Builders looking to sell net-zero-ready homes have a major hurdle.

Sam Rashkin on selling net-zero-ready homes to consumers, and the problem with technical jargon.

North America is leading the zero net energy home (ZNEH) global market, according to a recent report from Navigant Research, a research and consulting company that provides analysis of global clean-technology markets.

Titled Market Data: Zero Net Energy Homes, the report expects ZNEH builds, including near-ZNE and ZNE-ready homes, in North America to grow from 750 in 2015 to 27,000 in 2025.

That growth is a combination of an increase on energy efficiency in building codes and the use of onsite generation for grid load management, the report noted.

“In addition, the market is expected to get a boost as builders incorporate the latest technologies to meet the increased energy efficiency standards, and to satisfy consumers seeking to significantly lower or eliminate their monthly energy bills and reduce their impact on the environment,” added Neil Strother, principal research analyst with Navigant Research.

All good news, but make no mistake: net-zero homes — or rather, net-zero-ready homes — are still quite rare. “However, the market is poised for growth over the next decade, particularly in California,” noted Strother, pointing to the Golden State's regulatory framework that “calls for all new homes to be zero net starting in 2020.”

The burning question

So what about the rest of North America? If you're a builder, is it worth investing in the resources and expertise to sell net-zero-ready homes to consumers? And if a builder is to get into the net-zero home game, how, exactly, do they sell a house that comes with a higher price tag?

“The burning question I hear most often about zero-energy (ZE) homes is, 'How much does it cost to build one, compared to a conventional home,'" wrote Ann Edminster, M.Arch., LEED AP, in a recent blog post for the Net Zero Energy Coalition

Edminster is a recognized expert on green construction and net-zero home construction, and to her, “'How much does it cost' is the wrong question to ask. The answer will always be some dollar amount or percentage."

Instead, the question to ask is, 'What changes to design are needed to build zero-energy homes and stay within budget?' The answers to this question are entirely different, she explained. “Simplify the building form to save on framing lumber, allow for better air sealing and insulation, enclose more space at lower cost, simplify and downsize the mechanical system, and provide more roof space for solar. Or build a smaller home. Or choose more modest finishes. Or all of the above."

“The core issue isn't really cost—it's builders' ability to compete," she explains. “The worry is that if building a ZE home costs too much, the builder won't make enough money to survive in the market. Based on the successes of ZE builders I've met to date, I believe this concern is misplaced, for the simple reason that they are building something for which there is a market; small now, perhaps, but sufficient."

Additionally, the market is still in the innovator/early adopter market stage, Edminster added, “where there is no extra cost because ZE is a planned goal and thus has to be provided within budget. In other words, no one is building ZE homes on a whim—they are purpose-built, with zero energy as an integral, non-negotiable goal."

When words lose meaning

Still, if the zero-energy-ready home market is to mature, then they need to be sold to the consumer. But does the consumer know what a “net-zero-energy-ready home" is, and why the price point is higher than a conventional home?

No, said Sam Rashkin, Chief Architect with the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Building Technologies divisions, especially if builders and engineers keep using technical terms. Rashkin was speaking to an audience at the BASF house during the International Builders' Show (IBS) in Las Vegas earlier this year.

“The challenge right now is translating it for the consumer. I can't sell more comfort, more health, more durability because everyone out there is saying it—it doesn't mean anything,” Rashkin said. "I need something better than 'more.' I need something better than 'better'—everyone is saying their house is 'better.' What message do I have that would make a consumer want to buy this house?"

Changing the conversation

That, as he sees it, is one of the main challenges going forward for builders looking to get into the net-zero-home build space. To that end, the DOE has created a portfolio of resources for builders to leverage: comparisons of net-zero-ready homes with Energy Star homes and minimum code homes, case studies, videos, and estimated cost breakdowns. And, yes, even a “Building Science Translator.”

Ultimately, both Rashkin and Edminster agree that builders will have to change the conversation around net-zero-ready homes. “Expound on the virtues of a zero-energy home,” Edminster stressed. “Shift the conversation to the values a zero-energy home delivers: comfort, energy security, long-term savings, health, and an environmentally responsible, future-oriented lifestyle. Answer the question that should be asked.”

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