Looked at Correctly, It Costs No More to Build (or Buy) a Sustainable Home

“Conventional wisdom” says that it costs more to build a solar powered, highly sustainable or net zero energy home, but that’s not really true if you look at the issue a little differently.

As you surely know, such improvements reduce the operating cost of a home. Solar panels, for example, can virtually eliminate your electrical bill, if your system is sized correctly. They can even provide free fuel for your cars — if they are powered by electricity.

Super insulating your home can reduce the cost of heating it, whether by natural gas or electricity (using a heat pump system). Ditto for installing triple-pane Alpen windows and doors.

If you go all-electric, you not only save on the natural gas or propane you consume, you can have your gas meter removed, saving on the base cost of being connected to the gas distribution network. As a commercial customer, Golden Real Estate, saves over $600 per year from having removed our gas meter, since that’s what Xcel Energy charges before a business uses a single cubic foot of natural gas.  The savings is lower for residential customers.

So, yes, it may cost more to go all-electric, but the return on investment is substantial over a pretty short period of time.

But consider the following. Whether you build or buy a home with these cost saving features, and whether or not you pay a premium for them, you will likely be financing your home with a mortgage.

Let’s say, conservatively, that you pay an extra $50,000 or even $100,000 for those features, and it adds that amount to the principal of your mortgage. Your monthly savings from those solar panels or that heat pump system or those Alpen windows and extra insulation will be far in excess of the increased monthly payment for your mortgage.

And if you make those improvements in a home you already own, you can take out a Home Equity Line of Credit (or HELOC) to pay for them, and the monthly payments will again be less than your monthly savings.

Looked at it this way, does it make any sense at all to build a home powered by fossil fuels, that is not solar powered or that has “normal” insulation and have higher monthly cost of ownership, starting from day one?  Of course not.

You can apply the same reasoning to the purchase of an electric car. You could go with the conventional wisdom that electric cars are more expensive and you should wait until the price comes down, but that thinking substantially misrepresents the cost of ownership.

I haven’t purchased gasoline for my electric cars since 2014, during which time I have saved tens of thousands of dollars on gasoline as well as on repairs on components that don’t exist on an EV, such as transmission, engine, fuel pumps, water pumps, timing belts and so much more.

And I have never had a catalytic converter stolen — or lost any sleep after reading about the epidemic of such thefts in my city.

Forgetting for the moment that there are indeed EVs which cost no more than their gasoline-powered equivalents, even if you paid $10,000 more for an EV than you might for a gas powered car, the cost of financing that difference is far less than what you’ll save on fuel and repairs.

If I have changed your thinking about making your home (or transportation) more sustainable, here’s what you can do.  First, attend this year’s Metro Denver Green Homes Tour on October 1st. You’ll be able to visit a dozen or so homes whose owners have taken steps to make their homes more energy efficient or even net zero energy. You’ll also visit a home builder who is building net zero energy homes. If you can’t visit some of these homes in person, you can view the narrated video tours which I have created for most of them.

(You can also — right now — take video tours of 16 homes that were on this tour in previous years!)

You can register for the tour — and see those videos — at www. NewEnergyColorado.com.

And if I have changed your thinking about the cost of buying or owning an electric vehicle, plan on coming to the Electric Vehicle Roundup (mentioned below) which occurs the same day, October 1st, as the Metro Denver Green Homes Tour.  If that date doesn’t work for you, there are many other EV roundups in October around Colorado. Find those other events online at www.DriveElectricWeek.org.

Our Newest Listing Is a Case Study on How to Achieve Net Zero Energy at Home

6187 Terry Way in Arvada’s Sunrise Ridge Subdivision – Just listed at $450,000

By JIM SMITH, Realtor

Regular readers of this column know my commitment to sustainability. Our office is Net Zero Energy, with our 20-kilowatt solar PV system providing all the energy to heat, cool and power our office plus charge our four electric cars, while also providing free charging to the public. My home is also solar powered, satisfying all our electrical needs, although we still have natural gas service.

