paladino’s e-book, Six Degrees to Net Zero for New and Existing Buildings to learn about the steps to fund and design a net zero energy project.


It’s going to be impossible to have conversations about sustainability without also addressing net zero energy and embodied carbon, so it’s wise to get involved with organizations like the DMV NZE Coalition. If you would like to learn more about them, or possibly volunteer, you can find them on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8835952/

Additional resources:


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