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The Zero Energy Home: A Solar-Powered Glimpse Into the Future

Building Houses for Healthy Living and Energy Efficiency


Are you ready for the zero experience? As in the Zero Energy Ready Home?

One of the only times zero is a winner – instead of the usual embarrassing static that people are accustomed to – is when it comes to Zero Net Energy Homes, which are the ultimate in environmental responsibility and energy-efficiency. 

While the interest in homes that use less energy has been popular in the United State and Europe since the late 1970s into the 80s, its only been a little more than a decade that the trend has really taken off in the US. And with the Department of Energy establishing a goal for all new buildings in the country to be constructed to a net-zero-energy standard by 2030, it looks like the future of home building is here.

Around 40 percent of the countrys energy is used by homes and commercial buildings. By making these structures more efficient, both energy costs and carbon emissions are drastically reduced. Why stop with passive” houses and other structures when architects and builders can come up with those that use no energy at all?

Zero Net Energy Homes are finally here – and increasing in popularity as the government and the private sector explore the possibilities for them.    

Contemporary style home with high-performance windows, open floor plan, and vaulted ceilings to provide abundant natural light inside

Imagine yourself in this charming 2-story, 3-bedroom Contemporary style home in its serene and peaceful setting. In addition to the high-performance windows surrounding the 1,933-sq.-ft. residence, the open floor plan and vaulted ceilings  provide abundant natural light inside (Plan #146-2806).


What Are Zero Net Energy Homes?

In 1988, Germany introduced a unique and innovative structure called the Passive House,” a low-energy building that used the existing internal heat sources and the solar energy coming through the windows.  What was already a legally required energy standard in Europe slowly filtered to North America – and soon, forward-thinking architects and designers came up with their own energy-efficient and passive houses that attracted potential homeowners attuned to saving energy and protecting the environment.

Almost three decades later, the concept of the passive house has been refined and pushed aggressively forward to a Zero Net Energy Home: super-efficient and solar-powered.

By definition, a Zero Net Energy home is one that is air-tight, well insulated, and energy efficient so that it produces as much renewable energy as it consumes over the course of a year and leave occupants with a net energy bill of zero and a carbon-footprint-free home. It is much more than just a green home” in that it combines advanced design and superior building systems with energy efficiency and on-site solar panels to produce a better home.

Zero net energy homes provide a safe, healthy, and quiet environment where a family can feel secure and comfortable.


Main level floor plan of Contemporary passive solar home - plan # 146-1618

 This 3-bedroom contemporary home boasts extensive decks, large windows, and a sloped roofline with lots of room for solar panels. Inside is a sunroom with a heat-sink masonry floor that brings sunshine in, and disperses it around the home as heat (Plan # 146-1618).


Styles and Sizes of Zero Net Energy Homes

There is also nothing boring with Zero Net Energy homes when it comes to size and style. Designs may be simpler, but they can be large homes, mansions, cottages, cabins, medium-sized to small, and tiny homes. From coast to coast, there are Zero Net Energy homes built in a number of architectural styles – ranging from Country, Contemporary,  and Colonial to Modern, Craftsman, Arts and Crafts, Ranch, and more.

Zero Net Energy homes have large windows to capture sunlight and circulate heat throughout the space. The wide overhangs on the windows not only provide shade and shelter in the warm summer months, but also reduce cooling costs – and as a result, conserve energy and promote efficient and comfortable living.


Zero Energy Ready Homes and the Future of Building

With the global concern about climate change, many Americans are leaning toward building – or buying – a Zero Net Energy home. After all, whats not to love about a home thats built to a higher standard, where families experience the most comfortable temperatures and quietest indoor environment and can breathe the cleanest air, free of allergens and toxins. But the cost may be an issue, and some homeowners might not be willing to all the way to zero net energy consumption.

In 2008, the Zero Energy Ready Home program was established by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to encourage the use of construction techniques, materials, and appliances that significantly reduce energy use in the home,” according to Module Design, Inc. There are commitments around the world and in the U.S. to build net-zero new buildings by 2030, and for all new and existing ones by 2050, and Zero Energy Ready Homes may be a bridge to that goal.

Whats the difference between Zero Net Energy Homes and Zero Energy Ready Homes? Designed and built with the same high energy efficiency standards as Zero Net Energy Homes, Zero Energy Ready Homes (ZERH) are designed and wired so that solar panels can be easily installed in the future, allowing them to become zero net energy homes when the buyers are ready.

Ranch home with roof line that allows solar panels to be installed when the owners are ready to transform their home from a Zero Energy Ready Home into a Zero Net Energy Home

This charming 3-bedroom, 2-bath Ranch has a roof line that allows solar panels to be installed when the owners are ready to transform their home into a Zero Energy Home. The 1,400-sq.-ft. residence has tall multi-pane front windows that allow the sunshine (especially low-angle winter sun) into the interiors (Plan #142-1008).


According to the Department of Energy (DOE), a  zero energy ready home is a high-performance home which is so energy efficient, that a renewable energy system can offset all or most of its annual energy consumption.” ZERH represents a whole new level of home performance, with rigorous requirements that ensure outstanding levels of energy savings, comfort, health, and durability,” says Module Design, Inc.


