Can ‘Net Zero’ Help Reinvent Cities?

April 15, 2019

“Net zero,“ which refers to buildings that produce enough energy to offset what they use, is a growing buzzword in residential and commercial construction, and real estate professionals are among those helping to make it a reality in their communities.

Tim Weisheyer

Tim Weisheyer

Net zero—sometimes called “zero energy“—helps pave the way for sustainability and savings on utility costs. Tim Weisheyer, ABR, GRI, broker-owner of Dream Builders Realty in Kissimmee, Fla., also hopes to show how net zero buildings can help recast Osceola County as a tech-forward hub. Weisheyer has been an integral part of the process of building what reportedly is the first net zero high school in the state of Florida.

In recent years, a handful of net zero K-12 school projects—both public and private—have popped up  across the country. School districts are largely using it as a way to lower utility costs and reduce operational costs. In Osceola County, community leaders want to also use its newly built net zero school as a model for sustainability and as a teaching tool in grooming the next generation of tech workers. That could prove beneficial to its economy, too: High-paying tech jobs have long been the silver bullet behind several leading housing markets.

Osceola County expects its population to double by 2040 and boasts a rapidly evolving economy. Currently, tourism—including Walt Disney World Resort—and agriculture are its two main industries, but Weisheyer says the county is on the cusp of adding technology as a top-tier draw. Weisheyer, who serves on the Chamber of Commerce in his community, traveled with business leaders and lawmakers to Austin, Texas, to see how the city revitalized its economic development from a college town into a major tech hub.

From that, NeoCity was born in Osceola County to reinvent a 500-acre tract of land into a master-planned community that will serve as a tech hub for Central Florida. Weisheyer--who also serves on the Osceola County School Board--and his fellow school board members realized schools needed to part of that vision. “We need to make sure to develop education programs to develop the skilled workforce that we would need to support this,” he says.

NeoCity Academy, slated to open in August, is a 500-student, demonstration STEM high school in Kissimmee, Fla.

Courtesy of NeoCity Academy ©2019

NeoCity Academy, which is slated to open in August, is a 500-student demonstration STEM high school in Kissimmee, Fla. The 5,000-square-foot school cost $15 million to build, but as a net zero building, operational costs will remain low and unlock savings to the school district over the long-term.

As a byproduct of that vision, NeoCity Academy is slated to open in August. The 500-student, demonstration STEM high school in Kissimmee is a 45,000-square-foot school. It cost $15 million to build, but as a net zero building, operational costs will remain low and unlock savings to the school district over the long term. The building was designed to use 76 percent less energy than a typical public school in the area. NeoCity Academy is dubbed as an “immersive learning, STEM-focused school” that offers curriculum paths in the engineering, biomedical, and cybersecurity fields.

The design of the building was well-thought-out to focus on energy efficiency, including a focus on air-tightness and the positioning of classrooms to maximize natural light and help lower utility costs. Solar panels on rooftops and walkway awnings also add electricity to its grid. LED lighting, integrated functions for water management, and sensors throughout the building also help monitor indoor air quality and temperatures. The building’s energy production and usage will be displayed in real time on a building educational dashboard that can be used by teachers and students as part of the curriculum.

Be Part of the Net Zero Voice

REALTORS® are among those starting the conversations on net zero and sustainability in their communities. The National Association of REALTORS® offers Smart Growth Action Grants that can be used to support several land use-related activities, including supporting public policies aimed at gaining more sustainable development. The grants can help REALTORS® foster connections with community leaders to support projects in their area.

Weisheyer hopes to use the NeoCity Academy school as a way to also educate the real estate community on net zero and build greater awareness. He says that as a REALTOR®, community business leader, and elected school official, he wants to “help guide the conversation to discuss sustainability. When REALTORS® are in decision-making positions, they are able to then advocate for policies that support smart growth and build the education and economic systems that our communities need to thrive. … There’s a big business component to sustainability.”

Indeed, growth could be limited if the topic isn’t discussed more. Sixty-eight percent of house hunters say they want an environmentally friendly home but aren’t willing to pay more for it, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders. “Home buyers aren’t as willing to open up their pocket books to help save the environment, but when you rephrase the question and talk about the savings that owning such a home would bring to them, then you get different responses,” Rose Quint, NAHB’s assistant vice president for survey research, said in presenting the findings at the 2019 International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas in February.

Real estate professionals have a key role to play in fueling sustainability efforts within their communities, says Amanda Stinton, NAR’s director of leadership and sustainability. “REALTORS® can position themselves as sustainable leaders,” Stinton says. NAR offers the GREEN designation, which provides real estate professionals with advanced training in green building and sustainable business practices to help market properties with green features. Also, “NAR’s Sustainability Advisory Group is a great example of different ways members are becoming engaged in their communities around sustainability initiatives,” Stinton says. The group, she adds, conducts research and hosts working groups throughout the year to do three things:

  1. Better understand which associations have an existing committee focused on sustainability issues in their market.
  2. Review where sustainability can be better integrated into NAR Policy.
  3. Dig into the market of high-performance homes so NAR members can feel confident listing and marketing properties with energy-efficient features and benefits.

More than half of REALTORS® say that consumers are showing a greater interest in real estate sustainability issues and practices, according to NAR’s REALTORS® and Sustainability 2018 Report. REALTORS® say their clients show the most interest in energy-efficient lighting, a smart or connected home, green community features such as bike lanes and green spaces, low-maintenance landscaping for water conservation, and renewable energy systems such as solar and geothermal. More multiple listing services are adding data fields to spotlight a property’s green features, too.

In some areas, greater sustainable practices are becoming a mandate. More states are developing net zero and energy efficiency legislation. For example, in California, all new residential buildings under three stories tall must include solar panels by 2020, and new homes must produce more energy than they use. New commercial buildings in the state must become net zero by 2030. Other states are following suit with legislation to support net zero construction. Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia have added net zero construction into long-range city plans, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.