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Net-Zero Energy An E-ZPass For Building Permitting

May 10, 2017

If you want to go to the head of the line for permitting at the building department, remember these words – net-zero energy.


In late April, the City and County of Denver instituted a program to bump net-zero projects to the head of the line for building permits, and the first project has already zipped through in record time – six days.


The 1887 structure in Denver’s Five Points will be GreenSpot Global’s (our) new office home, and we approached Scott Prisco about our gut renovation as his beta test for the program.  Prisco is the Engineer/Architect/Building Official at Denver’s Community Planning and Development department, and he and his capable team of supervisors streamlined the reviewing process for projects targeting net-zero energy – when energy efficiency and renewables cancel out energy use.


Our architect, Ben Gray, co-owner of ACME WORKSHOP, logged the project into the city on April 19, 2017.  Within 24 hours, we’d already received our architectural review.  Done.  And within another six days, all reviews, save zoning, were complete. 


To be sure, net-zero energy projects don’t happen by accident, and the projects are overachievers, not bottom feeders.  The project owner and design team have to be intentional about the target and aligned every time decisions have to be made about energy-using features.  This gives the city assurance that rigor and attention to detail are baked into the project.


Teams will also need to hire an energy modeler to display for the city that, yes, in fact, the energy use for the project will net at zero.  Commercial models can get pricey, starting at $15,000.


Perhaps the best piece of news is that the city also intends to rebate all permitting fees for net-zero projects, possibly up to 100 percent.  


The true test of a net-zero (or even net-positive) building happens a year later in an energy bill review.  The best design intent can go awry in 50-plus squirrelly ways, including the wild card – user error.  But at the end of a year, the bills demonstrate whether the project hit the bull’s eye or not. 


Prisco and the building department are forging the details for the fee rebates, though lifting the velvet rope for these projects at the building department is much easier than waiving fees that go into city coffers.  As soon as he and his team can work that out, he'll unroll this second piece of the net-zero initiative - possibly as early as late this year.


Both the acceleration lane and the rebates are shining examples of how .gov can flatten development timelines and save money for owners in carrying costs (i.e., taxes, insurance and debt).  That’s crucial in cities like Denver and across the country, where homes and buildings are popping up like mushrooms, and building departments are swamped.


More importantly, this E-ZPass and permit fee rebate tip the scale for buildings with zero energy and carbon emissions, speeding the transition to energy and carbon-neutral building stock.  Builders who may have swatted the notion of net-zero have good reason to run the numbers again.


Programs like this transform markets.  Like anthropologist Margaret Mead said, a few good people at the right place - the City and County of Denver - can change everything.


IMAGES:  (Mid) Scott Prisco of Denver's building department, (Bottom) GreenSpot Global's new home in Denver's Five Points (courtesy of ACME WORKSHOP).


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