California sets global tone for net-zero building expectations

Environmentally conscious builders have long debated the need for more energy-efficient homes. Zero-net energy (ZNE) homes were devised to meet that need, offering a reduced carbon footprint and substantial long-term energy savings. Developers have been planting the seeds of net zero adoption for decades, and as building technology and regulations evolve to match their vision, their plans are finally starting to bear fruit in communities throughout North America.

A world first for green building code

The city council in Santa Monica, CA recently voted to approve the world's first net-zero building requirement. Set for implementation in 2017, the ordinance follows in the city's long-standing pattern of “green” or energy-efficient building efforts. Santa Monica's new residential and non-residential buildings will generate enough of their own energy to match what they take from the power utility throughout the year.

While the exact definitions vary, buildings with zero-net energy consumption generally create enough renewable energy to match the total amount of energy they consume on an annual basis. Other benefits include a reduction in energy-related costs, reliability in the event of power failure, and a reduced impact on the natural environment.

The catch?

ZNE homes cost more than the average build.

Despite its inherent value and its promise of long-term savings in the thousands, the push for ZNE housing has been met with concerns about the higher price tag. Builders have called for more incentives to attract homebuyers, as well as clear and meaningful communication to help consumers understand the benefits of ZNE housing. As more energy-efficient technologies emerge, and as building codes call for increased energy efficiency, adaptable builders bring more creative design solutions to the table. Efforts to implement ZNE housing models have grown even more in recent years, particularly in markets like California, where communities have begun to embrace the change.

The Singer Village community in Derby, CT celebrates another milestone achievement for the ZNE industry. The first zero-energy ready subdivision in Connecticut completed its latest home earlier this month, establishing the fifth out of a total of seven ZNE ready houses surrounding the property's historic Singer Home. The community has already won multiple awards for the affordability and energy efficient nature of its homes. The house design features a solar roof, a rain garden designed to retain storm water, and a lot configured to collect more solar energy and keep soil disturbance to a minimum.

Builders' associations on board

Canadian communities have also seen more developments in ZNE housing. By August 2016, five newly-built homes in Guelph, ON were recognized as the first net zero homes in Canada based on guidelines set by the Canadian Home Builders' Association. The builders stressed that, along with the advantages inherent in ZNE operation, the homes offered a consistent level of comfort, better indoor air quality, and an overall better living environment. They added that because the homes use less infrastructure and reduce the strain on the electrical grid, municipal governments might take this opportunity to cut property taxes for energy-efficient homes.

The builders behind the Villas of Rocketts Landing in Richmond, VA—a community powered entirely by solar energy—recently took great strides to provide energy-efficient housing at a lower cost. Their first zero-net energy home was made possible with careful design and strategic partnerships. They teamed up with two other companies to deliver a winning trifecta of planning insight, building experience, and advanced technology. BASF contributed the HP+ Wall system to the project, equipping the house for improved air tightness and moisture management while also reducing thermal bridging and lumber use. As a result, they projected the finished home would enjoy cumulative utility savings of over $51,000 across the first 20 years.

As ZNE building efforts forge ahead in North America, developers continue to push for more property tax breaks, mortgage rebates, and other incentives to attract homebuyers.

Meanwhile, the most competitive companies are adapting their building strategies to mitigate the higher initial cost of ZNE homes. In light of these recent developments, can the green housing market continue to grow? If builders and governments work together to combat the zero-net energy learning curve, they are almost certain to present consumers with a compelling return on their investment.

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