What exactly is a zero emissions building? Owners, developers, and architects are increasingly using the term, but they are not always in agreement about what it means. Can a zero emissions building rely on offsets? Can it burn fossil fuels onsite? Can it consume unlimited amounts of energy as long as the source is renewable?

The Biden-Harris administration hopes to clear up any confusion with a standardized definition. It recently released a draft, and through the Department of Energy (DOE), is inviting comment from members of the AEC industry, academia, the real-estate community, among others. The ambition is to establish clear guidelines that will help make zero emissions common practice for new construction and retrofits by 2030, explains Heather Clark, director of building emissions in the White House Climate Policy Office.

The draft definition is based on three “pillars:” A zero emissions building is one that is highly energy efficient, free of on-site emissions from energy use, and powered solely from clean energy. The proposed text encompasses both new and existing structures and outlines criteria for measurement and verification. Clark envisions the language being incorporated into certification systems, rebate and incentive programs, and policy. “Alignment will drive more capital and send a clear market signal,” she says.

The recently released document tackles only building operations. According to Clark, a “Part II” will include embodied carbon (emissions from the manufacture of materials and the construction process), though a timeline for its development has not yet been set. “The tools for quantifying such emissions are still in their infancy,” she explains.

For Part I, the goal is to release a final definition by the end of the first quarter of 2024. The DOE is accepting comments through February 5 at 5 p.m. here.