Part 3: The Foundation for Building the Home Proves Challenging

New Home in Cambridge, MA by Chelsea Dickens

By Chelsea Dickens

The logistical side of building net-zero seems tedious, but it can be the make or break in affordability and the overall success of a project. The zoning, permitting and code applications are details that must be accounted for in any net-zero or energy efficient design.

Carol Oldham, Executive Director of Mass Climate Action Network notes that many communities in Greater Boston are taking the initiative to build green but it proves challenging.

“We are working to get a net-zero stretch code passed,” Oldham says. “Meaning that buildings in certain communities could pass a net-zero stretch code and all their new buildings could be net zero and all their older buildings could eventually be retrofitted which would help them get to their net zero goal.”

In Massachusetts, it is against the law for municipalities to create their own energy codes and adopt them without state approval, says Meghan Shaw, Director of Cambridge Energy Alliance  and liaison for MassSave. The state legislature must first pass energy codes, such as the net-zero stretch code, into law before cities can adopt it.

Interview with Massachusetts Rep. Natalie Higgins, image via Mass. Legislature Webpage

The Net-Zero Stretch Code legislation, Bill H2865 allows the current code which pushes for energy efficiency to extended to include net-zero requirements for new homes depending on the year of the build and the year the municipality adopted the stretch code.

Architect Michael McHugh, of Davis Square Architects in Somerville, Mass. says that there are some communities that haven’t adopted the current stretch code in their city limits making it difficult for those homes to even begin reaching net-zero, depending on its design.

Todd Main, of Todd Main & Company construction out of Beverly, Mass., has worked to build all his homes or his projects to meet the stretch code to access incentives through the state.

“If you opt not to do the stretch code, though in some towns the stretch code is enforced, you may be, say, insulating that house again,” he says.

Cambridge is one of the municipalities though that has adopted the current stretch code.

Seth Federspiel, Net Zero Task Force Planner for the City of Cambridge, has been working with a team of consultants, architects and builders to find a cohesive and viable plan for meeting net-zero for the city within the century.

Infographic of Net-Zero Plan Courtesy of City of Cambridge

“Where net zero energy requires the energy, it uses to be created on site, net-carbon emission allows it to bring in renewable energy to offset that energy used,” he says.

This is the most comprehensive plan in his opinion to reaching an affordable housing solution and an energy conscious one.

“There is somewhat of a stereotype that net-zero is really expensive when in reality if you do it in a strategic way it can be quite affordable not just in the long run but also up front,” he says.

There are even ways for residents, landlords and developers to confirm whether their property is net-zero ready or at least able to withstand the requirements before even bringing in experts.

Solar calculator for housing in U.S.

Cambridge is six square miles and largely populated with large developments and current structures in place it is hard to build net-zero energy homes.

To encourage this type of building there are code adoptions, but there are also incentives.

“We’ve studied some incentives that could be more at the local level,” Federspiel says. “So potentially, giving a rebate to buildings that do perform beyond the minimum requirement and basing that rebate on a fee for buildings that don’t perform as well. That is harder, to penalize buildings that are still meeting the minimum code that all buildings have to meet, through the state building code. I think really leveraging the state incentives and really capitalizing the zoning incentives is where we are.”

Incentivizing these building codes are popular with many experts in the field but does have its drawbacks.

Robert Morton, a solar installer for ReVisions Energy, sees the incentives being used every day through his job. With the net-zero energy codes comes a hitch in the plan to create affordability and the incentive to build energy efficient homes.

“If the homes are not owner occupied than the incentives are not that great because it’s hard to tell who is using the energy,” he says. “There is financing which is tricky and tax credits, and depreciation, but if it’s rented then it’s kind of difficult to tell who is using the power. You have to incentivize the people who are using the power but not paying for it and how do they incentivize them to be conservative.”

Stretch codes give the initial push to developers and builders to think green from the very first stage of the project.

Main works with the stretch code for the best optimization of the project as well as the incentives.

“In general, with most of the homes I build we have to meet what’s called the stretch code and the stretch code encompasses not just heat and thermal efficiency, but it regulates heat loss and air transference. So not only are the houses super insulated but the envelopes are pretty cohesive where the air is released very slowly and its controlled where its released so there’s no moisture building up,” he says.

The stretch code and the net-zero energy stretch code are both alike in their flexibility. The codes are not meant to be a hindrance to those building new homes but leave space for change.

“Technology changes so we may find someday a solar that works in low light conditions or some fabulous thing we can put in the walls that makes our buildings much more efficient,” Carold Oldham says. “We will find things along the way that make our buildings better, so we wanted so we wanted to leave some flexible for folks to do that.”

About Chelsea Dickens 5 Articles
Chelsea is an up-and-coming journalist. Having recently graduated with her Masters from Emerson in College she now aspires to take on the broadcasting world from where she originally came prior to moving to Boston.