A few years ago in central Florida, John Santarpia had an idea. He was the president and CEO of a credit union and felt he needed to do something to improve its image.
"We're a medium-sized credit union and there's a lot of competition," Santarpia said. "We wanted to stand out."
He and his colleagues had found a lot in Lakeland, a city of about 100,000 residents, with an ice cream shop on it. Knowing the community wouldn't be in favor of losing the ice cream shop, Santarpia decided to build a flagship building for his credit union around it. Whatever it was, he wanted to make it green. What resulted was the state's first commercial net-zero-energy building.
"Financial institutions oftentimes are hesitant to try something new," said Tim Hoeft, a sustainable designer at Straughn Trout Architects, which designed the building.
The difference is that Santarpia was interested in new technology and was attracted by the fact that there were no net-zero commercial buildings in Florida yet, Hoeft said. Santarpia wanted his to be the first.
Although it is still loosely defined, net-zero usually means a building that produces as much energy as is consumed. The Department of Energy's website lists eight net-zero-energy commercial buildings up and running in the country. Most are small and in mild-weather environments. But the DOE number could be misleading because it relies on owners to voluntarily submit their building's information. At the New Buildings Institute, Technical Director Mark Frankel estimates the real number could be closer to 25, with about 50 more in construction.
Santarpia's building is among those not listed by the DOE. Through the construction and rebranding process, the credit union's name changed from Community First to Magnify, in part to reflect a new, green identity. The decision to make the building net-zero evolved on its own. First, Santarpia and his colleagues looked into certifying the building under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. Once they figured out how to do that, they looked into putting solar panels on the roof.
"Then we asked, 'How many solar panels would it take to go net-zero?'" he said.
During construction, Santarpia sought help from local design and construction professionals as well as the local utility company. They ended up with a rectangular-shaped building with just over 4,000 square feet of space, high ceilings and an upward-sloping roof. It opened in August 2009.
The building combines control systems with its "double roof" concept. Its top layer of solar panels shades it from direct heat gain. The space between the roof layers, along with its slope, helps the hot air convect, or rise and disperse, instead of raising the temperature in the building.
Solar panels on the roof generate energy, although the building still draws from the grid when it needs to. Other energy-saving mechanisms include using Energy Star-labeled appliances, using equipment to shade the inside from Florida's hot sun and applying high-performance insulation to further reduce solar heat gain. A utility bill in October of last year confirmed the net-zero claim when it found that the building was generating more power than it was using. Forty-five percent of the energy produced in the panels goes back into the grid.
One side of the credit union building lies 3 inches from the ice cream shop, with a window peeking into it. Sometimes, people can buy ice cream right there.
The ice cream shop's energy consumption isn't included in Magnify's utility bill.
Net-zero has potential in a booming industry
In theory, at least, there is a big pot of money that entrepreneurs with net-zero ambitions can draw from. Each year, more than $600 billion is spent on new construction and renovation of commercial buildings, according to the Commercial Buildings Consortium (CBC). But adding the technology to commercial buildings -- which use 40 percent of the country's energy and make up 40 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions -- is a challenge.