Home Builders Are Not ‘Getting It’ When It Comes to Building Sustainable Homes  

Last week I worked with a buyer looking at new homes. One community we visited was in central Arvada; the other was just north of Golden at the corner of Hwy. 93 and 58th Ave.

Neither builder was even offering upgrades such as solar panels, heat pump HVAC systems, or induction cooktops.

Yes, they were enhancing the insulation of their homes, but little else.

And, speaking of solar panels, neither builder was building into the design of their homes an orientation that would favor solar panels on the roof. One had unnecessary peaks or dormers on their roofs that would seriously inhibit the usefulness of the roof for installing a solar photovoltaic system.

The heating systems in both communities were gas forced air furnaces, which I consider obsolete. Such furnaces require the separate installation of an A/C compressor to provide cooling. I asked if an upgrade to a heat pump system was available, and it wasn’t.

These are silly and unnecessary design flaws in any new construction. A heat pump HVAC system provides both heating and cooling within one unit. It is the preferred choice in Europe and Asia, but our builders seem to know only gas forced air furnaces with a conventional A/C add-on.

New-build homes are typically equipped with conventional gas water heaters, while it would be just as easy and cost little more to install a highly efficient heat pump water heater, as I have done.

Geothermal heat pump systems are the “gold standard” when it comes to energy efficiency and sustainability in new home construction. Retrofitting an existing home with geothermal can be prohibitively expensive, but on a dirt-start build, it would be easy to drill geothermal wells in the middle of the basement or crawl space before installing the foundation and building the house. There’s even more efficiency in a dirt-start subdivision, because the drilling rig could go from one unit to the next, drilling 10, 20 or 100 geothermal wells in one area.

I have written in the past about the Geos Community west of Indiana Street and 68th Avenue in Arvada, where all the detached single-family homes have geothermal heat pump systems, and all the townhomes have air source heat pump systems. They also have heat pump water heaters and induction electric ranges, and all have south-facing roofs with solar panels providing all the electricity to run each of those systems. There is no need for natural gas service to the homes.

Geos was intended to showcase the cost effectiveness of all-electric homes using geothermal and air source heat pump systems and orienting the homes for maximum passive solar as well as active solar efficiency. But it seems that builders are slow learners. The developer who purchased the lots next to the previously built Geos Community felt it necessary to install natural gas service to all its new homes currently under construction “because buyers want gas,” much to the understandable dismay and anger of the Geos Community residents.

There is similar inertia in the HVAC industry itself. It’s hard to find an HVAC company that even understands the advantages of heat pumps for heating and cooling homes. It is so much easier for them to do what they have learned to do, even though it represents an obsolete technology. I have heard countless stories of homeowners whose forced air furnace needed replacing and who were unable to get their HVAC vendor to sell them a heat pump system. Most HVAC vendors just want to keep doing what they already know how to do.

(I can recommend a couple vendors who specialize in heat pump systems and even geothermal drilling. Ask me.)

This is not unlike the problem with car dealerships and electric vehicles. If you go to a Chevy dealer and ask about the Chevy Bolt EV, the salesman will often bad-mouth the Bolt and try to sell you a non-electric model that he loves to sell and requires no learning on his part of new technology.

This guest speaker at the April meeting of the Denver Electric Vehicle Council was a man who, having bought a Chevy Volt in 2012, convinced a Texas Chevy dealership to let him be a salesman of EVs exclusively. Other salesmen started sending him buyers who expressed an interest in EVs, and he quickly became the number one seller of EVs in the state of Texas. It helped that hardly any other Texas car dealership had a salesman who was comfortable selling EVs. Their loss.

Getting back to home construction, we need and the planet needs home builders to be more educated about the wisdom and relative ease of building energy efficient, solar-powered, all-electric homes with a passive solar orientation and design. It’s not that hard to learn, but we need to overcome the inertia built into that industry just as with the automotive and other industries.

Housing Trends Reflect Pandemic’s Influence  

The effect of pandemic lockdowns has triggered more interest in working at home, a trend that will be long-lasting and possibly permanent.

Early in the pandemic we saw a surge in real estate activity as buyers sought more space for working from home. Compounding that was a desire for more at-home entertainment and exercise. People want not only a home office, but a home theater and a home workout facility. These are features that will, in my opinion, dominate home design and buyer demands for at least the coming decade.

People feel safer at home, but they don’t want to feel cloistered. They want elbow-room.

Lockdowns also triggered more separations and divorces as couples who weren’t really in love found that being cloistered together at home didn’t work for their relationship. This also contributed to the real estate boom of 2020 and into 2021.

Real estate was considered an “essential service” in the early days of Covid-19 lockdowns, and we Realtors certainly relished the lack of traffic and traffic jams on local highways.  Those days of free-flowing traffic may be gone, but there is still a widespread appreciation of working from home and doing less commuting. This means continued buyer activity focused on finding additional home office space.

