Energy-Efficient Homes: How They Can Boost Your Bottom Line This Winter

After Hurricane Sandy heaped devastation on homes across the East Coast, we began to think that maybe homes need to be built in better ways. There's something to be said for new energy-efficient building standards, including modular building, and how those methods are used to create stronger, sturdier houses.

But there's another imminent reason why we should be thinking about energy-efficiency in homes: winter. As the temperature falls outside, our heat bills will rise. But if we upgrade our homes with energy-efficiency in mind, we could lower those bills (and help the environment). It's possible to cut the costs of heating and cooling your house by half or more. Yeah, you'll have to pay for the upgrades, but you could start seeing the return on your investment in just a few years.

AOL Real Estate spoke to prefab home guru Sheri Koones, author of Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid: Your Path to Building an Energy-Independent Home, to learn more. (The photo gallery below shows some of the amazing energy-efficient homes Koones wrote about.)

Q. In your book, you state that "what the house will cost to operate and maintain has become almost more important than what the house will cost initially to build." How much can a person who builds an energy-efficient home expect to save in maintenance and utilities in the long run?

A. The savings will depend on the current cost of fuel at the particular time, the climate at the location, the efficiency measures implemented in the house and how much energy the house is producing.

The owner of the Greenfab house in Seattle says his electric bills are about $80 a month, as opposed to his neighbors, who pay about $200 a month in cold weather. That house is entirely electric, so he receives no other utility bills. The GO Logic home, a passive house in Maine, has solar hot water panels and photovoltaic panels. That house is designed to use 90 percent less energy than a typical house. The Lancaster Project in Northern California, built by ZETA Communities with both types of panels, produces 20 percent more energy than it requires and feeds the additional energy back to the grid.

Several of the houses in the book are off the grid and have no utility costs. Houses in this book vary in the amount of energy they require to heat and cool and operate, but in all cases, the homeowners have not only saved money on energy, but all say their homes are very comfortable. Homeowners are so used to cold and drafty houses in the wintertime that exceptional thermal comfort is hard to comprehend. The constant temperatures throughout a super-insulated home provide a new level of comfort -- once they try it, they won't go back.

Q. How long will it take a homeowner to see the savings?

A. Payback can be anywhere from 0 to 15 years, depending on how much it cost to make the house efficient. This figure varied among the houses in my book.

Q. Are energy-efficient homes becoming more common in the U.S.?

A. When I began writing this book, I thought I'd have difficulty finding enough houses to profile. In actuality, I found many more than the 32 I included in the book. More and more builders, architects and manufacturers are telling me their clients are requesting more energy-saving aspects in their future homes. With this tough economy, more people are considering this very practical option. Bragging rights are becoming more about low energy bills than granite countertops, and this is a very good thing. Decisions for a new home are driven by aesthetic preferences, product availability, cultural norms, personal values and other factors. For energy attributes, people should consider personal values rather than being driven solely by financial payback; for example, avoiding fossil fuels on-site, lowering CO2 emissions or advancing the use of renewable energy.

Q. If a person wants to sell his or her home, how much of a consideration is energy efficiency to buyers? Are people actually looking for green homes?

A. I believe this is a growing trend. As people become more educated about home construction, they often opt for very energy-efficient construction. A recent study by the Earth Advantage Institute, a nonprofit in Oregon, found that new homes that were certified green sold for 8 percent more than non-certified ones. In addition, the organization's year-to-year sales report indicates that this figure can be as high as 30 percent for many homes, even during an economic downturn. This suggests that homeowners value all the benefits of a green home -- comfort, healthy environment and energy efficiency -- and are looking for the assurance a green label provides.

Q. What is the difference between "off the grid" and "almost off the grid"? Is the latter a better option for most people?

A. "Off the grid" means the house is not connected to the grid and must produce all of the energy the house requires, as well as store it on-site, typically in batteries. "Almost off the grid" includes those houses which, although not entirely off the grid, require minimal energy from the utility company. This is accomplished by building a highly insulated building "envelope" to conserve energy, matching that with very efficient heating and cooling systems for consuming energy. Some of these houses use renewable energy systems to offset consumption. This is a preferable option for many, since the house can get energy when it isn't able to generate enough (like at night) and give back energy when the house is producing excess energy (during the day).

Sheri Koones is the author of six books on home construction, four of them on prefabricated construction. She has won two Robert Bruss Gold Book awards by the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Her latest book,Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid: Your Path to Building an Energy-Independent Home, was released in October.

Prefab Homes
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Energy-Efficient Homes: How They Can Boost Your Bottom Line This Winter

The New World Hudson Home was on display in lower Manhattan in June 2010. This modular home is LEED-H Platinum and certified by the National Green Building's Emerald Certification Program. It has a traditional old-world charm but includes some very modern and energy-efficient updates. Its interior is a cement fiber siding, which is much more durable than wood, and it has a motion detector that turns interior lights off when no one is in the room.

This Venice, Calif., home was designed by Minarc. The materials used to build the home were mostly left in their natural state, and the architects avoided layering, i.e. tiling over concrete in a bathroom. No paint, tile or carpet was used in building the home, drastically reducing the amount of materials used to build the home. It has no air conditioning system: It relies on window ventilation, a "cooling pond" to cool the air before it enters the house, and it has window openings near the floor to draw in cool air and openings near the ceiling to let warm air out. The home also has radiant floor heating. 

This modular home was the first prefabricated home in Chicago. It was built for a couple who wanted an upscale but sustainable home. Though the builder admits that it was challenging to construct a high-end home with energy-efficiency in mind, it was done. The home is a simple, compact design, and reclaimed materials were used for the barn siding and hickory flooring.

This 2,100-square-foot house in Olympia, Wash., was built using thick structural insulated panels, which makes the home very energy-efficient. It has a ductless heat pump, which cuts down on electricity usage but still puts out more heat per dollar spent than other heating systems. Compact fluorescent light bulbs were also used in the home because they put off more heat and can add to keeping the home warm without a full heating system.

The Lancaster Project is a modular house in Oakland, Calif., that has a Home Energy Rating of 0 -- which means the cost of running this house is 100 percent less than that of other less efficient homes in the area. The walls have a double layer of insulation, making the home airtight, but exhaust fans and ventilators keep the air healthy. A skylight in the home opens so that warm air can escape.

The 4D House was built by Team Massachusetts at the Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C., in 2011. The interior walls of the house can be opened or closed to alter its configuration.

This Connecticut home was built with prefabricated structural insulated panels. It has a Home Energy Rating of 4 and produces almost as much energy as it uses. The home uses solar hot water panels in the backyard, and photovoltaic panels on the roof are expected to produce 100 percent of the home's electrical needs.

This beautiful traditional home in Oldwick, N.J., uses minimal energy, and it is LEED-H Platinum and certified by the National Green Building's Emerald Certification Program. The modular home was built in a factory Pennsylvania in a controlled environment.

The 1,500-square-foot GO Logic home is the first passive house in Maine. It is designed to use 90 percent less energy than a typical house, using more insulation, triple-glazed windows with aluminum-clad wood frames and an insulated concrete foundation that blocks air infiltration. This will keep the home warm without a big heating system.


See also:
Utility Bills: How to Estimate Costs for a New Home

Adding Home Insulation to Your Rental

Green Real Estate: Homes Made Mostly From Recycled Materials

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