Blog : Hitting the Reset Button: How a Group of Eco-Conscious Builders are Reshaping Sustainable Building Design

By Katelyn | Nov 3, 2015 | in

By Craig Brown

On a small lot in Rye Harbor, 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.

But are net-zero homes the way of the future, or just another trend in home building?

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 counter tops 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, the 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,” said Ware.

Ware, who received a LEED AP accreditation from the U.S. Green Building Council, said that the home in Rye produces all of the energy it uses, and is kept cool during these hot and humid dog days of summer 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 just heating energy costs annually.

"It's a benefit to us all when you think this is now capable for an almost 2,500 square-foot house," he said.

The home is beautifully designed for functionality. Built-in bookshelves run throughout and make use of commonly unused space. 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 complimenting the white marble in the bathroom and shower.

To help with the home's design and build, Futuro partnered with Portland, Maine's 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 in a way that opens it to ocean views and receives southern exposure to natural light, further reducing the home's energy needs.

The Renewable Energy Credits/Certificates (RECs) produced are representative of 1000 kilowatt-hours, or 1-megawatt hour, of electricity produced and acts as an indicator of renewable energy generation. RECs maintain credit for energy use – the more RECs produced, the more a homeowner can offset their costs.

For the heating and cooling systems, two local companies collaborated: Harmony Energy, of Hampton, N.H., installed the solar system and Exeter's Key Heating and AC 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," said Silva of the two companies.

The home in Rye was completed in the fall of 2014 and is expected to reach net-zero status, though Silva said that proving the home is operating on a net-zero level is difficult until there is a full year of data, but during this past winter's record breaking weather, the home performed as expected to meet the goal.

"By definition of the term net zero we won't technically have the proof of how well the home performs to that standard," Silva said. "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."

During the long, humid days of summer, the home is able to remain cool via the home's architectural design, custom window awnings that provide shade over the southern windows, and predominantly through its solar photovoltaics (PV) array the heat pump system works to provide 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,” said Ware

Ware's background in sustainable building can be traced back to his father, an early adopter of building energy efficient homes. 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's one of the reasons Futuro has partnered with the Portsmouth-based Green Alliance, a union of local sustainable businesses promoting environmentally-conscious choices.

So how much more does a home like this cost to build? It would appear to some that homes like the build in Rye, are expensive , cost prohibitive or maybe only available to the wealthiest. According to the estimates for the heating and cooling systems in the home, and the cost of the solar, Futuro has narrowed the price down to roughly $5-10 / square foot of additional cost over a custom built home.

“The formula becomes almost magical when you see it at work," said Ware. "The great insulation, air quality and efficient alternative energy all 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 wasn't without challenges. In constructing a net-zero home, builders, contractors, designers and installers must pay close attention to every minor detail on the project. 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 PV systems like the one used in Rye Harbor.

Silva said that the process of building a net-zero home faces 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 that are concerned about resale and long term affordable living." said Silva “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.”

Click here to learn more about Futuro Construction.