Some homeowners are finding that additional space at home instead of trading up to a bigger home. There’s increased interest, for example, in building ADUs over detached garages, not to create rental income (a great idea) but for the homeowner’s own use as a studio or office away from family distractions.

An attached garage can offer great potential for additional living space, not just as a workshop, but as a home office, art studio, workout room or even a bedroom if necessary. Heating and cooling, on top of improved insulation, will be job #1 before improving the flooring, walls and ceiling. Rather than extending your home forced-air furnace ductwork, consider installing a single-unit heat pump mini-split system.  I saw this on a garage in north Golden—a perfect application of this technology.

Click here for the Realtor Magazine article which inspired this article.

BONUS FEATURE:

Here’s an article submitted by Tina Martin about transforming your garage into a great work space:

Work-from-home jobs have become much more prevalent in recent years, with many people looking for remote opportunities or even starting their own businesses from the comfort of their houses. If you’ve just started working from home or are planning to in the near future, you’ll need a quiet, dedicated space for an office, and one place you may not have thought of to create a setup is your garage. With a few simple changes, you can transform this area into another room that comes with plenty of benefits–including more privacy and fewer distractions. You can also look for ways to make the transition to working from home a little easier at the same time.

Come prepared

If you’re going to be working from home at your own business, it’s a good idea to be as prepared and organized as possible to make the process a smooth one. This means taking steps to ensure that your company has all its bases covered legally, including creating an LLC so you can keep track of your tax responsibilities and remain in good standing with the IRS. A limited liability company comes with less paperwork and more flexibility than a corporation, so you can stay on top of things and run your business the way you want. Every state has its own rules for formation, so look up the steps for creating a Colorado LLC before jumping in.

Set up your workspace

Once you have the details figured out, it’s time to think about how to turn your garage into a room you can work in throughout the seasons. Of course, you’ll need access to wi-fi and electricity, but never try to handle electrical work on your own–hire a pro if you have to add wiring to your garage. If you already have wi-fi in your home, a simple and affordable signal extender could help you bring service to your new workspace. You’ll also want to make sure you have access to cool and warm air for the different seasons and that the garage is well-ventilated. Add shelving and a desk so you can keep things neat, and don’t forget to bring in a comfortable, supportive chair.

Let some light in

Once you know where your desk will be, think about how to make sure you have the right light for your needs. Many garages have overhead fluorescent lighting, which can be tiresome to your eyes for long periods of time. Look for a small lamp or two that will provide task lighting to the right areas and diffuse the overheads for your comfort. If your garage has a window, even better! Natural light is beneficial for working in an office because it can help to prevent disruptions in the circadian rhythm and boost your mood. If you don’t have a window, take breaks throughout the day and step outside for some fresh air.

Keep distractions out

Once you have your office space set up, it’s time to keep the distractions to a minimum. There are several ways you can achieve this, but you might start by replacing the garage door with a regular one that locks. Keep your new office space dedicated to business-only; the more it looks and feels like home, the easier it will be for you to put off work. It’s also a good idea to keep devices out of the space unless they’re necessary for your job.

Creating a home office out of a garage doesn’t have to be time-consuming or costly. With a few simple moves, you can turn this space into an entirely new room and give yourself the workspace you’ve always wanted in the process.

When It’s Time to Replace Your Gas Forced-Air Furnace, Consider the Alternatives

As I write this, I have just completed shooting videos of the 15 homes on this year’s Metro Denver Green Homes Tour.

The tour, currently in its 25th year, takes place on the first Saturday in October. Normally, you would register for $10 and get a book describing the homes, along with a map. Armed with that, you create a self-guided tour of the homes which interest you. You’d have to complete your tour by 4pm that day, followed by a reception and expo.

Because of the pandemic, this year’s tour will be totally virtual, which is actually better because you’ll get a link to view detailed videos of every home on the tour and not miss any of them due to time constraints. We won’t release the URL for the tour until October, but when we do you’ll be able to take your time to view all 15 — and the virtual tour is free! I’ll publish that URL in my October 1st column.

Meanwhile, let me share one particular lesson that you will learn from viewing the 15 videos: that gas forced air furnaces, no matter how efficient, are obsolete.

One thing you learn really quickly in the sustainability arena is that America is far behind other countries when it comes to energy-efficient technology. That’s because our fossil fuel costs have always been lower than in Europe and Asia, specifically Germany and Japan, where you’ll find the most innovation and product development. Just look at this chart from statista.com of electricity costs in different countries:

Germany 33 cents/kWH, Japan 22 cents/kWH, United States 13 cents/kWH

With our cheap energy, higher standard of living and higher incomes, Americans have long been able to waste money and energy with abandon. The result has been to leave it to other countries to create more energy efficient and less costly products.

