Developers are building more net zero homes as climate concerns grow

Over the three years that Nicole Rae and Brian Mastenbrook lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, they became increasingly concerned about wildfires in California. The sky would turn orange, ash would settle on the plants and porch railings, and Ms. Rae, a 30-year-old teacher with asthma, would have difficulty breathing.

So, in May, she and Mr. Mastenbrook, a 37-year-old technician, sold their home and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mr. Mastenbrook has family in Michigan, and officials in Ann Arbor were taking action to lower the carbon footprint.

They admired plans for a ‘net zero’ community there, Veridian at County Farm, that would be filled with fully electric solar-powered homes that would be free of fossil fuels whose greenhouse gas emissions contributed to the climate change.

“If these homes were built and ready to buy today,” Ms. Rae said, “we would have bought one by now.”

The couple’s experience as climate refugees can be dramatic, but across the country more and more buyers are looking for zero net homes, so called because they produce as much energy as they consume. and, because they usually do so with solar energy, do not add carbon. to the atmosphere. And developers are mobilizing more and more to meet demand.

Data on net zero housing is scarce, but a report by nonprofit group Team Zero identifies approximately 24,500 homes in the United States that achieve “zero energy” performance and estimates the actual number “to be significantly higher.” . The Department of Energy certified 8,656 as “net zero loan,” meaning they could achieve zero energy with the addition of solar power.

The numbers are expected to rise, spurred not only by consumer appetites, but also by building code updates, more affordable solar technology, growing familiarity with once-exotic devices like induction stoves and the movement ” electrify everything ”. Today, investors are increasingly directing money towards sustainable real estate, making it easier for developers to raise funds for housing that addresses climate concerns.

And while the net zero movement is sometimes associated with housing for the rich, it also translates into housing for those on the other end of the income spectrum, who should benefit from lower energy bills.

“The housing industry is disrupted as was the auto industry,” said Aaron Smith, CEO of the nonprofit Energy & Environmental Building Alliance, referring to the popularity of electric cars and the promises manufacturers to phase out gasoline vehicles.

But even though the climate crisis has highlighted the need for sustainable construction, challenges remain. The building industry has resisted code changes. The surge in demand for single-family homes spurred by the pandemic may weaken the urgency for change, as conventional homes find buyers ready these days.

Many consumers are still more interested in granite kitchen counters and other cosmetic details than electric heat pumps, but surveys indicate that millennials are likely to bring environmental concerns to their decisions about the environment. ‘buying a home, said Sara Gutterman, Managing Director of Green Builder. Media, which has surveyed this demographic.

Jan Sehrt, 37, and his wife Julie, 39, both Google employees in a three-bedroom condominium in Brooklyn, have spent most of the pandemic looking for a second home where they can enjoy nature with their children. two girls.

After browsing over 1,000 listings online, the Sehrts settled on a fully electric solar powered home in the Catskill Project, a net zero development in the hamlet of Livingston Manor, upstate New York. . Their home – which will cost around $ 1 million and is slated for completion next fall – will be one of 11 single-family homes designed to maximize solar power and prevent energy loss through airtight building envelopes.

“We walked into the model home and they said, ‘These are triple-glazed windows,” said Mr. Sehrt, who was familiar with green building since he was a child in Germany. “After that, it was just one victory after another.”

It is widely accepted that residential buildings are essential in limiting the increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. Buildings, including their construction, account for around 40% of carbon emissions, with housing responsible for around half. Modernizing inefficient structures is the biggest challenge, but building sustainable homes is also important.

For decades, homeowners have experimented with solar panels and off-grid homes. Then pioneering developments began to emerge. Grow Community, on Bainbridge Island, Washington, launched its first solar-powered homes in 2012; its third and final phase of development is about to start.

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 only $ 7.97 – the basic service charge. Her house produces more energy than it consumes, with the utility draining excess electricity in the summer and crediting its account in the winter, when solar panels are less productive. A Grow home that originally cost around $ 480,000 has recently sold for almost double, she said.

Builders such as Mandalay Homes and Thrive Home Builders have specialized in highly energy efficient homes. Others are experimenting with the construction of net zero.

Crown Pointe Estates recently showcased what may be the more upscale version: the “zero series” homes at the company’s MariSol Malibu development in Ventura County, Calif. The first residence, over 14,000 square feet, is on the market for $ 32 million.

Ranging from $ 384,000 to $ 681,000, they cost around 10% more than neighboring homes, but are expected to generate and store all the energy residents need, freeing them from energy bills and vulnerability to blackouts. electricity.

About 1,400 people have expressed interest in the 11 homes, said Brian Kingston, general manager of the Brookfield real estate group, who interpreted it as “proof of concept.” The development team plans to build 200 more like them.

Low-rise single-family homes aren’t the only type of net zero housing going on: multi-family dwellings contain the majority of net zero units in the United States. Sustainable Living Innovations, a Seattle-based tech company, is building a 15-story, 112-unit apartment tower with factory-made panels preloaded with plumbing, electrical wiring, and mechanical systems.

A pre-fab approach is used on a much smaller scale elsewhere in Seattle: The Block Project builds solar micro-homes for the homeless.

The effort, by nonprofit group Facing Homelessness, makes panels in a workshop and then assembles them in the backyards of homeowners who have agreed to cede part of their property to a 230-square-foot one-person residence in the need. So far, 11 of those homes, which have cost about $ 75,000 to build, are occupied and more are under construction, said Bernard Troyer, project manager at Facing Homelessness.

Veridian, the Ann Arbor project, is targeting a mix of income levels at its 14-acre site. Avalon Housing, a non-profit affordable housing provider, will construct nine buildings containing 50 apartments on part of the site.

The 110 market-priced housing units, which will be developed by Thrive Collaborative (which is unrelated to Thrive Home Builders), will range from $ 200,000 apartments to $ 900,000 single-family homes. Work on the site is expected to begin this fall and the market-priced housing is expected to be completed in 2023, said Matthew Grocoff, founder of Thrive.

In addition to securing funding from mission-oriented funds, Mr. Grocoff has attracted local investors, including Mitch and Lori Hall. Retired with three grown children, the Halls decided not only to buy a townhouse in Veridian, but to become the project’s largest financial partner.

“This is the way we have to move as a planet and as a country,” Ms. Hall said. “I hope 30 years from now it won’t be so unusual.”

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