You can probably imagine that here at Powerhouse Designs, we are true believers in the net zero home approach. It just makes so much sense. Why not use smart design (and solar panels) to reduce the net power usage of our homes to zero?
It’s even possible to design net-positive homes that generate enough extra electrons, after factoring in the energy use of the home, to power an electric car or two. I say, let’s design every home like that!
But before I get too excited, let’s take a step back and try to be objective.
After all, if you are considering building a net zero home, you are probably trying to weigh the pros and cons yourself.
The design approach of any building project has to be carefully considered.
But first, let’s start with a definition.
A zero energy/net zero home produces as much energy as it consumes
A zero energy home is designed to produce as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year by incorporating energy-efficient features, such as advanced insulation, high-performance windows and lighting, and efficient heating and cooling systems. The aim is to minimize energy waste and offset the small amount of power used with solar panels. (Zero energy ready homes are all of the above, minus the solar panels. A homebuyer can add PV to a zero energy ready home later.) Sometimes the achievement of the zero energy goal is verified by independent energy consultants, although a zero energy or zero energy ready certification is not strictly necessary to meet the design goal.
Let’s start with just a few of the most common reasons people love living in a zero energy home.
1. Environmental sustainability
Zero energy homes significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and minimize their ecological footprint, helping to combat climate change.
2. Cost savings through energy efficiency
They generate their own renewable energy, usually through solar panels on the roof, leading to substantial savings on utility bills. A zero energy home can be a great hedge against rising energy prices.
3. Energy independence
If paired with a battery backup electricity system, zero energy homes are less dependent on external energy sources, providing greater resilience and security.
4. Increased home value
Zero energy homes are highly sought after by environmentally conscious buyers, which can increase their future resale value compared to traditional homes.
5. Improved indoor air quality
Zero energy homes often employ advanced ventilation and air filtration systems, resulting in healthier indoor air quality for occupants. Furthermore, these homes are usually much more air tight, so occupants are breathing air that is fresh and filtered rather than air that has been filtered unintentionally through musty walls and dirty crawlspaces.
6. Enhanced comfort
These homes typically incorporate high-quality insulation, tight air sealing, efficient heating and cooling systems, and advanced triple-pane windows, ensuring energy performance and consistent and comfortable indoor temperatures.
7. Reduced reliance on fossil fuels
By eliminating the use of fossil fuels for space heating, water heating, and cooking, zero energy homes contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable energy mix and allow homeowners to do their part to help reduce the political and human toll of the international fossil fuel trade. A bonus is that by eliminating direct combustion (tiny fires) in your house, you eliminate the dangerous particulate pollution of your indoor air that goes with it. You also don’t have to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning, hazardous gas leaks, and fires caused by faulty furnaces, and appliances.
8. Government incentives
Many governments offer financial incentives, tax credits, and grants to homeowners who build zero energy homes and purchase heat pump appliances, making the initial investment more affordable and the payoff period shorter.
9. Technological advancements
Constructing a zero home often involves incorporating newer technologies, promoting innovation, and driving the development of sustainable building practices. Designing and building a net zero home is full of learning opportunities and is a great way to help advance building technologies. We at Powerhouse strive to keep learning every day.
10. Positive community impact
The construction of zero energy homes encourages the adoption of sustainable practices and sets an example for the community, inspiring others to follow suit. We’ve found there is real community interest in these homes, and when you build one, you are likely going to inspire others (sometimes many others) to do the same.
The biggest obstacle we see in the widespread adoption of the zero energy approach is that many people have never heard of it. Or if they have, they think it is ridiculously expensive or is a nearly impossible goal that can only be achieved in the sunniest corner of California. (“Sounds great, but it would never work in my [freezing cold/cloudy] region.”) While these myths are easily dispelled, there are some legitimate drawbacks and tradeoffs to this style of home design. In my view, none of these should be a deal-breaker to most people, but it’s important to consider them.
1. Higher upfront costs (Renewable energy systems cost money)
Constructing a zero energy home can be more expensive initially due to the incorporation of energy-efficient technologies and renewable energy systems. Through our sister company TC Legend Homes, we have built plenty of houses on very tight budgets that have come in at lower costs per square foot than other homes in the neighborhood, but, all things being equal, they would have been even cheaper to build without the expensive solar panels on the roof.
2. Long payback period
Although zero energy homes can provide many benefits and long-term energy savings, it may take many years or even decades to fully recoup the higher upfront costs. In general, the smaller, simpler, and more energy efficient the home, the quicker the payback period. The takeaway is that the zero energy approach is probably better suited for your “forever home” than for a flip that you only plan to stay in for a year or two.
3. Limited architectural options
Designing a zero energy home requires specific considerations for orientation, insulation, and solar access, which may limit the range of architectural styles available. In general, boxier shapes with large south-facing roof expanses work better than more spread-out designs with lots of dormers and gables and north-facing windows. Still, zero energy homes can have lots of character within the boundaries of efficiency, and the “form follows function” approach has its own style and beauty. When we’re feeling fancy, we sometimes like to call this style “Environmental Modernism.”
4. Technical complexity
The integration of various energy systems and technologies may require specialized expertise and maintenance, potentially increasing complexity and costs. (We’re looking at you, ground-source heat pump!) Thankfully, this is starting to change as systems such as air-source heat pumps, LED lighting, and efficient ventilation systems are becoming more mainstream. There’s even a silver lining: Highly insulated homes need much smaller HVAC systems, which can actually reduce the complexity and heating and cooling costs. As technologies improve, it’s possible to achieve the net zero goal with less technically complex designs.
5. Potential space limitations
Incorporating a sufficient number of solar panels requires ample roof space, which could be a constraint in urban or densely populated areas, where multi-story homes with relatively small roofs are most common.
6. Initial learning curve
Occupants of net zero energy homes may need to familiarize themselves with new technologies and systems to optimize energy usage, potentially requiring a learning curve. No matter the energy efficiency of a home’s design, the occupants still play a role in meeting the zero energy goal by operating the systems correctly.
7. Limited availability of skilled professionals
This ties in with #4 above. The construction industry is currently facing a shortage of skilled workers with expertise in designing and building net zero energy homes, which could lead to higher costs or delays. At Powerhouse, we aim to help solve the design piece of the puzzle by offering home builders a selection of off-the-shelf zero energy home plans.
If you’ve made it this far, it’s probably clear that I believe the positives greatly outweigh the negatives when it comes to building a zero energy home. In fact, the “cons” are mostly just challenges to be overcome. And at Powerhouse Designs, we try to do our part to address these challenges with the goal of making zero energy homes a viable possibility for anyone who is considering building a home.
Building a zero energy home is a complex process that requires expertise and careful planning. Not only do we sell predesigned zero energy home plans, but we also offer custom design services and consultation. We are here for you every step of the journey. We love helping folks realize their vision of a sustainable, energy-efficient, zero energy home. Feel free to contact us to learn more.