The GHB Interview: Sam Rashkin, President of Team Zero

GHB: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience within the housing industry and with energy efficiency?

Sam Rashkin: I have 25 years of experience as an architect, I spent 13 years with the California Energy Commission, worked in energy-efficiency programs, and 17 years with ENERGY STAR certified homes. And finally, Department of Energy research programs, Zero Energy Ready Homes. Thousands of Zero Energy Ready Homes certified now.

GHB: With your experience, what is the percentage of builders or new building developments that are using these green energy resources or techniques?

SR: ENERGY STAR has about roughly 4,000 or 5,000 active builder partners. Zero Energy Homes has about 300 active builder partners, but we filter our list quite a bit to get it down to really active builders. Team Zero is a nonprofit organization that does a census of Zero Energy Ready homes and they identify 22,000 homes as of the end of up to 2018 that are certified to some level of green programs: zero energy program ready or full zero. There are 22,300 certified homes in U.S. and Canada; 18,600 or so in the U.S. alone. That’s a lot of homes.

GHB:  How do you think building codes are affecting all of this, for example California’s new Title 24?

SR: Actually, Title 24 is given more credit than it deserves. The 2021 IECC is probably as rigorous as Title 24, but the California code gets a lot of exposure. The 2021 IECC code is probably even more rigorous than California’s code and it is every bit as good as Title 24. And the big news that nobody is really talking about is that it is virtually Zero Energy Ready enclosure, that’s how good it is.

GHB: Just on that note, what other sort of recent developments do you think are shaping the industry at large?

SR: In terms of recent developments, I think a growing global awareness on the climate issue. There’s no path to addressing the climate challenges if it doesn’t go through buildings. Buildings consume 40 percent of the total energy in the U.S., which means they account for 40 percent of the emissions. Builders are also considered at about 25 percent of all the electricity. And about 85 percent of electricity comes from fossil fuels. There’s just no path to a sustainable future that doesn’t go through buildings. And the fact that the awareness on the climate imperative has grown so much is a huge development that is impacting the interest in zero, and it’s, in my mind, the only way 2021 IECC could ever have been made as rigorous as it is. The other thing I’d put out there is the growing number of builders in these programs. The fact that there are 236,000  HERS-rated homes in 2019 with an average HERS index of 59, below 60, is a huge development that signals that builders are really prepared to build these kinds of homes.

GHB: The issue we hear a lot about with zero energy homes and green building is the building costs, the affordability, and even just marketing the value to the homebuyer. What would you say to homebuyers who are a little more reluctant to purchase a zero net home?

SR: You have to ask yourself how there are almost 23,000 zero energy homes in the US and Canada, 18,600 out there if it’s not cost effective. In fact, our analysis always suggests that the energy savings easily can exceed the monthly increment on the mortgage, so that it costs less to own these homes. Not to mention that the locked-in for future value because they are built to meet and exceed future expectations. If you look at the energy savings that’s locked in for 30 years, it’s easily averaging from $30,000 to $130,000 dollars. It’s just very difficult to say you can’t add five or six or $7,000 to lock in tens of thousands of dollars of savings over a mortgage. Not to mention, people living in these homes tend to have substantially healthier experiences, be more comfortable, have higher value homes. It’s a very difficult argument that these homes are more expensive but with the lower costs.

GHB: What do you see as being the main differences as far as zero energy building for single-family vs. multifamily developments? How can builders reconcile these differences and know what to do?

SR: There aren’t a lot of differences for us, it’s the same specs for doing a multifamily five stories or less, or doing a single-family individual homes or attached homes. Specifications are not changing and if anything, multifamily should be easier because they’re more adiabatic surfaces. Those are surfaces where apartments join each other floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall and you only have one or two exposed surfaces in a multifamily unit that need more rigorous enclosure because of the nature of the architecture of the homes being attached. So, less requirements for windows, for walls, insulation, air tightness across the entire structure. I think it makes it easier and the requirements are no more difficult, so I think multifamily are more conducive to types of programs such as Zero Ready Energy Home.

GHB: That’s really interesting. I wanted to ask about Team Zero and how you’ll be taking on a role there. If you could briefly describe what your position will be at Team Zero, what your plans are with the organization, where you see it going forward?