Readers may also recall me saying that the most affordable way to invest in sustainable features is to buy a home which already has them, since the investment in sustainability pays for itself over time but rarely returns what you paid for it in the resale value of your home.

The home I just listed at 6187 Terry Way in Arvada’s Sunrise Ridge subdivision is a good example of that. The seller, like me, is fanatical about sustainability and has invested over $80,000 in solar power, insulation, daylighting, and other improvements, but the listing price of $450,000, while higher than for a comparable home with a higher monthly energy bill, recovers for the seller only a fraction of her investment.

Meanwhile, whether or not you are interested in purchasing a terrific 2-bed-room patio home, let me use it as an example of the ways you can invest in sustainable features for your own home.

I’ve written in the past about Steve Steven’s 1970s brick ranch which he took beyond Net Zero. I did a narrated video tour of it when it was on the annual tour of solar homes, and it took over 40 minutes to describe all its sustainable features!

This home, however, is a 2002 frame-built tract home that was constructed with above-average but below-optimum energy and insulation features, leaving plenty of room for improvement.  And improve it the seller did!  (You’ll understand why, knowing that she is Steve Stevens’ significant other!)

What follows is a run-down of the improvements which brought this home’s electrical bill down to the cost of its connection to Xcel Energy’s grid. In fact, the home is beyond Net Zero Energy to Net Carbon Positive, meaning that its excess electrical generation more than compensates for the natural gas being used for cooking and heating. On top of that, the seller charges her electric car in the home’s 2-car garage.

Here are the sustainability highlights:

First, of course, a 4.4-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system was installed on the roof. Having done that, the next tasks involved reducing electrical demand so that 4.4kW of solar PV would be sufficient.

Of course, all incandescent, fluorescent and CFL light bulbs were replaced with LED bulbs and fixtures. That alone reduced the electrical load substantially.

Next, five 14- and 22-inch diameter Velux sun tunnels were installed, bringing natural light into all the rooms, nearly eliminating the need for artificial lighting except at night.

Next, all the appliances, including the central A/C unit, were replaced with high efficiency Energy Star-rated models. In the case of the kitchen appliances, they are all stainless steel.

At this point, the electrical efficiency was pretty much maxed out, so attention was given to reducing the natural gas load for heating the home.

Additional cellulose insulation was blown into the attic, bringing it up to an R-100 rating — more than twice what you’ll find in the typical production home. We have a picture of this home after a snow storm, showing the snow melted off the roofs of neighboring homes but not off this home’s roof — clear evidence of good attic insulation.

The rim joist (accessible because the basement is unfinished) was insulated to R-50. This area of the house, I’ve found, is the most neglected area of any house when it comes to insulation. It’s where the joists for the main floor sit on the home’s foundation. Most home builders stuff some fiberglass insulation between the joists, but they don’t enclose that fiberglass in plastic. Cold winter air easily infiltrates through loose fiberglass insulation. It’s the plastic sheeting which stops that air.  And closed-cell foam sprayed between the joists further inhibits air infiltration.

Next, the windows and patio door were replaced with Energy Star-rated Champion products. Improving the windows further was the installation of insulating Hunter Douglas blinds.

Those are the improvements which made the home more energy efficient, bringing it past New Zero Energy. Other improvements worth noting which add value to this home are the large deck with seating on the sunny south side of the house, the beautiful oak Murphy bed with wall storage in the guest bedroom which allows the bedroom to be used as an office, and the 240-Volt wiring in the garage to provide EV charging.

Since this is a “paired home,” the  party wall already had double-wall construction with insulation which reduced the transmission of noise between the units, but my seller added a third wall which consumed 5 inches on the her side of the party wall, into which cellulose insulation was blown, creating an even better sound barrier.

I hope this article has inspired you to improve the energy efficiency of your own home, even if it hasn’t inspired you to call your agent or me at 303-525-1851 to arrange a private showing!

You can view a video tour of this  listing at http://www.ArvadaPatioHome.info narrated by me. It’s just like an actual showing!

NOTE: Showings begin on Monday, March 23rd.