Benefits of Zero Energy

There are significant advantages in owning and living in a Zero Energy Ready home, according to the Zero Energy Project and Module Design, Inc.. Among them:

1.  Cleaner and fresher air inside the home made possible by the advanced ventilation systems that filter out pollutants and allergens

2.  Net zero carbon emissions because of the combination of design, building techniques, and technologies

3.  Natural daylight and sunshine filled interior because of the passive solar design principles used in the construction

Red dining room with tray ceiling

Let the sunshine in! Enjoy meals in a cozy, bright, and airy dining area like this one of a 1-story, 4-bedroom Country style home. The floor-to-ceiling window allows abundant natural light into the space (Plan #141-1071).


4.  More-durable, longer-lasting home that requires less upkeep because of the building techniques and materials used

5.  High-efficiency components - water heater, appliances, exhaust fans, lighting –that reduce heating and cooling usage and utility bills and make the home very comfortable to live in

6.  A quiet and peaceful environment – free from outside noises and other sounds – that results because of its airtight insulation. 

7.  A home that has lower maintenance and is easier to clean due to its durable and airtight construction and fresh air system that greatly reduce or eliminate moisture and dust.

Contemporary style home with wrap-around rear deck and lots of windows

Windows, windows, and more windows allow the natural light to fill the interior of this Contemporary style home nestled in a beautiful space surrounded by trees and immaculate landscaping. The key is to use the best, most-energy-efficient windows you can find. The attractive 2-story, 2,281-sq.-ft. house features 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, and a main floor master and laundry room, loft, peninsula/eating bar, and walk-in kitchen pantry (Plan #132-1594).


Key Components of ZERH

The unique features of Zero Energy Ready Homes are also necessary elements to meet industry standards:

1.  A high-performance thermal enclosure that includes the home’s foundation, roof, doors, and windows and features insulation, high-performance windows, and draft protection to reduce energy bills and block out dust, noise and moisture

2.  Whole-house water protection that prevents water damage comprises a “dry-by-design construction with a comprehensive water barrier system and carefully selected materials” to control the moisture

3.  A high-performance comfort system that consists of high-efficiency controls and heating and cooling ducts inside the thermal enclosure instead of in attics and basements

4.  High-efficiency components – lighting, appliances, exhaust fans, and water heating systems – that feature advanced technology designed to use less energy and work more efficiently than the traditional versions

5.  Whole house health protection comprising indoor air-quality systems that filter contaminants like pollen, chemicals, and dust that cause respiratory problems

6.  Solar-ready construction that includes the ability to withstand the extra structural load on the roof, the required wiring, and the electrical panel circuit breakers for a solar electric system


Are Zero Energy Ready Homes Really Taking Off?

While there are currently only 5,000 zero net energy single-family homes and over 7,000 zero net energy multi-family homes in the US, that number is expected to rise – thanks to the project spearheaded by the DOE and the commitment of several state governments. Taking the lead is California, which may add 100,000 homes a year. Beginning this year, a majority of Californias new homes and multi-family residential buildings up to three stories high will include solar rooftop panels.

The ultimate goal is to produce Zero Net Energy Homes that reduce Californias carbon footprint and make the buildings energy self-sufficient.

California is not alone in this endeavor. There are similar regulations in Tucson, Arizona, and the City of South Miami. What happens in California will have a big impact on the rest of the US because builders and designers will be figuring out ways to make rooftop solar systems cheaper – and that will help reduce the cost.

The lovely large, arched windows and door add to the charm of this 3-bedroom, 1,251-sq.-ft. Ranch style home. When already built for the high energy efficiency of a Zero Energy Ready Home, the houses steep hip roof will allow the installation of solar panels to complete its conversion to a Zero Net Energy Home (Plan #141-1133).


The Costs of Zero Energy Ready Homes

Typically, Zero Energy Ready Homes may cost a home buyer five to 10 percent more than a “to-code” home.  However, builders say that homeowners will more than recoup that expense in the utility savings of from $100,000 to $200,000 over a 30-year mortgage.

In larger homes, for example, the airtight envelope means eliminating the multiple mechanical systems that are necessary to maintain a comfortable home. By using a sealed unvented attic that is part of the thermal envelope for mechanicals, the homeowner removes the expense of creating a basement to house HVAC and hot water.

And with the cost of energy-saving features, including solar panels continuing to go down, the Zero Energy Ready Home is looking more affordable. In the long run, the slightly higher purchase – or construction – price will be recouped in future energy savings. And thats the main objective: to build homes that live better, work better, and last longer.


As we come to grips with climate change and other environmental issues, we can look to the Zero Energy Ready Home as an unfolding sustainable solution.


Footnote: The lead image in this article is an attractive 1.5-story, passive solar Contemporary home with 3 bedrooms, open living/dining room, and sunroom spread over 3,102 sq. ft. of living space. For more details, see  Plan #146-1618.


Additional Sources:

Inside Climate News



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