Hitting the Reset Button
How builders are reshaping sustainable home design
On a small lot in Rye Harbor, New Hampshire, not far from the rocky shoreline and the swell of the sea, sits a recent residential project that pushes the boundaries of sustainable design. The 2,400-square-foot home is replete with energy-efficient technology that reduces heating and electricity bills, generates home energy credits, is environmentally friendly, and looks good doing it, too.
Is this home the way of the future or just an example of a passing trend in home design? It is true that sustainable additions and renovations, to homes both old and new, have recently become popular in design, just as stainless steel appliances and granite countertops came into vogue a few years ago. But these energy-efficient technologies have been around for years, according to Jesse Ware, founder of Futuro Construction and builder of the Rye Harbor home.
“The technologies have been around for a while but were not economically feasible until the last five to eight years,” Ware says.
According to Ware, who received a LEED AP accreditation from the US Green Building Council, the home produces all of the energy it uses and is kept cool during hot and humid summers with an air source heat pump, which continues to work in subzero temperatures, providing heat for the home. Ware estimates that the homeowners save $3,000 in heating energy costs annually.
Renewable energy credits (RECs) generated by the home represent 1,000 kilowatt-hours, or one megawatt-hour, of electricity produced by a renewable energy resource. RECs maintain credit for energy use—the more RECs produced, the more a homeowner can offset their costs.
“It’s a benefit to us all when you think this is now capable for an almost 2,500-square-foot house,” Ware says.
The home is beautifully designed for functionality. Built-in bookshelves utilize surplus space throughout the home. Glass cabinet windows add elegant storage in the kitchen, which opens into the living space for premium entertaining. The living room’s hidden entertainment center blends seamlessly with the white built-ins and cabinetry, complementing the white marble in the bathroom and shower.
To help with the home’s design and build, Futuro partnered with Portland, Maine-based Kaplan Thompson Architects who, like Futuro, believe that sustainability is much more than a trend. Kaplan worked with the natural surroundings of the home, positioning it for ocean views and southern exposure to natural light, further reducing the home’s energy needs.
For the heating and cooling systems, two local companies collaborated: Harmony Energy of Hampton, New Hampshire, installed the solar system and Exeter’s Key Heating and Air Conditioning installed the Mitsubishi mini-split heating and cooling system.
“We aimed to look for those companies that can produce the most value for our clients by providing a great product with a great warranty and the best cost,” says Matt Silva, general manager at Futuro, of the partnership.
The home was completed in the fall of 2014 and is expected to operate on a net-zero level, although Silva says that proving net-zero status is difficult until there is a complete year of data. Nevertheless, during that winter’s record-breaking weather, the home performed as expected to meet the goal.
“Prior to building the home, we had an energy model done to understand how much solar the home would need to achieve the homeowner’s goal,” Silva says.
During the long, humid days of summer, the home is able to remain cool through its architectural design, custom window awnings that shade the southern windows, and solar photovoltaic (PV) array, while the heat pump system provides air conditioning.
Futuro’s ideal for home building is to stay ahead of standard home performance in the industry. Ware and his team try to accomplish this goal by increasing their performance in efficiency each year.
“We want to reset that old formula being used by even the Energy Star performance criteria and know that we are working toward building homes in a way that meets the most sensible way to build using the latest, efficient technology,” Ware says.
Ware’s background in sustainable building can be traced back to his father, an early adopter of energy-efficient construction. Since starting Futuro in 2011, Ware has kept his father’s values at the heart of his own business: building sustainable homes not just for the financial savings but its environmental value as well. It is one of the reasons Futuro has partnered with the Portsmouth-based Green Alliance, a union of local sustainable businesses that promote environmentally conscious choices.
So how much more does a home like this cost to build? You may think that homes like the one in Rye are expensive, but according to estimates for the home’s heating and cooling systems and the cost of solar, Futuro narrowed the price down to roughly five to 10 dollars per square foot of additional expense over a custom-built home.
“The formula becomes almost magical when you see it at work,” Ware says. “The great insulation, air quality, and efficient alternative energy come together to create a model of sustainability and net-zero energy. Creating something that is healthier, more efficient, and has less impact on the Earth is always going to be the right thing to do.”
Of course, the build is not without challenges. In constructing a net-zero home, builders, contractors, designers, and installers must pay close attention to every detail. Homes must reach energy load reductions and system efficiencies before using onsite energy generation, according to buildinggreen.com. However, homes can achieve this goal with solar arrays, like the one used in Rye Harbor.
Overall, Silva says that building a net-zero house has the same challenges as other residential building projects, no matter the style, size, or type of home.
“This option for building is especially important for clients concerned about resale and long-term affordable living,” Silva says. “Even building a home that is net-zero capable can be the right start, and the option to add solar to the home at a later date is still a formula that makes more sense than building a standard energy-efficient home.”