Part 4: Choosing Net-Zero Housing Can Save You Thousands

By Chelsea Dickens

Net-zero homes, especially at a development scale, may appear unattractive to someone on the outside looking in. There are many decisions to be made and some may be a sacrifice towards the larger goal of efficiency, but experts are convinced the rewards exceed the pitfalls.

Everyone must be on the same page in these projects to ensure the maximum pay out.

Video by Chelsea Dickens

Architect, Michael McHugh, of Davis Square Architects in Somerville, Mass., works on projects where designers, builders and homeowners all collaborate for the best results, but there are times when challenges appear.

“Budgets are a challenge, also some types of construction techniques are harder to push through to a builder, also to the designer,” he says. “People are unfamiliar with the design requirements, so people are a little slow going, there is some resistance, even the client is resistant when a window choice is more expensive than another choice window and they’re not convinced the pay back is going to be there.”

Where money may discourage homeowners or buyers from attempting a less traditional approach convincing them of the future pay-back may be the way to go.

Stephanie Horowitz is also an architect, from ZeroEnergy Design in Boston, with a large portfolio of net-zero energy specific home designs she has seen where clients may be discouraged from reaping the benefits of net-zero.

“What a client wants to invest in their home and what their budget exists on any project whether or not they have a goal to achieve net-zero or net-positive energy performance. It’s about tailoring the message, they’ll want to ask, ‘how does this benefit me?’” She says.

Money can be adjusted starting from the very beginning of any project. Those responsible for the construction of the house can collaborate to make cuts on unnecessary items or opt for a more affordable aspect.

Meredith Elbaum of United States Green Building Council of Massachusetts says that it all can be done starting with design and the cooperation of designers, clients and the cohesive team.

“It’s about the design, you decide from the very beginning that this is what you want to do and we keep training. It typically costs more, the first time around, we are finding, but once they [the labor workers] find out how to do it it’s about the design and thinking differently about these projects. It’s from day one. If you want a pretty glass stairwell well then you’re going to pay more money for that and then you balance it out,” she says.

So there are trade-offs to net-zero. Certain amenities such as square footage and types of appliances can turn clients off, but the incentives can turn clients right back on.

Mason Browne, a net-zero home-owner, found many challenges during his two-year build project. One of the decisions he had to make was the systems he chose to complement his design.

“I have one of the large solar systems for my house, and then to be energy efficient I have heat pumps, energy source heat pumps, and the way I did it another twelve thousand dollars, and then I’ve got, just throwing numbers out there about six to eight thousand in insulation. So you can see with the solar system, the Mitsubishi heat split and stuff you’re dribbling up to 100,000 dollars more, pre-tax and pre-incentive.” He says.

The rewards have not been seen yet considering Mason hasn’t lived in the house officially, but he suspects that the pay back periods will be brief for some of the energy saving components of the home.

“The annual energy costs, lets say, to run [my] house, is about $3-4,000 thousand dollars a year, in annual costs. And if I’m going to net-zero what I’m doing, in essence, is I’m paying a lot of the costs up front in order to avoid four thousand dollars a year in costs. That’s really the trade off.”

There are products such as insulation and even windows that can make the difference between spending and saving after the initial costs.

“Some builders are building with triple pane windows, but if you do your research, the payback period for triple pane windows is like 100 years,” Browne says.

The actual money is not the only pay back or positive of the design. Health professionals are finding that there is a positive correlation between air quality and overall health.

The net-zero homes are designed to be air tight structures as to control temperature and in turn its energy use. While it does this the air has to be exchanged mechanically through an HVAC or ventilation system according to Horowitz.

Meredith Elbaum concurs with the notion that air controlled buildings are scientifically proven to be better for living.

“With the retrofitting commissioning and factoring that into this, I mean it’s a different building type, but MLK School in Cambridge saw 30 percent reduction in their energy use from 30 something to 24 something per cubic square foot per year with the commissioning over the three years it’s been open so very rarely does the energy model predict the design. It’s all about designing and going back to try and match the energy model as it tells you what works.” She says.

Dr. Joe Allen of Harvard University has been studying the effects of air quality on cognition and has found that in terms of numbers and dollar amounts it is less costly to our healthcare system to build airtight buildings that mechanically work to exchange the air in our homes for fresh air without allowing for water and bacteria to be allowed in.

Carol Oldham, Executive Director of Mass Climate Action Network is also an advocate for these homes, not just for the energy efficient and affordable aspects but because of the healthier options it includes.

“We need to make sure these homes are comfortable and safe places to live in. So, a lot of times the building technology that allows for net zero also makes your indoor air quality better and healthier for the people who live there.”

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.