ILFI and NBI Make a Play to Lead the Zero Energy Movement

With its solar panels and residential wind turbines producing nearly twice as much energy as the building has used, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s (CBF) Brock Environmental Center, in Virginia Beach, earned the ILFI’s Living Building Challenge certification, and is a net zero energy project. Photo: Dave Chance. All Photography: courtesy of ILFI

A few weeks ago, the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) and the New Buildings Institute (NBI) announced a partnership to streamline and strengthen the way we track and certify zero energy buildings, and in doing so, drive broader market adoption, codification and standardization of zero energy technologies and certification in everyday buildings.

The Brock Environmental Center is also the first commercial building in the continental United States permitted to capture and treat rainfall for use as drinking water. Photo: Dave Chance.

Within the partnership, the ILFI will continue to run its Zero Energy Building Certification, while the NBI will act as lead certification auditor and administrator of the zero energy building data. The collaboration is a smart move for both organizations. While the ILFI’s strengths are in education and building awareness, the NBI is more policy and code focused, and the new partnership enables both institutes to continue their work while cross-pollinating for more transparency and an elevated level of standards around the zero energy movement.

While the buildings industry – design teams, builders, owners and operators – is beginning to move “as close to zero energy as possible,” the ILFI’s Net Zero Energy Director Brad Liljequist says that the term zero energy is often used in an improper context.


The issue is comparable to the advent of the sustainability movement several years ago, when the terms “green” or “sustainable” were often applied to products that had no true sustainable qualities.

Brad Liljequist, net zero energy director at the International Living Future Institute.

The NBI’s data show that right now, nearly half of U.S. energy and 75% of electricity is consumed by buildings. So far, the ILFI has only certified 54 zero energy buildings in the U.S. And between the two organizations’ combined certification efforts, proven that number rises to just 104 projects.

“We’re finding that a lot of people are making the claim that a building is zero energy,” said Mr. Liljequist. “If you’re making that claim, you should actually be at net zero energy. We want the brand promise of zero energy to be real, and we also want as many zero energy buildings as possible. We’re trying to clean up the brand and make sure there’s more clarity and transparency around what it means.”

One of the first goals of the new partnership is to consolidate certified, verified and emerging zero energy building projects into one database, called the Getting to Zero database. Another goal is to solidify what it means to be at net zero energy – by becoming the building industry’s standard for zero energy certification.

The basic principles of a net zero energy building are quite simple. Instead of relying on energy that produces harmful greenhouse gases and carbon emissions embedded in production for the electrical grid, the building relies on renewable energy resources like solar and wind. At the same time implementing things like efficient HVAC and lighting technologies reduces energy total consumption. The combination of energy saved and sustainably generated electricity must supply 100% of the energy required to operate the building. Should the building create any excess energy it can be sold back to the grid.

Te Kura Whare, a cultural center in Tūhoe, New Zealand, represents the Tūhoe iwi (or nation) of the Māori people. Te Kura Whare translates to “The Schoolhouse.” The project is New Zealand’s first Living Building Challenge certified project. Photos: Troy Baker

“Zero energy is very straightforward as an idea, and it’s a very powerful tool; but it’s very tough to do, and there’s a lot that goes into it,” said Mr. Liljequist. “A zero energy building is substantially more sustainable than a normal building; it can be anywhere from 50-90% more efficient.”

The ILFI has a great website that lays out how to achieve net zero energy certification in a simple, easy to understand manner. To learn how to achieve net zero energy certification through the ILFI’s Zero Energy Certification program, visit

We’ve simplified and strengthened our program,” notes Mr. Liljequist. “We used to require projects to include our Living Building Challenge Imperatives, but we’ve removed those so that now we’re focused solely on zero energy performance. Another big change we’ve made is that we now require projects to submit utility bills to verify their net zero energy status.”

Once a building project has 12 consecutive months of performance data demonstrating that it achieves net zero energy, the project is eligible to submit for certification.

A project for Google, Living Building Challenge certified.

With just 104 verified net zero energy projects to date, the ILFI and NBI certainly have their work cut out.

“The zero energy story is really powerful,” said Mr. Liljequist. “Buildings performing at that level are amazing projects. And they’re not just projects that have unlimited budgets or are for more affluent clients. They’re schools and zoos and office buildings and community gathering spaces. We’re trying to build a worldwide movement around those zero energy spaces.”