Developers are building more net zero housing as climate concerns grow

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

So in May, she and Mr. sold. Mastenbrook, a 37-year-old technician, their home and moved to Ann Arbor, Mich. Mr. Mastenbrook has family in Michigan, and Ann Arbor officials took steps to lower the city’s carbon footprint.

They admired the 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 these houses were built and ready to buy today,” said Mrs. Rae, “we would have already bought one.”

The couple’s experience as climate refugees can be dramatic, but across the country, more homebuyers are seeking net zero housing, so-called because they produce as much energy as they consume and because they typically achieve this via solar energy, not adding carbon to the atmosphere. And developers are increasingly stepping up to meet demand.

Data on net zero housing is scarce, but a report by nonprofit group Team Zero shows about 24,500 homes in the United States achieve “zero energy” performance and estimate that the actual number “is significantly larger.” The Department of Energy has certified 8,656 as “net zero clear,” meaning they can reach zero energy with the addition of solar.

The numbers are expected to grow, not only spurred on by consumers’ appetites, but also by building code updates, more affordable solar technology, a growing awareness of once exotic appliances such as induction heaters and the “electrify everything” movement. Investors are now increasingly directing money towards sustainable real estate, making it easier for developers to raise money for homes that address climate issues.

And while the net-zero movement is sometimes associated with housing for the wealthy, it also results in housing for those at the other end of the income spectrum who can benefit from lower energy bills.

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

But even though the climate crisis has highlighted the need for sustainable construction, there are still challenges. The construction industry has resisted code changes. The increase in demand for single-family homes spurred by the pandemic may weaken the need for change because conventional homes are finding ready buyers these days.

Many consumers are still more interested in kitchen tables in granite and other cosmetic details than in electric heat pumps, but studies show that millennials are likely to bring their concerns about the environment to their home buying decisions, says Sara Gutterman, CEO of Green Builder. Media, which has conducted surveys of this demographic group.

Jan Sehrt, 37, and his wife, Julie, 39, both Google workers with a three-bedroom condo in Brooklyn, spent most of the pandemic searching for another home where they could enjoy nature with their two daughters.

After searching more than 1,000 listings online, the Sehrt family settled on a solar-powered, fully electric house in the Catskill Project, a net-zero development in the upstate New York village of Livingston Manor. Their home – which will cost around $ 1 million and is expected to be completed next fall – will be one of 11 single-family homes designed to maximize solar energy and prevent energy loss through airtight building envelopes.

“We entered the model home and they said, ‘These are three-paned windows,'” he said. Sehrt, who was familiar with green construction from his childhood in Germany. “Then it was just one win after another.”

There is widespread agreement that housing construction is crucial in limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels. Buildings, including their construction, account for about 40 percent of carbon emissions, and homes account for about half. Retrofitting inefficient structures is the biggest challenge, but it is also important to build sustainable housing.

For decades, homeowners experimented with solar panels and off-grid houses. Then groundbreaking developments began to emerge. Grow Community on Washington State’s Bainbridge Island introduced its first solar-powered homes in 2012; its third and final development phase is about to begin.

Marja Williams, a development consultant who helped guide Grow for the first few years and has lived there since 2014, said her monthly spending bill was only $ 7.97 – the basic service fee. Her house produces more energy than it uses, and the supply removes excess power in the summer and credits her account in the winter when the photovoltaic systems are less productive. A Grow home that originally cost about $ 480,000 was sold for almost double, she said.

Builders like Mandalay Homes and Thrive Home Builders specialize in homes with ultra-efficient energy consumption. Others are experimenting with net zero construction.

Crown Pointe Estates recently introduced what is perhaps the most upscale version: “zero-series” homes in the company’s MariSol Malibu development in Ventura County, California. The first home of more than 14,000 square feet is on the market for $ 32 million.

Ranging from $ 384,000 to $ 681,000, they cost about 10 percent more than neighboring homes, but are expected to generate and store all the energy residents need, freeing them from energy bills and vulnerability to power outages.

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

Low single-family homes are not the only form of net zero housing in the works: Multi-family housing contains the majority of net zero units in the United States. Sustainable Living Innovations, a technology company from Seattle, is building a 15-story apartment tower with 112 units with factory-made panels pre-installed with plumbing, electrical wiring and mechanical systems.

A prefabricated approach is being used on a much smaller scale elsewhere in Seattle: The Block Project builds microchips for the homeless.

The effort, carried out by the nonprofit group Facing Homelessness, makes panels in a workshop and then gathers them in the yards of homeowners who have agreed to hand over part of their property to a 230-square-foot home to a needy person. So far, 11 of these homes, which cost about $ 75,000 to build, are occupied, and more are on the way, said Bernard Troyer, project manager at Facing Homelessness.

Veridian, the Ann Arbor project, aims for a mix of income levels on its 14-acre site. Avalon Housing, a nonprofit provider of affordable housing, will build nine buildings containing 50 apartments on part of the plot.

The 110 market-priced homes to be developed by Thrive Collaborative (which are not related to Thrive Home Builders) will range from $ 200,000 apartments to $ 900,000 single-family homes. Work on the site is expected to begin in the fall, and the homes at the market price should be completed by 2023, said Matthew Grocoff, Thrive’s founder.

In addition to securing funding from mission-driven foundations, Mr. Grocoff attracted local investors, among them Mitch and Lori Hall. Retired with three grown children, Halls has decided not only to buy a townhouse on Veridian, but to become the largest stock partner in the project.

“That’s the way we should move as a planet and a country,” Ms. Hall. “Hopefully, 30 years from now, it will not be so unusual.”

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