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Photo by James R. Salomon; The Alfreds' net-zero residence, in Cumberland, Maine, is a modular design by BrightBuilt Home.

Living the Dream of a Net-Zero House

Friday, September 2, 2016

By Courtney Humphries

When Shaun Alfreds and his wife decided to build a house for their family of five in Cumberland, Maine, they didn’t know if a high-performance project would be within their budget. “We aren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but we wanted an energy-efficient home,” says Alfreds, a chief operating officer at HealthInfoNet, a local health information technology company.

After some research, however, the couple realized that they could achieve their dream for a nominal additional investment over the cost of a conventional structure if they opted for a modular, high-performance house. They chose a two-story, Cape Cod–style design from Portland, Maine–based BrightBuilt Home, and moved in last December.

Photo by Marie de Verneil; De Verneil residence, by Deltec Homes (Ridgeline model)

At more than 3,000 sq. ft., the house is spacious, but its full sun exposure and a 10-kilowatt solar array of 39 photovoltaic (PV) panels should cover its energy consumption year-round. Alfreds says the house cost “almost exactly what other (builders) were bidding” for a standard, code-compliant project that was custom designed. Plus, their small additional investment goes to building equity in the house, rather than to paying utilities.

BrightBuilt, a sister company of local firm Kaplan Thomson Architects (KTA), joins an increasing number of design companies that are expanding the market for high-performance residential projects. While KTA has custom-designed many energy-efficient houses, principal Phil Kaplan, AIA, says the firm also wanted to offer an off-the-shelf product.

Photo by Marie de Verneil; Kitchen, de Verneil residence

In 2015, it launched BrightBuilt with nine design templates. Starting at $175 to $180 per sq. ft., the houses bring net-zero energy to a price more people can afford. “We’re definitely seeing a lot of demand,” Kaplan says.

But some architects and builders have found ways to lower the price of net-zero housing even more.

Living in a high-performance house can take some adjustment. Residents are often unfamiliar with high-tech HVAC equipment, such as energy recovery ventilators and solar water heaters. A tight building envelope also means that the size of the HVAC system can be decreased (fresh air supply is increased for indoor air quality purposes). The word that many residents use is “comfort” – indoor temperatures stay remarkably consistent across different areas of a house throughout the year.

Photo by Deltec Homes; Ridgeline model in Deltec Homes' Renew Collection
Photo by Deltec Homes; Interior rendering, Ridgeline model

“It’s a very dry, stabilized environment that we live in, and it’s always the same,” says Jason Specht, a Roanoke, Va.–based project manager at a credit union. In 2011, Specht worked with local firm Structures Design/Build to custom design an 1,800 sq. ft. certified Passive House that cost $150 per sq. ft. Small heat loads, like a running refrigerator, will keep an empty house in the low 60s in the winter, he says, while “cooking dinner will warm up the whole first floor.” With the house’s highly insulated walls, Specht and his wife can’t even hear a guest outside their front door.

Photo by Adam Cohen, Structures Design/Build; The Specht residence, in Thaxton, Va.
Photo by Adam Cohen, Structures Design/Build; Specht residence

Despite the modulated interior temperature, Specht says, “you’re living in a space that feels like you’re living outside” because of the constant influx of fresh, filtered air supplied from the mechanical system’s energy recovery ventilator.

Photo by Adam Cohen, Structures Design/Build; Specht residence

De Verneil agrees. Because of the large windows designed to capture solar and thermal radiation at her house, “I have a sense of being part of nature,” she says.

Alfreds says that his previous house used a smart thermostat to adjust the temperature throughout the day; in the new one, “it’s actually more efficient to leave the thermostat (untouched),” he says. Achieving net-zero energy also takes diligence and effort. Alfreds fastidiously tracks the family’s energy use on a spreadsheet. “Over time, we’ll actually be more efficient once we’re aware of how we’re using the energy,” he says.

That’s one of the challenges for designers and builders. Ultimately, the success of a high-performance house depends on its occupants. Kaplan says that education is part of the process. “There’s no such thing as a net-zero home – just net-zero people,” he says. “You have to actively be part of striving for that goal.”

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