Zeroing In: Redhook Green Is a Zero Energy Building, But What Does That Mean?

What we don’t know about Redhook Green — and something we’ll certainly be discussing a lot in 2010 — is what exactly its “net zero” ambitions will actually mean in practice.

Redhook Green - Net Zero Brooklyn

We know some things — good things — about Redhook Green, the just-announced “net zero” mixed-use development in (wait for it) Red Hook. For instance: we know that it has a cool look inspired, according to the designers at Brooklyn’s Garrison Architects, by the shipping containers lining Red Hook’s river frontage. (We prefer to think of it as an homage to season two of The Wire, but that’s us) And we know, too, that the project’s developer is a man on a mission somewhat greater than, say, Bruce Ratner’s. Jay Amato, the entrepreneur behind Redhook Green, is blogging his butt off at the building’s official site and seems truly to be on fire for the idea of living and working efficiently and responsibly in Brooklyn. And Amato also has gbNYC on his blogroll, so we can count “his excellent taste” among the things we know, as well. But what we don’t know about Redhook Green — and something we’ll certainly be discussing a lot in 2010 — is what exactly its “net zero” ambitions will actually mean in practice.

The Department of Energy has a pretty clear and comprehensible definition for a zero energy building (ZEB) at its posted guidelines — “A net zero-energy building (ZEB) is a residential or commercial building with greatly reduced energy needs through efficiency gains such that the balance of energy needs can be supplied with renewable technologies.” At the Redhook Green blog, Amato expands upon that definition somewhat: ”Basically the ZEB concept is the idea that buildings can meet all their energy needs from low-cost, locally available, nonpolluting, renewable sources such as solar or wind power,” Amato writes. “That building can generate enough renewable energy on site to equal or exceed its annual energy use.” There are ZEB structures all over Europe, but Amato claims — and he’s right — to have initiated construction on the first ZEB building in New York. Considering Redhook Green’s striking look, efficient design, and positive reception from Red Hook bloggers (important, right?), it’s tough to take issue with Redhook Green itself. Admittedly, gbNYC is a fairly easy sell on this sort of thing — give us tons of insulation, a thermal wall, heat pumps and “smart” wall and ceiling designs and we’ll get the blueprint of your building tattooed on our (notional) e-necks, basically. But.

But as promising as Net Zero building is — and it’s a great idea that would be an even greater reality — the idea of simply generating as much energy as you consume does not necessarily lead to a net-zero (no caps) outcome. The most obvious reason for this is that Net Zero buildings aren’t necessarily more efficient to construct (and are often more expensive and complicated to design and construct) than any other type of building, and — as with LEED and its discontents — a building’s net-zero status is based primarily on pre-construction projections. There’s no way to gauge how close to zero a net-zero building will be until it gets built and, as Stephen pointed out when I chatted with him online about this earlier today, there’s also the question of how efficient a ZEB would actually have to be, when there are products like Renewable Energy Credits out there to be purchased to get a building back to zero.

This is pretty common to attempts to measure a building’s elusive greenness, of course, and much of this opacity falls under the “Of Course” heading — of course we don’t know how efficient an as-yet-unbuilt building will be, of course REC’s can be abused. But also, of course there’s no reason to think that Amato is going to do anything less than an excellent (and impressively transparent) job with developing Redhook Green, which looks very much like one of New York’s buildings to watch in 2010. But as Zero Energy Building works its way towards buzzword status, hopefully we will be able to pull some actual information from all that buzzing background noise and figure out just how these sorts of buildings are actually going to work — or could be made to work — in the real world. If they’re basically nu-earthships, they’re not worth much, but if ZEB’s wind up realizing even a part of their potential as a great leap forward in green building, it could be the start of something big. No pressure, Jay.

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