Design and Construction, Energy Management and Lighting, Green Building, Maintenance and Operations, Sustainability/Business Continuity

Biden Admin Seeks Input on National Definition for Zero-Emissions Buildings

What constitutes a zero-emissions building? The Biden administration is working to create a national, standardized, and verifiable definition for all stakeholders.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has developed Part 1 of a draft national definition for zero-emissions buildings and is now seeking feedback from industry, academia, research laboratories, government agencies, and other stakeholders through a request for information (RFI).


According to the DOE, cutting emissions in the building sector is key to addressing the climate crisis. In fact, building operations account for almost 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with buildings contributing an even higher percentage when factoring in emissions from construction, materials, and refrigerant.

The DOE said a broadly accepted common definition of a zero-emissions building, as well as a pathway for verification, is foundational to transition the building sector to zero emissions, while cutting energy costs and making homes and businesses more resilient to climate disaster. The national definition will create a clear market signal and a standardized, consistent, and measurable basis for zero-emissions buildings.

Leading green building programs are anticipated to embed the definition within their certifications, and the definition is expected to drive more capital to buildings that meet the criteria today or are on a clear path to achieve zero emissions over time. Furthermore, federal assistance programs that support the construction and renovation of non-federally owned buildings will be encouraged to align around the definition.

Proposed Criteria

Part 1 of the definition focuses on operating emissions and is applicable to existing buildings and new construction of non-federally owned buildings. (The definition is not intended for federally owned buildings, which are governed as a portfolio through statutory and executive guidance.) Future parts of the national definition will likely include embodied carbon, refrigerant, and other key elements.

Under the Part 1 draft definition, a zero operating emissions building meets the following criteria:

1. Highly Energy Efficient: For existing buildings, its energy performance places it among the top 25% most efficient buildings in the market with a similar use, based on measured whole-building energy use. For new buildings, its estimated whole building energy use is at least 10% lower than the energy use according to the latest IECC12 or ASHRAE34 90.1 model code, and the building is designed to achieve energy performance in the top 10% of similar buildings.

2. Free of On-Site Emissions from Energy Use: The building’s direct GHG emissions from energy use equal zero.

3. Powered Solely from Clean Energy: All the building’s energy is from carbon-free sources, including on- and off-site sources.

The full Part 1 draft definition is available here. This RFI aims to gather more extensive insights on the definition before the DOE finalizes it. Responses must be submitted electronically here no later than 5 p.m. ET on Feb. 5, 2024.

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