Builders Compete to Lead on Zero Net Energy Homes

January 27, 2015

Wall Street Journal:

LAS VEGAS—Net-zero homes are going mainstream, if the home-building industry has anything to do with it.

The homes, which generate more electricity in a year than they use, have long been viewed as a niche product for the affluent who can afford custom homes. The chief problem is that it is expensive to get a home to net-zero status, and many customers aren’t willing to wait several years for their electricity-bill savings to cover the thousands of dollars they would have to spend on net-zero features such as solar panels and energy-efficient windows, doors and appliances.

But some builders, motivated by what they deem as rising demand from home buyers and state and local regulators, are aiming to change those perceptions by designing such homes for the mass market. Such a model home—the latest in the National Association of Home Builders’ annual New American Home series showcasing new-home designs —is on display this week in a hillside neighborhood 7 miles from the Las Vegas Strip as part of the trade group’s International Builders Show.

Most net-zero homes generate much of their own electricity through rooftop solar systems, though they are still connected to the public power grid for the times, such as nights, when their system isn’t generating all the electricity needed. At other times, such as intensely sunny periods of the day, those solar systems generate more electricity than a given house needs, so the excess is sent to the public power grid. The homeowner receives credit for the excess electricity, the amount of which varies depending on the state and the utility company, that typically shows up on their monthly or annual bill.

Achieving net-zero status typically requires builders to install spray-on foam insulation to seal the house of leaks and adding energy-efficient doors, windows, appliances and lighting, among numerous other features. Net-zero homes also need high-performance heating and ventilation systems and other equipment to regulate humidity, air quality and air flow.


Chattanooga Times Free-Press:

Solar energy will power them. Rain barrels will capture water from their roofs. So will bioswales, slowly returning replenishing groundwater reserves. Architecture will make the most of wind patterns and sun angles. Building materials will be kind to human health and, in many cases, sourced locally.

“If we can show people another way, we want them to then ask for that from their home builder,” said Michael Walton, executive director of GreenSpaces, which focuses on guiding the Chattanooga area toward ways to live, work and build with a gentler hand on the environment. The nonprofit organization is also the project’s developer.

Last year about a dozen teams of architects, engineers and builders from a 200-mile radius of the North Shore homesite created detailed design proposals for the houses in a competition GreenSpaces sponsored. The winning team got $10,000 plus commission money for developing the project, which is happening now.

“This will be a viable, replicable case study for other developers to change the way other developers conceive of projects and to change the demand,” Walton said. Today, there’s nothing comparable in the area for an appraiser to consider, he said.

Each two-story home will be about 2,000 square feet, with three bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms. They’ll be built primarily of wood with advanced framing techniques and advanced insulation strategies. The lots are tiny; the site for all four homes is barely half an acre. But the homes are designed to maximize their space — and make the most of nearby space. “You don’t need a giant yard; you have access to an even better yard,” namely Coolidge Park, a short walk down the street, Walton pointed out.

The houses are expected to sell for $350,000 to $400,000 each. It will take about six months for construction on the first home to be completed. The goal is for profits from the first sale to go into building the second home, and so on, until each of the four is completed, by the end of 2017.



10 Responses to “Builders Compete to Lead on Zero Net Energy Homes”

  1. Andy Lee Robinson Says:

    $350,000 for a well-insulated box? Why not just buy the land and build it yourself?

    Solar panels are as cheap as beans now, around $50 for a 100W panel and all the information to put together a DIY home system is available on YouTube, greatly demystifying what’s involved and denying unscrupulous installers from getting away with charging too much for something that is really pretty simple.

    Living in Eastern Europe, I learned that if anyone can get a chance to rip you off, they will, however nice they appear to be.

    • jimbills Says:

      “$350,000 for a well-insulated box? Why not just buy the land and build it yourself?”

      To build any new home within a major city limits in the U.S., $350K is pretty close to the going rate. It might even be a bit less, as Chattanooga isn’t the wealthiest area. It’d be much more expensive in many other cities. One could opt for a smaller home and/or one without solar and rainwater capture for less than this particular design, but then it would defeat the point.

