Building Controls, Design and Construction, Green Building, Maintenance and Operations, Sustainability/Business Continuity

Expert Q&A: What Will It Take to Make Net-Zero Buildings a Reality?

Did you know buildings account for a whopping 37% of all carbon emissions in the world? In order to combat climate change, countries have set a global goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and in order to help save money and the planet, corporations and other organizations have set sustainability targets of their own.

That means the race is on to establish net-zero buildings. But what are some top opportunities and challenges for facilities managers and the building industry, in general?

In an in-depth interview, Facilities Management Advisor spoke with expert Tyler Haak about what it might take to make a future filled with net-zero buildings a reality. Haak is the vice president of sustainability and service for the U.S. Digital Buildings arm of Schneider Electric, and he has over a decade of experience in the building automation industry.

FMA: What constitutes a successful carbon-neutral building?

Haak: A successful carbon-neutral building needs to consider three steps—Strategize, Digitize, Decarbonize—to bridge ambition into action, as well as implement the correct technological solutions and guidelines to improve carbon reduction efficacy.

As more FMs look to decarbonize their facilities, whether due to organizational goals or local mandate, it is essential to have an effective plan in place to reduce emissions from the building through projects that optimize equipment, operations, and energy sources. Through the Strategize phase, organizations should look to lay out a strong roadmap at the beginning of their plans for decarbonization, formalize the commitments they are making, and align those commitments with science-based target initiatives.

Establishing a well-defined strategy is paramount to evaluating and guiding net-zero action. Having digital assets in place is crucial to seeing success in this part of the process. In Digitization, incorporating digital technologies not only minimizes disruptions to daily operations but also proves more effective when considering the life-cycle carbon perspective. This emphasis on digital solutions aligns with a forward-thinking approach that maximizes both operational efficiency and environmental responsibility in building operations. Digital assets that can track embodied carbon within the structure of a building, as well as measure and monitor the usage of energy and carbon emissions, are critical to visualizing carbon output and therefore one’s progress toward sustainability goals.

From there, effective decarbonization is achieved through electrification, which reduces the carbon footprint of the building. Advancements in digitization and enhanced building management practices contribute to energy savings. These savings not only aid in conserving electricity but also create a financial pool that can be utilized for subsequent phases of electrification. The success lies in building on the momentum of improved building usage practices, enabling more strategic and cost-effective investments in the electrification of building equipment. Operations like the overall reduction of wasteful energy and carbon, installing on-site renewables, and ensuring the modernization of each aspect of the building through retrofitting help successfully progress the building towards carbon neutrality.

FMA: What are the biggest challenges to producing net-zero buildings?

Haak: In the race to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, some of the most challenging aspects in advancing digital buildings revolve around the availability of skilled workers, a lack of green incentives, and issues with lack of proper counsel and knowledge on the available technology to decarbonize.


Despite downsizing in the tech industry, the digital buildings sector faces an ongoing shortage of skilled workers. A survey found that 56% of energy recruiters struggle with insufficient training and a shortage of skilled staff. This issue arises because it’s rare to find talent with expertise in building-focused areas like automation, security, IT, electrical work, HVAC, and construction maintenance. To bridge the skills gap in facilities management, facilities can enhance efficiency and talent by combining workforce development programs with advanced technology through a well-defined roadmap.

Capital restraints can be a major setback in striving for net-zero emissions in buildings. Lack of green incentives can place the full cost of decarbonization operations on building owners. Luckily, government stimulus plans for decarbonization are becoming more available and programs like PACE can make funding more accessible for building owners to invest in net-zero strategies. These programs are making it easier year by year for facilities managers to begin decarbonizing their buildings and offset the cost burdens that may initially impact their anticipated financial ROI.

Let’s not forget that lack of proper counsel is an underdiscussed roadblock that remains a constant challenge to building owners when planning decarbonization for a structure. Loose objectives without any insight from trusted advisors or digital solutions into the data of a building, its carbon emission profile, or performance can make decarbonization strategies dead in the water. Building owners need to consult the correct sources and use science-based targets to realistically begin the decarbonization process ahead of any calculations, programs, or incentives.

FMA: Where do you see the industry today as it pertains to decarbonization? What are the biggest hurdles to overcome?