Since home heating and transportation are the most energy-intensive aspects of modern life, that’s where we have seen the greatest innovation abroad. We in America continue to play catch-up and hang on to old technology. Our continued use of gas furnaces is an example of hanging on to old technology.

For a long time, I thought that higher efficiency gas forced air furnaces was the direction we should go to reduce our carbon footprint. However, after viewing the videos of highly efficient net zero energy and even energy positive/carbon negative  homes, I think you’ll agree that it is time to abandon altogether that method of heating our homes.

Carrier Hybrid Heat Pump

When Rita and I purchased our current home in 2012 and installed the maximum solar photovoltaic system allowed by Xcel Energy (10 kW), we looked into how we might heat our home using the free energy we were creating from the sun. That’s when we learned about and purchased the Carrier Hybrid Heat® system, which uses an air source heat pump paired with a gas furnace to heat our home in the winter and cool it in the summer. It looks just like a gas forced air furnace, but the gas flame only comes on when the outside air is below the temperature at which the heat pump can generate heat from outside air.

Although Carrier still sells its hybrid system, heat pump technology has advanced far enough that gas back-up is no longer needed in our region. However, since our hybrid furnace uses natural gas so seldom, we won’t replace it anytime soon.

When your gas forced air furnace needs replacing, don’t make the mistake of replacing it with a newer and better gas forced air furnace. Instead, look into the many alternative ways of heating your home, which you’ll learn about when those 15 video tours are released in October. (If you can’t wait, Google “heat pumps” and investigate the options.)

Heat pump systems (Wikipedia link) can use your existing ductwork (as in our home), or they can be ductless (like at Golden Real Estate’s office). My January 4, 2018, column (link) described the transition to the ductless system at our office.

Solar thermal (Wikipedia link), using both flat panels and evacuated tubes, is another technology, typically augmented by electric and heat pump units, which can provide heating as well as domestic hot water. A few of the homes on this year’s tour have solar thermal systems.

Geothermal heating (link to vendor), present in other homes on the tour, takes advantage of the earth’s temperature below the surface. In our latitude that subsurface temperature is about 55°F  year-round. It is extracted by running a liquid-filled loop 300 feet or so into the earth and using a heat pump to heat that 55-degree liquid for radiant floor or forced air heating, or using it at 55 degrees for cooling in the summer. That takes less energy than our air source heat pumps, which take much colder air from outside and extract heat from it in the winter, and can then cool your house (like A/C) in the summer.

The thing to remember about heat pumps is that they don’t create heat (such as from burning fossil fuels), they move heat. The difference between a traditional A/C system and a heat pump system is that a heat pump moves heat in two directions, not just one.

Blower door test during a home energy audit. Credit: Holtkamp Heating & A/C, Inc.

There is so much more to learn about efficient heating and cooling of your home. But first, to provide the highest return on investment (and lowest heating cost), you will want to improve your home’s insulation. A blower-door test (energy.gov link), conducted by an energy efficiency professional, identifies where the leaks are in your home, so they can be sealed. A heat recovery ventilator (HRV) (Wikipedia link) can then help you bring in fresh air without losing your home’s heat.  (A heat exchanger within the HRV transfers the temperature of the outgoing air to the incoming air.)

Thermal mass (Wikipedia link) can play a big role in reducing the energy needed to heat a home. You’ll see thermal mass applications in many of this year’s videos. Concrete, brick, water and even dirt can function as a thermal mass to accumulate heat from the sun and then release it slowly after dark. (There is an example of a “climate battery” (vendor link) using dirt on this year’s tour.) With the proper roof overhang on south-facing windows, your thermal mass is shaded from the sun during summer months but exposed to the sun in the winter, when the sun is lower in the sky.

The best way to heat and cool your home may be different than the best way to heat and cool someone else’s home, and it’s hard to do justice to this subject in a single article.

Here are a couple vendors I’ve used who would, I’m sure, be happy to give you some free advice about the best heating system for your home.

  1. Bill Lucas-Brown, owner, GB3 Energy – www.GB3energy.com, 970-846-4766 or bill@gb3energy.com. He sells and installs heat pump systems, but also does energy audits, including blower-door tests and will super-insulate your home as he did for my current home and for the Golden Real Estate office.
  2. Dennis Brachfield, owner, About Saving Heat – 303-378-2348 or info@aboutsavingheat.com. Dennis does blower-door tests and will super-insulate your home, based on what the test reveals. He does not sell or install heat pumps or mini-splits, but he can refer you to someone and probably give you good advice about their applicability to your home. I have known Dennis for 30 years, and he has tested and insulation several homes for me.
  3. Note: HomeAdvisors would be a reasonable choice for such a project. I have not used them, but I am impressed at their quality control regarding the vendors they work with. Did you know this national company is actually based in Golden? Originally called ServiceMagic. (888) 921-3034
  4. For geothermal heating, see the link in the paragraph about geothermal heating for a vendor who sounds great to me, but whom I haven’t used.