      Here are the full details on the Chattanooga project:

      Although they are still in the planning phase, they look pretty nice to me. But then, it’s be much more environmentally sound to buy an existing home and retrofit it than buy and build any new home from scratch. It’d be much more environmentally sound to build a smaller and more modest home with similar energy and architectural features to this design. The first article with the Las Vegas home is pretty funny to me – a ‘green’ home in one of the most ecologically unsound human cities on the planet.

      GB has a point about ‘net-zero’, too. The ‘net-zero’ designation applies to energy consumption during the use of the home only. Basically, if the home ends up producing more energy than consuming it while the occupants live there, then it’s ‘net-zero’. It doesn’t include the embedded energy in building the home itself, building the solar panels, the shipping of all the materials, driving back and forth to the home, the energy use required to afford the home itself, etc. It’s another way we deceive ourselves by thinking our current way of life can be ‘green’, when it’s just comparatively greener than the obscenely wasteful U.S. lifestyle of the past 50 years.

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    Net – zero?? Really?

    I think they mean Net-Zero ( as long as you still use fossil fuels to drive your car, and your furnace, and maybe your hot water and stove).

    To really go fossil fuel-free, we are going to need to generate 6 to 10 times as much electricity as right now. Unless we can get PV panels to be 6-10 times more efficient, nobody is going to be truly net zero – ever.

  3. cmaxracer Says:

    The more insulated the home the lower the demand for heat or cooling through out the year. IF you do need to burn carbon for heat, the solar creates a surplus during the day that puts it back on the gird for your neighbors or your local industry.

    Solar is clean energy.
    Net Zero.

    But, Yes, I’d like to be SHOCKED to find a builder in PA offering this.

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    “The more insulated the home the lower the demand for heat or cooling through out the year.”

    That’s nice. What are 3/4 of Americans going to do with their old drafty, poorly insulated homes? Spend $30,000 to spray in foam and another $30,000 to put up some PV panels?

    Do you see why I think free electricity is a good idea?

    • jimbills Says:

      “Do you see why I think free electricity is a good idea?”

      Personally, I don’t. I think it would be a disaster for us, but then, we’re already headed in that direction as is. This is a topic that requires too much back information to post in a comment, so I’m dropping it.

      I do have question, though. Why do you think it could/would be ‘free’? Would all the facilities, installations, and infrastructure be free? Would China just hand it to us, or the mining companies, or Silicon Valley? What about all the labor needed to build it? Would hundreds of thousands of people work for years on end for nothing?

      What about maintenance? I rather think once they were built, it might require some replacement, both in labor and in material. Are these free, too?

      Even public utilities like city water services charge usage fees. They have to just to maintain their infrastructure and continue operating. How could a national utility of solar power be any different?

  5. Gingerbaker Says:

    “I do have question, though. Why do you think it could/would be ‘free’?”

    You know, I have probably run the arithmetic on his at least twenty times here at Climatecrocks. How could you have possibly missed what I have said over and over again?

    “Would all the facilities, installations, and infrastructure be free? Would China just hand it to us, or the mining companies, or Silicon Valley? What about all the labor needed to build it? Would hundreds of thousands of people work for years on end for nothing? ”

    No – of course not. Everything would be paid for by taxes, ideally by Federal taxes. Projects would go out to bid as all large-scale Federal projects are. We would have a large amount of money added to our Federal debt, and we would pay it off over a relatively short amount of time – 10 to 20 years.

    The big question is…. how much would this cost? If Jacobson and Delucchi are correct, I am guessing it will cost about $6 – 10 trillion dollars. Is that a lot of money? Not really – the U.S. spends about $1.5 trillion every year for fossil fuels. That is a lot of money we will no longer be giving to Exxon Mobil, but will instead be giving – on a much easier schedule, mind you – to our government through taxes.

    And then we, the people, would own our green utility system instead of some corporation. And once we paid off that debt, we would be saving tens of trillions of dollars every decade because wind, solar, and tide have no fuel costs.

  6. redskylite Says:

    News from Austin, Texas where 7,500 zero energy new houses are to be built with energy expertise from Bosch using Geothermal and solar, selling around $350,000 to $400,000 each.

    If I was buying today, I would definitely invest in these fantastic technologies:

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