Haak: Buildings currently account for 37% of total global emissions—that makes the sector a serious aspect of global decarbonization, and although the industry today is taking note, the truth is, the winners in this industry will be the ones who sustainably deploy, adapt, and progress digital technology quickly. Not only is this necessary to attain net-zero emissions objectives by the year 2050, but it will also be needed to attract top talent and resources as employee demand will necessitate it.

As mentioned before, one of the most common roadblocks for organizations is simply not knowing where they stand in terms of emissions. This can be due to many factors, such as not having proper counsel or executive focus. In order to overcome this hurdle, facilities managers need to digitize their metering infrastructure, which enables them to see in real time how they are consuming energy. From there, they can start to identify what they need to work on first. This is where programs such as ASHRAE Guideline 36: High-Performance Sequences of Operation for HVAC Systems can empower facilities managers to adopt proven methods for decarbonization. These guidelines are an excellent source to follow for effective decarbonization because they standardize HVAC control processes across engineering sequences in buildings. These standardized processes are proven to streamline operations, improve energy efficiency, and promote communication between specifiers, contractors, and operators by creating a language of common terms.

FMA: How is decarbonization relevant to ESG (environmental, social, and governance)?

Haak: Decarbonization is tremendously relevant to ESG. Companies that integrate decarbonization into their ESG goals are more likely to appeal to investors, stakeholders, and employees who prioritize sustainable and responsible practices. While every business is different—and, therefore, its approach to sustainability may differ—aiming for decarbonization is an excellent vision for companies to align.

Reducing carbon emissions from buildings can help companies meet ambitious corporate commitments to become net-zero or carbon-neutral by certain target dates. This supports the “Environmental” aspect of ESG. Decarbonization aspirations can further come into fruition by following a science-based target initiative and setting a realistic and accurate goal.

Additionally, decarbonization through building automation and modernization can help facilities managers more easily adhere to ESG guidelines. It can also free up top talent at facilities to focus on more strategic problems rather than manual tasks. This relates to the “Social” element of ESG by supporting talent management.

Decarbonization is often at the crux of corporate governance and its execution, as it can play a key part in taking responsibility for reducing carbon emissions. Integrating decarbonization strategies into corporate governance can be a moral imperative for businesses, but also a strategic necessity for long-term sustainability and success. Due to governments worldwide adopting stricter environmental regulations, decarbonization is now more intricately linked to financial incentives or disincentives. Carbon emissions can have a direct relationship to business operating costs through an incentive or disincentive structure if an area has policies that fine companies above certain carbon thresholds. A well-known example of this is New York’s pending carbon emissions cap policy, also known as a carbon tax, which will require businesses to purchase carbon credits. By implementing decarbonization into ESG governance, businesses can mitigate these financial risks.

FMA: What is automated ESG program governance?

Haak: Automated ESG program governance refers to using digital tools and building automation systems to help streamline and optimize an organization’s capabilities to adhere to ESG guidelines.

Facilities managers can leverage automated fault detection and diagnostics from building automation systems. This technology would generate priority service tasks based on key performance indicators and ensure service technicians focus first on the most impactful maintenance activities to support ESG targets, like reducing carbon emissions. Automating this process takes the guesswork out of compliance for facilities managers. It allows them to devote more time and resources to higher-level strategic initiatives that advance their ESG commitments, rather than manual data collection and routine problem-solving.

FMA: How does sustainability improve the lives of building occupants?

Haak: The building industry is undergoing a significant transformation that is redefining how occupants interact with their buildings. Buildings must be able to deliver better occupant experiences, enhance well-being, and become hyper-efficient. With about 90% of people worldwide anticipated to spend a majority of their time within indoor environments, it’s imperative that building owners take action now to ensure the health, comfort, and safety of their occupants. Investing in sustainable technology can empower facilities managers to adapt their buildings to the specific needs of its occupants and deliver a better experience for all.

Occupant comfort in any space is best optimized when the temperature, lighting, occupancy, and humidity are accounted for. It is no longer a requirement to wait for temperature or CO2 thresholds to be exceeded to then adjust the conditions. Digital sustainable solutions can provide facilities managers with unmatched visibility into the factors contributing to energy usage, allowing them to operationalize energy efficiency by analyzing energy usage patterns, cut out wasteful energy costs, and ensure the occupant experience is greatly improved. This user-focused approach to sustainability gives power to the tenants to personalize their workspaces with capabilities such as room temperature and lighting control, monitoring room air quality, and more.

