The Race to Net Zero

The Race to Net Zero

Garbett’s Zero Home, featured above, has set the precedent for the race to make net zero standard for all homes. All photos courtesy of Garbett Homes.

Net Zero has become one of the biggest buzz phrases in homebuilding, as numerous builders, large and small, race to erect homes that meet the net-zero credo of producing all of their own energy.

Energy Star-certified homes? Child’s play.

Savvy homebuilders today are getting seriously green and racing toward building net-zero. And perhaps nowhere are the lessons so valuable than at Utah-based Garbett Homes.

When Garbett debuted The Zero Home, its first net-zero home this year in Utah, it garnered plenty of press attention for its partnership with home technology company Vivint. The home uses Vivint’s solar photovoltaic systems for power and Vivint home control, security and energy management systems offering preset home automation and energy-saving settings. All very cool. But the most educational aspect of Garbett’s Zero Home may be how the company got there —the decisions that were made and the deals that were done along the way.

Green is Not an Option

Why not leave things like green, net zero and energy management as options?

Our market research shows that trying to do green upgrades and options will not work,” says Oehlerking. “Other builders have tried it.”

The problem, he says, is that people don’t believe they’ll get a higher appraised value from green technologies. The conventional “wisdom,” which he says largely comes from the real estate establishment, is that the best bang for your buck is in kitchen and bath upgrades, and that one shouldn’t spend money putting stuff in a home that isn’t going to pay off when it comes time for resale. “So even though they have the appetite for being green and want to be green, they go for the granite countertop or a big deck instead,” he says.

So Garbett doesn’t make green and efficiency an option. It’s standard. It would like to make net zero standard as well.


The Trade-Offs of Affordable Green

Keeping costs down has been a big factor for Garbett Homes. Building green and energy-efficient homes can no doubt be more costly, but Garbett has been determined to offer affordable green homes.

“We want to be within the 10 percent range for homes in our area,” says Garbett Marketing Director Rene Oehlerking. So if the average homebuilding cost in an area is $140 per square foot, Garbett wants to come close to that.

The road to net zero for Garbett started with an exhaustive study of building science, enabling it to build more energy-efficient homes and launch its Solaris collection in 2009 with 100 solar-paneled homes achieving HERS (Home Energy Rating System) scores of about 40. The Solaris homes did so well Garbett made the technology standard, and since has continually refined its processes and techniques to lower its HERS scores each year. Now houses by Garbett come in at about HERS 30—the lower the better—and to get to net zero homeowners can opt for more renewables.

Along the way, there have been trade-offs. As in many energy efficient homes today, framing with 2×6 studs, 24 inches on-center was used instead of traditional 2×4 studs placed 16 inches on-center, to allow for more insulation. The increased costs associated with the larger studs were offset by using fewer pieces of wood. Garbett also eliminated extra framing often used in corners and elsewhere to hang drywall, by training installers to use drywall clips instead.

Rather than fill all the stud bays with expensive spray-foam insulation, Garbett uses blown-in fiberglass between the studs and saves the spray foam for other big voids and critical areas like rim joists. The homes boast R30 insulation in the walls, R60 in attics R32 in basements.

“We did a lot of trial and error testing,” Oehlerking explains. “As a builder if you’re not willing to test this, it’s just not going to work.”


The Quest for Zero

After a few years of practice and learning energy-efficient home construction, Garbett set its sights on net zero. “All our modeling showed us net zero was [cost-] prohibitive,” Oehlerking says. So how could Garbett produce affordable net-zero homes?

As Oehlerking explains, there are three buckets to Garbett’s energy-efficient homes and getting to net zero.

The first is getting the efficiency down to a HERS (Home Energy Rating System) score of 40 or 30—remember, a 0-score produces all its own energy—by using building science to improve thermal envelope, for example.

The second bucket is adding renewable energy sources, like solar and solar thermal, driving the HERS score even lower. When Garbett decided to do net zero it went to Vivint, also based in Utah, and asked if the home control, security and solar provider wanted to play. There’s a 10.2-kw solar system on the Zero Home.

Vivint sells solar through power purchase agreements (PPAs), which works much like solar leasing, in several states. But Utah doesn’t allow PPAs, so Vivint sells the systems to Garbett. Solar thermal for hot water is provided by Velux, and that is supplemented with super-efficient tankless hot water heaters from Nortiz.

The third bucket for Garbett is how efficiently people use energy in the home, via appliances and other systems. To this end, Garbett uses the efficient Noritz tankless water heaters, is experimenting with Trane Weathertron air-source heat pumps powered by the solar array, and has negotiated a deal with Whirlpool to use its 6th Sense appliances with touchscreens and smartphone connectivity. Gas-fired dryers with moisture sensors are more efficient, and the touchscreens aren’t just cool, but also communicate with homeowners when a load setting might not be the best/most efficient choice for that wash, for example.

But wait. Where’s the trade-off there and how do you use smart and connected appliances and keep costs down?

“Whirlpool felt it was important to be aligned with a company doing this – and we got a good price,” says Oehlerking. “The silver lining [in all this green home experimentation] is we’ve become a company that’s become cool and is good to be associated with.”

Yet another solid reason to build net zero.



The Home Automation Piece

Along with efficient appliances and systems, it’s important to give homeowners feedback and automate some systems.

To this end, Vivint was also in the mood for some experimentation. The company, which was sold to the Blackstone Capital last year, has quickly become a big player in connected home control and security systems, competing with the likes of ADT’s Pulse and Comcast’s Xfinity Home systems that offer basic remote home control of lights, thermostats and cameras.

With Garbett’s net zero home, Vivint has installed on-wall touchscreen control panels, automated door locks, security sensors, Z-Wave thermostats, plug-in Z-Wave modules, cameras and more. It’s also experimenting with energy monitoring and providing advanced energy analytics to provide energy usage comparisons and efficiency recommendations for homeowners. Vivint will be monitoring the home and the homeowners’ use of it for a year.

Garbett admits that its 4,300-square-foot net zero show home was done largely for show. It recently sold for $568,000, though at a $132-per-square-foot price that makes Oehlerking proud. However, he says Garbett pretty much gave away the PV and energy management systems.

“Our goal is to bring this technology to common homes from $150,000 townhouses up to 600,000 homes.”

Garbett is now working with Vivint on three different net-zero home platforms, including 1,100-to-1,800-square-foot townhouses and single family homes, a 65-home community of 2,000-square-foot homes in the $250,000 to $300,000 price range, and larger 3,500-to-5,000-square-foot homes.



More Experimentation

“Have we achieved net zero at the price point we want yet? No,” declares Oehlerking. “Now we’re going to perfect it and get costs down and get it down even closer, so all of this cool technology is built in.”

That will take more trial and error and perhaps more creative deal making.

By Garbett’s story, the race to net zero requires innovations not just in homebuilding, green and energy efficient technologies—but also in how homebuilders do business.

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