Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fantasy or Reality: Zero Net Energy Homes Not Worth It If Price Too High

Self Powering Dwellings Like ZeroHouse Good Idea, But Not At $500 per Square Foot Price

by Paul McGinniss

Computer Image of ZeroHouse by architects Scott Specht and Louise Harpman. Image from Specht Harpman

When you read about the $500 per sf ZeroHouse design by NYC-Austin architects, Scott Specht and Louise Harpman, you wonder if only Saudi Sheiks can afford zero net energy homes and not working-class greenies who listen to Duncan Sheik in their old VWs. I mean, there's green - and then there's "green" i.e. money - and saving the planet makes no sense when you price yourself out of a roof over your head.

I've been in several Zero Net Energy homes in the Hudson Valley of New York. Trust me, these homes can be built affordably. My favorite example is one in the New Paltz area that looks like a country farmhouse from the distance. It cost less than half of what ZeroHouse is reported to cost.

Exterior of Zero Net Energy Country House in Hudson Valley, New York

As New York House magazine reported about the zero net energy farm house: "This rustic-looking home set on a meadow overlooking the Shawangunk ridge was built using a repurposed antique timber-frame barn and has antique hemlock flooring and a gracious great room-style dining and kitchen area, anchored by a large stone fireplace. An 8.5-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system meets the home's electricity needs and is used to power its geothermal heating and cooling. The owners learned from a previous home they owned nearby to place most of the windows on the south side, and just three small windows on the north side, optimizing solar gain while reducing exposure to bitter winter winds. The building envelope of Structural Insulated Panels comprised of plywood sheathing, 6-10 inches of EPS foam and sheetrock, combined with R40 roof insulation and R26 side walls make for a house so tight a whole-house ventilation system was installed to ensure air quality. The result is a net-zero-energy, Energy Star-rated house."

Check out an article here that reports on the zero net energy home depicted above and below and other green homes in the Hudson Valley.

Interior of Zero Net Energy Farm House in Hudson Valley of New York

A zero net energy home design that is also priced closer to reality than fantasy is the House About Saving a Planet (ASAP) which received a barrage of publicity in the Hamptons and around the green blogosphere a few years back. (See picture below.) Laszlo Kiss, the architect who built the house in Sag Harbor, told me he can deliver a house like the one he built for himself at a retail cost of about $255 a square foot. This includes a 10kw PV system and a Geothermal HVAC that makes the house 65% energy neutral. Kiss has another modular home design he is marketing through his line called ASAP Modular. The price tag for this finished house with full basement, 6 kw PV array and Air Heat Pump HVAC is between $230 sf to $250sf, depending on the location.

Rendering of the original 2,520 sf ASAP Modular house built in 2008 in Sag Harbor on Long Island, NY. Courtesy

Just as I was finishing this post, Jetson Green published an item about The Eco-Cottages which is a new line of modular homes that will be built in Martinsville, Virginia. One and two bedroom homes are priced between $50,000 and $100,000 and are ready for renewable energy installations. This seems to be in the $100 per sf range, not including installation. The Eco-Cottage designs are really great. From modern to more classic looking structures, the buyer has choices that could fit well into different kinds of neighborhoods and communities.

Above, Picture of a beach Eco-Cottage--a new line of green modular homes

It's cool to have the pricier options for the more privileged among us. However, the zero net energy home concept, whether the design is modular or not, won't really take off until the homes are priced closer to earth than the space aged prices often thrown about for this "futuristic" concept. Indeed, the concept of self-powering homes is not so futuristic after all, especially with affordable designs like the Eco Cottage coming onto the market. Anyone looking to build a house who doesn't look into these green, affordable options with built in renewable energy systems is surely missing the green boat that's taking off like the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria on the way to discover a glorious new world.

Picture of i-House modular from Clayton Homes.

The i-House from Clayton homes is another affordable, green modular concept that can be made zero net energy. They are reported to come in at a cost of about $100 per sf, not including installation and the optional renewable energy systems. Add-on amenities include solar panels, tankless water heaters and rainwater collectors. Yes, they look a tad like mobile homes. This is no suprise since Clayton Homes is one of the largest manufacturers of mobile homes in the country.

Check Out Jetson Green's article about the i-house--news coverage from when the homes were first announced in May, 2009.

Copyright 2009 Paul McGinniss

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  1. Paul, have you heard of Greensulate yet? Greensulation is a renewable and biodegradable fire retardant insulation created with sustainable resources: mostly rice hulls, mushroom roots and recycled paper. Able to withstand heat up to 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit, it contains no petroleum products and can be produced cheaply. It can be molded into just about any shape...panels, brace end forms, columns, etc. When crumbled and supersaturated with water, the product naturally decomposes. Its inventors, Ecovative Design, LLC, are setting up production facilities on Green Island, New York.

  2. Hey Going With the Flow!
    Yes I have heard of Evocative Design and Greensulate. They are based in New York State up near Troy, New York, not far from where I live in Ulster County. The company grew out of experimentation done by two students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They are also making packaging from agricultural waste materials called EcoCradle. I've been meaning to call them up to do a story because I've been following them for a few years since they first appeared in the green space. Check them out:
    Thanks for the dialog, Paul