Builders Seek Green in Building Green
Energy labels, solar communities and net-zero homes being offered.
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Meritage Home’s 9-panel Echo Solar System array cuts energy use in half, and also heats air and water. Home buyers can now cut energy use to zero with affordable net-zero homes.
May 31, 2011 by Steven Castle

Are you one of the few people thinking of buying a new home? As in brand, spankin’ new? You may want to. Several major homebuilders are embracing energy efficiency and green building practices. KB Homes, Ashton Woods Homes and Pulte Group (including Centex and Del Webb communities) are providing home energy labels that give an energy score so prospective homebuyers can compare the energy efficiencies of their potential new digs.

The energy labels are based on a HERS (Home Energy Rating System) index, with 100 being a typical home and zero indicating a zero-energy or net-zero home that produces all of its own energy.

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Net Zero Production Homes

Meritage Homes, based in Arizona, has gone one step further. The company has built a net-zero home, which produces all its own energy, and will build a net-zero home in any of its communities that also feature solar power.

Meritage’s first net-zero home was built in the Verrado developmet in Buckeye, Ariz., and the company gave away another net-zero home in its Lyon’s Gate community in Gilbert, Ariz., on Memorial Day.

The first net zero home, owned by Bruce Ploeser and his family, is a 3,400-square-foot home costing $326,000. It features an Echo Solar System 15,000-kilowatt, 24-panel photovoltaic solar array that also heats water and air for heating and domestic hot water use, by using 180-degree air that collects behind the solar PV panels. In addition, the net-zero house is built with better insulation, energy-efficient lighting and features Energy Star-rated appliances.

C.R. Herro, vice president of environmental affairs for Meritage, says the home is an upgrade from its solar homes that use nine-panel, 8,000-kw photovoltaic systems. The Echo systems feature web-based energy monitoring so homeowners can check on their solar system’s production and performance, as well as the hot water temperature.

Though the first step for Meritage isn’t using green technology, but simply building a better-insulated, tighter home.  “Conventional buildings recondition the air 70 times a day. We can reduce air leakage 25 times, and with energy efficient windows, can cut energy use in half,” Herro says.

Meritage wasn’t going to do solar, because the company couldn’t find the value in installing such expensive system, but then found Echo Solar. “We’re getting two to three times more energy out of it,” Herro says of Echo’s ability to provide air and water heating, along with electricity. The heat expended by the solar panels collects beneath them and is ducted into the house via air vents.

According to MSN Real Estate, Meritage’s homes start at $140,000 in Tucson, Ariz., and $160,000 in Las Vegas, with a nine-panel solar array on the rooftop standard. An additional 24 panels, which will make the home net-zero, are a $10,000 to $15,000 upgrade. The HERS rating goes from the mid-20s to zero, Herro says.

And according to Herro, a $10,000 rebate from the federal government (tax credit) and Arizona make the option virtually free.

Race to Green?

Why are major homebuilders, usually considered so conservative and (ahem) unchanging, embracing the brave new world of energy efficiency, alternative energies and green building?

For one, it’s to stand out in an increasingly restricted market. “It makes sense to come to market with value that can’t be replaced today,” Herro says. “Otherwise you’re a commodity, and being a commodity in this economy is a terrible thing.”

Meritage, for one, is also saving homeowners interested in energy efficiency and green building from having to research reams of information about doing that.

“The average consumer is changing perceptions. [Buying a home is not] just about location and counter tops, but how well the home performs,” Herro says. “But it’s too much to expect even well informed consumers to go through the whole process of building.”

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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