A Case for Energy Efficient Housing

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Photo courtesy of Trent BellThis home cost about $175 a square foot to build and is close to net zero with the addition of more photovoltaic panels.
Years ago, it was difficult to build a very energy efficient house because there was a lack of technology and materials -- such as extremely energy efficient insulation and triple-pane windows. The cost for solar panels was also high and subsidies were non-existent. Today this is not the case.

We know how to build houses to substantially reduce the use of fossil fuel and energy costs. You might then ask: Why aren't all houses built to a much higher energy standard? There are several answers to this question.

People aren't being forced to build more efficiently because the codes are not that stringent. Although they have improved over the years, most municipalities have a long way to go to be encouraging%VIRTUAL-pullquote- "The up-cost for a very energy efficient house should be $0." % people to build low-energy or net-zero houses.

Another reason given for not building to higher energy efficiency is the cost. Homeowners wrongfully assume that it will cost a great deal more to build a more energy efficient house. In 2010, Habitat for Humanity built a house in Vermont to Passive House standards, using a tiny bit of energy and at a minimal cost. Many other houses have also been built in this country and around the world that are moderately priced and extremely energy efficient.

According to architect Phil Kaplan of Kaplan Thompson Architects, who designs many energy efficient houses in New England, "the up-cost for a very energy efficient house should be $0." He says, "If you increase window quality, increase insulation, reduce air infiltration, you reduce the cost of mechanical systems." When designing a house, Kaplan also designs the mechanical systems to make sure that he gets the right efficiencies in the completed house.

John Colucci, vice president of sales and marketing at Westchester Modular Homes, says the up-charge is minimal. He claims that a modular home may cost 3 to 5 percent more for a house that is 50 to 60 percent more efficient than the typical home. A house that is net-zero energy may cost up to 10 percent more. He points out that in the factory they are able to build a very tight house with%VIRTUAL-pullquote-There is an assumption that very energy efficient houses are not particularly attractive.% advanced framing and extra insulation.

Tessa Smith of the Artisans Group, a Passive House designer/builder says: "We see a zero upgrade in our custom energy efficient homes in which spending more on insulation gets recouped by less expensive but sophisticated mechanicals, and by buying better windows, which we would anyway in this type of house.

"In our production-oriented houses (that are equally as efficient as our custom homes), we see an upgrade of between 5 to 10 percent (compared to a normal tract home) and a payback of around 6 years, depending on the project. The windows and mechanicals on these less-expensive houses are more energy efficient, of higher quality, and more expensive than the cheapest windows and mechanicals than you would normally find in a tract house."

The Artisan Group currently has a Passive House under construction that will cost $135 a square foot.

Nobody can say exactly what the return on the additional investment will be for all houses -- it varies with the products and systems used, location and the efficiency achieved. Everyone I've interviewed, with a very energy efficient house, however, agrees that their heating and cooling bills are substantially less than those of their neighbors with less-efficient houses.

There is an assumption that very energy efficient houses are not particularly attractive. But evidenced by the houses I've seen in this country and around the world -- this is definitely not the case. (Just see some of the beautiful houses that have been built to high standards in my recent book -- Prefabulous World: Energy-Efficient and Sustainable Homes Around the Globe.)

Global warming is generally accepted today as a scientific fact. It is caused by the entrapment of gases resulting from the burning of fossil fuel. Forty percent of that fuel in this country comes from the heating and cooling of houses and other buildings. I believe the environmental and financial savings pose a strong case for building a very energy efficient or even zero-energy home.

The photos in the following gallery are from Prefabulous World and Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid.

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A Case for Energy Efficient Housing
The ART House is a certified Passive House, 1,350 square feet. It was designed by J.B. Clancy, the modules were built by Preferred Building Systems and it was completed by Habitat for Humanity. It has a HERS rating of 35.
The Island Passive House was designed by the Artisans Group. It is located in the San Juan Islands in the state of Washington. This 1,533-square-foot Passive House cost half the price of a typical house in these Islands and the energy costs are a small percentage of the neighboring houses.
The Finch Pocket House, also designed by the Artisans Group in Washington, is currently under construction. This 2,150-square-foot house will cost $135 a square foot.

The Great Diamond House designed by Phil Kaplan of Kaplan Thompson Group, is located in Vermont. It cost about $175 a square foot in 2008 and is close to net zero now with the recent addition of another 5kW of photovoltaic panels.

The Peak House, also designed by Phil Kaplan is 1,200 square feet and was $175 a square foot. It is super-insulated and net zero ready.

The Concord Riverwalk Cottage in Concord, Massachusetts, is part of a pocket neighborhood. This 1,500-square-foot house has a HERS rating of 21. It is a development of Now Communities LLC. The houses in this community cost $200 a square foot. The up-charge for this panelized house was about 10 percent more than a typical house and the energy cost is at least 50 less each month. This house received received the Community of the Year Builder's Choice award.
The C3 Prefab House, designed by Square Root Architecture + Design, was the first prefabricated LEED Platinum-certified home in Chicago. This 2,000 square-foot-house cost about $200 a square foot, which was approximately 5 percent more than a typical house, with energy savings of almost 50 percent.
This farmhouse in Gildford, Montana, is built using very energy efficient structural insulated panels, or SIPs. Designer, builder and homeowner Becki Miller says "The lower cost for heating/cooling bills (with a more energy efficient system) should in return make up the difference in a 3- to 5-year period.  In rural Montana, families build once and stay for generations, it is an easy sell.  When I have lived in more metropolitan areas this is a harder sell as families tend to move often and they may not get to see this return on their investment. It is also fair to say that not all choices should be valued in a monetary form.  I think recent generations are more consciousness about making green choices and the long term benefit it will have on future generations."
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