Designing a Net Zero Future

We are entering a Net Zero future; one where our nation’s office buildings remove more carbon from the environment than they produce. This will be an evolution from today, where 40 percent of all carbon emissions in the United States come from residential or commercial buildings, according to a 2018 estimate from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

New York City alone produces over 50 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, more than half of which comes from the buildings that shape the city’s skyline.

But that is changing. Last year New York State and New York City passed bold legislation. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Green New Deal and The Climate Mobilization Act (CMA) requires the creation of near Net Zero Energy and Net Zero Carbon buildings by 2050, accelerating the move towards carbon neutral.


For a glimpse into that future, travel to Roosevelt Island. There, the first major Net Zero building – Cornell Tech Campus – was completed in 2017, setting a precedent for how it can be achieved. The $2 billion project is centered around the 160,000 square foot Bloomberg Center. The building produces as much energy as it consumes through a combination of photovoltaic roof panels, a mix of transparent and opaque paneling engineered to heat and cool the building naturally. These innovative insulation techniques alone will save 882 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

The next step is to replicate the success of this set of buildings without Bloomberg’s largesse. That is a much greater challenge and one that must necessarily be done in phases. The first important milestone is the 2030 CMA standard, which dictates a 40 percent greenhouse gas emission from a 2005 benchmark while balancing costs.

Presidential candidate Joe Biden has included achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030 as part of his climate policy platform. Spectorgroup has been working towards this goal with our clients and community. Over the next decade, we expect developers to seek partnerships with innovative architects to make bold attempts at Net Zero projects now – going beyond the 2030 standards. Existing building reconfigurations are already underway across the island to meet these goals, such as installing better insulated windows, overhauling inefficient HVAC units, and making incremental upgrades to facades. Specific innovations already being applied include:

  • Understanding building height and sun exposures to maximize the use and capture of natural energy
  • Incorporating or hiding photovoltaic panels into facades through techniques such as blending curtain-walled glass and spandrel panels
  • Maximizing efficiencies in the construction process, building to create the least amount of leakage outside of the facade, and between units and floors
  • Make triple-glazed windows a standard now

As the city looks on how to become the country’s leader for environmental development, it should leverage what’s worked elsewhere. One of the most valuable rubrics is the passive house model, a methodology gaining momentum in Europe. Passive house is widely used as the world’s standard in energy-efficient construction, using architecture, design, and innovative materials to achieve a comfortable temperature year-round. We believe the passive house standard can and will be as ubiquitous in a decade as LEED certification is today and offers more guidance on achieving the true benefits of Net Zero.

Ultimately passive house is about creating the most efficient box to keep all of the energy the building produces. Architects and designers should proactively base future projects on current European requirements to reach Net Zero. We can also once again draw inspiration from Cornell’s Roosevelt Island campus where they tout “the world’s first passive-house high-rise, a 26-story tower called The House.”

Applying passive house thinking to New York City’s unique architectural requirements, we might see the emergence of modular construction – both in high-rises and homes – become more the norm. Potential benefits include an easy way to introduce thermal breaks between floors, and a higher degree of quality control on the construction of each unit as they are produced in precision factories and not on-site. This concept coincides nicely with the emergence of Wellness Architecture, or applying architecture and design to create a balance between physical and emotional wellbeing while considering not only protecting the natural environment around the building, but regenerating it. Spectorgroup is on the forefront of designing projects right now to these standards.

New York’s success over the next decade – meeting and surpassing the initial legislations’ guidance, can hopefully be used as a template to guide cities around the United States. Ultimately, if we are successful in pushing forward some of the world’s already successful models and innovating in both design and cost structure, we will play a major role in setting the road map for America’s clean future.

By Michael Mannetta, AIA

Design Director, Senior Partner at Spectorgroup