What’s more, prioritizing sustainability bolsters the attraction and retention rates of occupants as they can experience greater levels of productivity and foster a meaningful connection with their workspace to enhance satisfaction and overall well-being.

FMA: How important is the building envelope when it comes to sustainable building projects?

Haak: The building envelope is an important piece to the overarching sustainable building project. If aspects of the build like poor insulation, lack of energy monitoring tools, and the use of construction tools/resources with high levels of embodied carbon exist, it can lead to excess energy consumption and higher energy costs than necessary. However, it must be noted that 80% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 have already been constructed.

Integrating digital energy-management tools such as those that monitor temperature, humidity, and light levels—along with software that can measure, analyze, and visualize energy usage—into existing buildings is a crucial aspect to any sustainable buildings project. Retrofitting buildings with these digital solutions can help achieve sustainability goals by reducing carbon footprints, overall energy usage, and operational costs while enhancing resiliency and the overall health of the building.

Additionally, these same solutions can also apply to any new building project to help leaders make real-time decisions to optimize comfort and efficiency and maximize sustainability efforts.

FMA: When starting a building project, how relevant is geography in the type of technology and decarbonization solutions implemented?

Haak: Geography is very important, as it will shape the models that determine the paths of projects to pursue. For example, when embarking on a building project, the location, landscape, and other environmental factors can create difficulties in the transition to net-zero and therefore require a different range of technologies to achieve sustainability goals and meet occupants’ needs. The geography and the cleanliness of the local energy grid directly influence the most suitable technology and timing for deployment. Building envelope improvements, for instance, have very little climate benefit in moderate climates. In locations where grids are still predominantly fossil-fuel powered, electrification makes sense to deploy only when coupled with a microgrid.

Financial considerations, such as utility and labor costs varying by geography, also significantly influence decision-making regarding solution deployment timing. Incentives and regulations, available in many regions, further guide the implementation of specific technologies or custom-building performance improvements. Both financial incentives and regulatory frameworks should inform the decision-making process for selecting appropriate solutions.

What tends to be most applicable regardless of geography is digitization to drive efficiency. Prioritizing digital solutions in decarbonization enables scalable efficiency gains and reduces the need for extensive electrification and renewable energy supply.

FMA: How can corporate/executive ESG commitments and legislative action work in tandem to introduce zero-emissions electricity generation, resilience to blackouts, and resource governance for urban facilities?

Haak: Increasingly, both industry and government are seeking out ways to tackle sustainability goals and build a more resilient future. Corporate guidelines and building codes for energy performance standards such as LEED, NEC, Title 24, and more provide a step-by-step guide to achieving ESG commitments by providing certain benchmarks and timelines organizations must meet within their journey to net-zero.

Likewise, legislative funding allocation on both state and federal levels such as those from the Build Back Better Act, Inflation Reduction Act, and Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships (GRIP) illustrates government leaders’ commitment to reducing carbon emissions and creating a more sustainable and resilient future. These noteworthy programs highlight the necessity to integrate solutions that reduce carbon emissions and maximize sustainability measures now more than ever.

This influx of funding from legislative programs can work seamlessly alongside corporate ESG commitments and empower facilities leaders to address the climate crisis head-on by making strategic investments in digital sustainability solutions that track ESG goals and reach net-zero targets.

FMA: How can advanced metering infrastructure enhance net-zero, automated buildings?

Haak: Metering infrastructure provides the necessary visibility into the areas in which facility leaders can reduce the amount of energy consumed, the overall efficiency of the equipment utilized throughout the building, and other critical insights impacting the progress toward net-zero. These insights can help save money by reducing energy costs, ensuring systems are up and running, and empowering leaders to make better decisions for the building moving forward. Additionally, this data helps leaders to progress on sustainability targets and reduce emissions by highlighting specific areas to focus attention and resources on. These insights ensure sustainability investments are maximized and will assist leaders in achieving net-zero more efficiently.

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