The Bullitt Center, in Seattle, plans to achieve 100 percent on-site renewable energy, water, and waste management.
Benjamin Benschneider The Bullitt Center, in Seattle, plans to achieve 100 percent on-site renewable energy, water, and waste management.

Back in 2008, comedian Louis C.K. did a bit on Late Night with Conan O’Brien that starts, “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.” To those who get upset when their smartphone connection is slow, he snapped, “Give it a second! It’s going to space!” To those who complain about airline delays, “Oh, really? What happened next? Did you fly through the air, incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero?” The point, as Conan observed, was that we take technology for granted. The rant clearly struck a nerve, because it promptly went viral.

To Louis C.K.’s examples of technologies so ubiquitous that we only notice them when they’re gone, I wish we could include the net-zero building. The most significant technical innovation in architecture since the advent of computer-aided design in the 1970s, the net-zero building could positively reshape our way of life, promoting energy independence, reducing drought and carbon emissions, creating jobs. Alas, it has nothing remotely close to the smartphone’s penetration (the International Living Future Institute has only certified 21 examples).

So where’s the public dialogue, the demand? Why isn’t net-zero as familiar in our technology-worshipping culture as the iPhone? Why don’t we talk about it with as much awe as the Tesla Model S? At this point in our social evolution, the prospect of buying all our water and electricity from the grid should be alien. Yet the vast majority of us (those of us, that is, who live in postindustrial economies) view our reliance on the grid as far more normal than having a windmill or rain cistern on our own property.

Net zero doesn’t lack industry support. There are numerous organizations, events, and individuals committed to promoting a conservational relationship between energy, water, waste, and architecture—among them the AIA, Architect, and our sibling publication EcoBuilding Pulse. And yes, we have friends in high places: President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13693 mandates that “all new construction of Federal buildings greater than 5,000 gross square feet … is designed to achieve energy net-zero and, where feasible, water or waste net-zero by fiscal year 2030.”

Yet obstacles remain. At the moment, for instance, the AIA is justifiably alarmed because Congress is considering new legislation (S. 2012, the so-called Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015) that would repeal the requirement that new and renovated federal buildings be designed with a reduced carbon footprint. In January, Nevada’s utility company decided to cut the rate it pays to buy solar power from homeowners, forcing solar companies out of the state, one of the sunniest in the union. How insanely shortsighted. Even oil-rich Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are investing massively
in alternative energy.

After decades of innovation and advocacy, architects and designers may think of sustainable design and net-zero buildings as received wisdom, or even as old hat. But we cannot afford to step back the evangelism. We cannot stop until everyone in the United States—everyone around the globe, really—considers the net-zero building to be a fact of life-, and its absence to be unacceptable.