SR: First, the plans have changed a lot because with the emerging global pandemic, I pulled the string on leaving DOE, just right before I was supposed to leave. In my plans going forward as a non-DOE employee, I was going to come on as the Chairman of the Board of Directors and I was helping guide the implementation of the strategy we develop as a board for the organization. Now that I am staying on as the Chief Architect at the Building Technologies Office here, my role with Team Zero continue as an ex officio board member. In that capacity, I hope to still have a substantial role providing input to the implementation to this three-prong strategy we have. And the first is to continue with the census, because it’s very important work to identify the progress of the zero energy movement within the US and Canada.

GHB: Could you talk about the three prong initiative?

SR: The three prong initiative that is the basic focus of Team Zero is, one, to continue the census of US and Canada certified zero ready or zero energy and track the progress of the zero movement. It’s very important to do that as a first key component. The second is to develop the Team Zero gateway which is intended to demystify zero and to help people find their way in the path to zero. Everyone in the building space needs to be on a path to zero. There’s no path to a sustainable future that does not entail buildings. So we have to get everyone on the path. But you can’t do that if people are confused. So the whole idea of the Team Zero gateway is to demystify all choices you have to be in the path to zero. You can start just by doing high performance buildings such as ENERGY STAR or EPA Indoor Plus or any number of programs that help you do that. And then when you’re ready to go to the next step, you do Zero Energy Ready. There’s a number of ways to do Zero Energy Ready. You can do DOE’s Zero Energy Ready Home program. You can do Passive House. There’s a number of ways where you’re not required to have on-site renewable power, but your building is so efficient, it’s easy to offset all the annual consumption you have in your building. The next step is you could do zero net energy, where you actually have a home with renewable power so your net consumption is zero. And then you can go to the next step, which is zero net carbon, where you eliminate all carbon emissions from your building you have no on-site fossil fuel consumption. Let’s say gas heating or gas-watted heating, that kind of thing. So zero net carbon is the next step from zero net energy, where you’re just negating your consumption. Then, you can go net positive carbon, where you actually have a building that produces more than it consumes in terms of carbon. So there are all these steps to zero, and what the Team Zero is intending to do is to lay out all your options and help get everyone on the option that’s best fitted to their particular preferences and capabilities. And then layout all the choices and link them to those choices with just a click. So we explain the different steps and the builders and homeowners can easily get to those steps or get to the resources that those different programs provide. The third component of what Team Zero is doing is to facilitate a national consumer awareness campaign around zero net. We gather all these players that provide options: how to get on the path to zero and create a common message to get consumers educated that zero is the future, and that it is really important for everyone involved in buildings. We’ll create a singular message that helps raise awareness on this movement to zero and with all the aligned interests by industry and by the programs, we can create a national awareness campaign.

GHB: With all the different elements that go into green home building, like with the building envelope, with the use of solar energy, all these different things that go into it, what would you say are the top three that builders really should be looking at and really be considering if they are completely new to this?

SR: Obviously, I’m a little biased with the Zero Energy Ready Home program, but I can keep it really simple for you. The first thing you want to do is you want to optimize energy efficiency. That’s done by reducing the energy use through the enclosure, such as insulation, windows, foundation, air ceiling, all those things. And then you want to reduce all the energy consumption inside the building, with appliances, lighting, fans, and so forth. But the first step is you want to optimize energy efficiency. Then the next step is you want to optimize performance. And albeit comfort, moisture protection, health. Once you basically make an enclosure very efficient, you take on more challenges because of that energy efficiency. The building is tighter, and it is less tolerant to drying because it has so much insulation, so you need better moisture protection. It’s so much smaller that you need different kinds of solutions that ensure comfort, particularly with longer winter seasons, where you’ll not be operating energy-efficient equipment that also dehumidifies. There’s lots of challenges that come along for the ride, so you have to optimize performance once you optimize efficiency. And the third part is you want to be solar ready because the low cost or no cost details you can do during construction can eliminate or minimize the disruption and cost to add solar in the future, and batteries and solar systems are going through a huge cost reduction innovation cycle and you want buildings to be in position to take advantage of it. You want these buildings to have a good solar resource and have access to sunlight through the architectural location. The fourth that we’re adding would be that you want to look at resilience as probably one of the key must-haves as well. You’re making a building that’s worthy and would be able to last hundreds of years. It’d be prudent to make sure it also is resistant to prevailing risks for disaster based on location. So if it’s higher, for tornados, for hurricanes, or severe winter weather, whatever it might be, you want to make sure resilience is part of that package as well.

Sam Rashkin is the Chief Architect of the Building Technologies Office in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. He is also the president of Team Zero.