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October 3, 2016
Will Millennials Lead the Zero Net Building Charge?
Zhana Veleska

As marketers in the building products space, we’re always keeping an eye on key trends and industry advancements — especially around sustainability. So, we connected with green building industry experts for insights in advance of Greenbuild 2016. This is the second of two blogs on the movement toward zero net energy.

It’s tempting to equate the rise in zero net energy regulations to the coming wave of Millennials, who are the primary residential home purchasing population in the country and the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. However, there is more to the story.

Millennials aren’t the only generation driving sustainability.

Experts who are presenting at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center Oct. 5-7 believe it’s bigger than just millennials– Baby Boomer and Gen X influencers are playing vital roles in the current regulation changes and will for years to come.

“Millennials have been lumped with a huge burden to carry by earlier generations with respect to climate change. Their lives will be most affected by the economic and social impacts of climate change,” said Bronwyn Barry, director of One Sky Homes in San Francisco. Barry is known for her Passive House advocacy work. “When you add enormous student loan debt and a housing market that is essentially unaffordable for them, I don’t see how they will have enough time or bandwidth to lead the push for zero net energy buildings.”

Right now, Barry said, “The majority of my fellow early adopters and leaders of zero net residential buildings have been Gen X-ers.”

Older generations are vital to the zero net energy movement.

Members of the Millennial generation are generally considered 36 and younger, while Gen X members are 37-51 and Boomers are 52-70. Because of the large number of Boomers and their buying power, they hold a large responsibility to ensure net zero building continues its momentum.

“Older generations, in addition to occupying more positions of influence, have more buying power. Many also are changing homes as they become empty-nesters and/or approach retirement, so they will influence not just commercial construction but also residential,” said Ann Edminster, principal at Design AVEnues LLC in California and an international expert on sustainable residential construction. “Conversely, Millennials are an increasingly dominant demographic in the workforce, and care a lot about their work environments. Progressive employers are listening and developing work places designed to appeal to the Millennials. So both groups, in my view, will influence both building sectors.”

Early adopters of zero net energy face unpredictable energy bills.

Energy cost is another important consideration for Boomers. For example, Bill Browning, a partner at Terrapin Bright Green, has worked on a large-scale, zero net energy project for the active adult (55-75 year old) market.

“The driving interest for this group living on fixed incomes is the avoidance of unpredictable energy bills,” said the Washington D.C.-based Browning, who crafts high-performance environmental strategies for corporations, governments and large-scale real estate developments. “Living in a zero net energy community changes that equation.”

It’s not a generational issue, but “more of a classic early adopter to late resister scenario,” insists Frank Sherman, Philadelphia-based director of sustainability at Spiezle Architectural Group, Inc.

“The question then is who will be the majority of early adopters? As the years go by it will default to the Millennials because of their population dominance.”