Southwest Has More “Zero Energy” Homes and Homebuilders Than Anywhere Else in the Country

June 27, 2017 | Nancy Kellogg

More than 60 percent of the most energy-efficient homes built today in the country have been constructed in the Southwest. What’s more, nearly two-thirds of the homebuilders who make these highly efficient houses also are based in this region. The reasons for this success could serve as a model for other parts of the nation seeking to improve the efficiency and quality of their new housing stock.

SWEEP’s building team recently “crunched the numbers” from the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2017 updated list of homebuilders who construct houses according to the strictest energy efficiency criteria. Of the 1,376 registered “Zero Energy Ready Homes” (ZERH) nationwide, 889 – or 64 percent – were built in states where SWEEP works: Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.

Moreover, the federal agency’s data show that 65 percent of the ZERH partners – homebuilders, architects, subcontractors and so forth – also are from SWEEP states.

In fact, just three builders in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico have constructed 59 percent of all of the registered ZERH projects in the country.

Several factors, which I’ll discuss soon, encouraged these forward-looking construction companies to embrace the latest energy-efficient technology. But first, a word about the strict standards they meet.

Many states and cities have adopted the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code or its easier-to-understand 2015 rewrite. Of course the code encompassed the usual modernization of windows, lighting and the like, and it also added language calling for better energy efficiency throughout the whole house. Many builders realize that it’s a short step from the energy code to creating Energy Star homes, which include efficient appliances.

But some visionary homebuilders then added another step and started building “Zero Energy Ready Homes,” which meet the 2012 and 2015 IECC codes along with checklists for improving indoor air quality and Water Sense (water conservation). They also install a conduit from the roof to the electrical panel so the homeowners can add solar panels in the future.

A few homebuilders, including DOE’s “partners” in the Southwest, went even further and began building Zero Net Energy (ZNE) homes, which produce as much clean energy as they use over a course of a year.

This point deserves emphasis: ZERH and ZNE homes employ energy efficiency strategies that reduce energy use overall, and install (or can add) renewable power, particularly rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) panels.

Such homes perform so well that a few Southwestern utilities are studying ways to use them as “thermal” storage to reduce peak electrical demand on the grid. That is, a ZERH or ZNE house is so efficient that once it reaches a desired temperature inside the living space, the owner can turn off the heat or air conditioning and remain comfortable. Homeowners who do so will put less stress on the electrical grid, and so reduce the amount of fossil fuels that the utilities must burn to meet customers’ peak demand during certain times of day or in very cold or hot weather.

But most homebuilders aren’t thinking about the grid when they design energy-efficient houses. They’re thinking about making money. Why did many Southwestern firms turn to ZERH and ZNE?

  • To differentiate themselves in the market by building houses that had more long-term consumer value.
  • Customers wanted comfort and savings. ZERH and ZNE are cool in the summer and warm in the winter but have very low (or even no) utility bills over a year.
  • Consumer demand has risen for energy-efficient houses, either to save money or to help the environment – either way, consumers save “green.”
  • Costs are comparable with conventional structures. Several ZERH and a few ZNE houses were built at no additional cost over the price of a conventional home. Some homebuilders say their houses add just $100 to $150 more to the monthly mortgage, but will save their owners $200 to $300 per month from lower bills or even no utility costs.
  • Communities have started supportive programs. Throughout the region, many cities and towns have adopted their own local codes that promote more energy-efficient buildings. For example, Fort Collins, CO, has its own “Zero Energy District” and Boulder County, CO, wants all its new residential construction to be ZNE by 2022.
  • State and utility policies boosted consumer use of renewable energy, especially rooftop solar PV systems.
  • Builders could get the right training. These aren’t your father’s (or mom’s) ordinary construction projects. Instead, meeting the DOE’s standards requires special know-how. In our region, zero energy training  shows builders how to construct ZERH or ZNE homes in a cost-effective manner.

Since January 2017, SWEEP has conducted three residential and two commercial Zero Energy workshops in Arizona, Colorado and Utah, for 186 builders, designers, architects, raters and community leaders.  More training could convince additional homebuilders to make the leap to ZNE.

“This program will be a life-changer for a lot of consumers,” one homebuilder commented after a SWEEP event.

“The workshop opened my mind to new opportunities in Denver and the Front Range,” said another.

Whatever their business motivation, SWEEP tips its Stetson to these innovative companies leading the home building industry into the future of high energy efficiency, comfort and consumer savings.