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Zero Energy House-Saving Energy to Save Money
December 1, 2010 / Greater Pittsburgh's New Home

For those old enough to remember the original version of This Old House, done on Boston public television in the early 1980’s, you can probably remember Bob Vila and Norm Abrams extolling the virtues of beefier insulation, low-E glass windows and super efficient heating systems. Produced on the heels of a five-year-long energy crisis that quadrupled the cost of heating, the TV show spoke to an audience that was interested in saving energy to save money.

But the economic and energy climate shifted by the mid-1980’s. Prosperity returned and energy became cheap relative to income again. Consumers were aware of the benefits of energy efficiency and expected better performance from some of their home’s systems, but there ceased to be the urgency that existed a few years earlier. The pace of improvement slowed.

An offshoot of the research that was done to deal with the energy crisis of the 1970’s was what is generically called the green building movement. Picking up the fight for better standards in construction, a number of groups sprouted up throughout the design and construction industry to spur more attention to energy efficiency and environmental responsibility in the built environment. Not surprisingly, some of the earliest green advocacy groups focused on better design for residential construction. One of those, a consortium of manufacturers, designers and builders called the Integrated Building and Construction Solutions (IBACOS), was founded in Pittsburgh in 1991.

IBACOS has labored for almost two decades, garnering grants to foster research and real-world application of better technologies to steadily raise the bar on energy efficiency in housing. Over the past half decade or so, the spiking costs of energy and a greater awareness by the general public about the value of sustainable construction have converged to make energy efficient new home construction more mainstream. The U. S. Department of Energy has established an ‘Energy Star’ rating for new homes and homebuilders. And now IBACOS has entered into a project that will take new home construction to the highest level possible: a Zero Energy Home.

Zero energy homes produce as much energy as they consume in a given year, thereby giving the owner no net energy cost. The term “energy” in a zero energy home refers to the energy needed for heating, cooling, ventilation, hot water, lighting, appliances, and other miscellaneous electric loads such as plug-in lighting, televisions, and computers. To get a house to zero energy, the builder has to look at the whole house as a system, maximizing energy conservation overall and using renewable energy strategies such as hydro, geothermal, solar or wind to supply the remaining energy needed.

Unlike the difference between ‘green buildings’ and LEED (Leadership in Energy-efficient and Environmental Design) in the commercial construction market, differences between Energy Star and ‘zero energy’ are simple to grasp. Energy Star rated homes have to meet guidelines set by the EPA. These homes are at least 15% more energy efficient than homes built to the 2004 International Residential Code (IRC), and include additional energy-saving features that typically make them 20–30% more efficient than standard homes. Homeowners of ENERGY STAR homes benefit from lower utility bills than those who own typical, code built homes. The closer a home gets to zero energy, the lower a homeowner’s utility bills and maintenance costs become.

A ‘zero energy’ home, of course, is not defined by guidelines but rather an absolute end result. The home must not consume more energy than it produces. Energy Star homes can reduce energy consumption to a high degree but cannot become zero-energy without measures taken to produce offsetting energy.

“Net Zero Energy homes have predominantly been achieved and built over recent years by custom home builders, as it is easier to secure one-off homeowners who value the high performance aspirations, and will pay for the specifications that achieve Net Zero,” explains IBACOS marketing director Betsy Scott. “It’s more difficult for production-scale builders to do this, as their homebuyers’ values and financial levels vary widely, and many baseline home technologies have to be specified by the builder well in advance of the sales process, when the home buyer typically becomes involved.”

The popular perception about energy efficient housing heretofore has been that you can build a tighter, more efficient home, but only to a limited extent because of costs. Now that builders with a higher production business model are becoming Energy Star certified, the possibilities for taking an energy efficient home to the next level seem less remote. IBACOS is putting the ‘unaffordable’ myth to the test.

IBACOS received a Department of Energy grant through its Best Practices Research Alliance to research the technologies needed to get to zero energy consumption in Western PA. The organization is in the process of gaining approvals to build a zero energy pilot home in the Ohio Township neighborhood of Cobblestone. They will develop the project along with Energy Star builder S & A Homes, who has built energy efficient homes with IBACOS in East Liberty.

The Cobblestone home will be one of four homes built in different climate zones as part of the Alliance’s initiatives, the Net Zero Lab Home program. The program focuses on developing design, construction, and financial approaches to delivering affordable net zero energy homes at the production builder level. The lab homes will be evaluated against three criteria:

1. Performance (energy, as well as safety, health, durability, comfort and environmental friendliness).

2. Ease of Construction (material availability; trade capabilities; installation time).

3. Cost effectiveness (affordability to build, own, operate; home value over time).

The lab home will be maintained, unoccupied, for a three-year period in order to fully measure and evaluate its long-term performance in terms of energy efficiency, safety, comfort, durability, and resource efficiency. IBACOS will be using various methods to simulate normal operation of the home, accounting for things like water use and humidity from cooking, dishwasher operation, and showering; energy use from lighting, heating and cooling, etc. to measure the value that these homes will provide and sharing that information with builders and homebuyers.

Betsy Scott believes that getting the builders’ buy-in is a key to expansion of zero-energy home construction.

“Homebuilders are farther along on the path toward zero energy in a few states, due to advancements in codes, utility incentives, and local government programs, as well as greater availability of renewable energy resources,” she says. “But in general, there’s a gap in the knowledge and experience needed to achieve net zero homes on a major scale in a way that makes sense for a builder’s business and is affordable for the homeowner.” You can count IBACOS’ homebuilding partner among those who do ‘get it.’ All S&A homes currently exceed Energy Star standards, and the builder plans to use the lab home process to stay on top of the latest technology and construction practices.

“S & A Homes is focused on providing a high quality, high performance, and high value home for the money,” says Chris Cinker, who manages S & A’s operations in Western PA out of Mars. “Going through the Energy Star certification, we were able to confirm our suspicion that S & A was already doing a lot of things that were required. Our ownership has been committed to energy efficiency for some time.”

“Our prospective buyers come in asking about energy savings or green houses with more frequency as each month passes,” he says. “We aren’t the only Energy Star builder out there, and we think building the Zero Energy Lab home will keep us at the front of the market. That’s important because I think it won’t be long before smart buyers think about ‘green’ features in the same way they do about curb appeal or attached garages: as features that add value to their home.”

The Cobblestone zero energy home should be under construction this spring and IBACOS will be monitoring its performance by fall. Zero energy is a lofty goal for a high volume builder to achieve on a regular basis, but the consumer seems to be more ready for it than ever before. By late 2013, IBACOS will have a definitive report on their first lab homes. As rapidly as things are changing however, don’t be surprised to see more zero energy homes before then.