In the three years that Nicole Rae and Brian Mastenbrook lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, they grew increasingly concerned about California’s wildfires. The sky would turn orange, ash would settle onto plants and porch railings, and Ms. Rae (30-year-old teacher with asthma) would have difficulty breathing.
So in May, she and Mr. Mastenbrook, a 37-year-old tech worker, sold their home and moved to Ann Arbor, Mich. Mr. Mastenbrook has family in Michigan, and officials in Ann Arbor were taking steps to lower the city’s carbon footprint.
They admired plans for a “net zero” community there, Veridian at County Farm, to be filled with solar-powered, all-electric homes that would be free of the fossil fuels whose greenhouse gas emissions have contributed to climate change.
“If those homes were built and ready to buy today,” Ms. Rae said, “we already would have purchased one.”
The couple’s experience as climate refugees may be dramatic, but across the country, more home buyers are seeking net zero residences, so called because they produce as much energy as they consume and, because they typically achieve this via solar power, do not add carbon to the atmosphere. Developers are increasing their efforts to meet this demand.
Data on net zero housing is scarce, but a report from the nonprofit group Team Zero tallies about 24,500 homes in the United States that achieve “zero energy” performance and estimates that the actual number “is considerably larger.” The Department of Energy has certified 8,656 as “net zero ready,” meaning they could reach zero energy with the addition of solar.
The numbers are expected to grow, spurred not only by consumer appetite but also by building code updates, more affordable solar technology, a growing familiarity with once-exotic appliances like induction stoves and the “electrify everything” movement. Developers are now able to raise funds for climate-friendly housing because investors are increasingly directing their money towards sustainable real estate.
While the net zero movement is often associated with homes that are for the wealthy, it is also resulting housing for those who earn less.
“The housing industry is being disrupted the way the auto industry was,” said Aaron Smith, chief executive of the nonprofit Energy & Environmental Building Alliance, referring to the popularity of electric cars and pledges by manufacturers to phase out gasoline-powered vehicles.
However, despite the global climate crisis highlighting the need for sustainable building, there are still many challenges. The code changes have been rejected by the building industry. The pandemic has led to a surge in single-family home demand. However, this may be less urgent than usual. Conventional houses are now being purchased by ready buyers.
Although granite kitchen counters and other cosmetic details are still very popular, many consumers are more interested in electric heat pumps than they are in granite countertops. However, Green Builder Media chief executive Sara Gutterman said that millennials are more likely to bring their environmental concerns to their home-buying decisions.
Jan Sehrt, 37 and his wife Julie, 39, were both Google workers who lived in a three bedroom condo in Brooklyn. They spent the greater part of the pandemic trying to find a second home that would allow them to enjoy nature with their daughters.
After scouring more that 1,000 listings online they settled on a solar powered, all-electric house in Catskill Project. This net zero development is located in the upstate New York hamlet Livingston Manor. Their home — which will cost about $1 million and is expected to be completed next fall — will be one of 11 single-family residences designed to maximize solar power and prevent energy loss through airtight building envelopes.
“We stepped into the model home, and they said, ‘These are triple-pane windows,’” said Mr. Sehrt, who was familiar with green building from his childhood in Germany. “After that it was just one win after another.”
It is widely agreed that residential buildings are essential to limiting global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. About 40% of carbon emissions are caused by buildings, including their construction. Housing accounts for approximately half. Retrofitting old structures is the most difficult challenge. However, building sustainable homes is equally important.
For decades, homeowners have experimented with solar panels as well as off-grid homes. Then, innovative developments began to emerge. Grow Community, on Washington State’s Bainbridge Island, introduced its first solar-powered homes in 2012; its third and final phase of development is about to get underway.
Marja Williams, a development consultant who helped guide Grow in its early years and has lived there since 2014, said her monthly utility bill was just $7.97 — the basic service fee. Her house generates more energy than it consumes. The utility credits her account in winter, and funnels excess power into summer. She said that a Grow home that cost $480,000 at the beginning was sold for almost twice that amount recently.
Builders like Mandalay Homes or Thrive Home Builders specialize in homes that use ultra-efficient energy. Others are also exploring net zero construction.
Crown Pointe Estates recently introduced what may be the most upscale version: the “zero series” homes at the company’s MariSol Malibu development in Ventura County, Calif. The first residence, which covers more than 14,000 square foot, is available for $32 million.
They cost between $384,000 and $681,000 and are about 10 percent more expensive than neighboring homes. However, they can generate and store all the energy residents require, thereby reducing their vulnerability to blackouts and energy bills.
About 1,400 people expressed interest in the 11 homes, said Brian Kingston, chief executive of Brookfield’s real estate group, who interpreted that as “proof of concept.” The development team plans to build 200 more like them.
Single-family homes, low-rise, are not the only type of net zero housing being built. Multifamily housing accounts for the majority of net-zero units in the United States. Sustainable Living Innovations is a Seattle tech company that is building an apartment tower of 15 stories and 112 units. The factory-made panels are preloaded with plumbing, electrical wiring, mechanical systems, and other essentials.
Prefabricated homes are being used elsewhere in Seattle, such as the Block Project, which builds micro solar homes for homeless people.
Facing Homelessness creates panels in a workshop before assembling them in the yards and yards of homeowners who have given part of their property to a 230-square foot residence for someone in crisis. Bernard Troyer, Facing Homelessness’ project manager, stated that 11 of the homes, which cost $75,000 to construct, have been occupied so far.
Veridian, Ann Arbor’s project, aims to create a mix of incomes on its 14-acre site. Avalon Housing, a non-profit provider of affordable housing, will build nine buildings that will contain 50 apartments on a portion the site.
Thrive Collaborative, which is not related to Thrive Home Builders, will build 110 units of market rate housing. They will sell apartments starting at $200,000 and single-family homes starting at $900,000. Work on the site is expected to begin this fall, and the market-rate homes should be completed in 2023, said Matthew Grocoff, Thrive’s founder.
Grocoff was able to secure financing from mission driven funds and has attracted local investors like Lori Hall and Mitch Hall. The Halls are retired parents of three children and have chosen to purchase a Veridian townhouse as well as to be the largest equity partner.
“It’s the way we need to move as a planet and a country,” Ms. Hall said. “Hopefully, 30 years from now, it won’t be so unusual.”
Source: NY Times