Zero-Energy Homes: A New Direction in Energy-Efficient Home Building

An energy-efficient home is about more than expensive photovoltaic panels and wind turbines. Zero-energy homes produce as much energy as they consume, and these exciting abodes are redefining what it means to build green.

| September 15, 2010

  • Toward A Zero Energy Home
    From bungalows to ranches to houses in urban and rural settings, most any home can become a zero-energy home. “Toward a Zero Energy Home” showcases 12 houses built for zero-energy living, and guides readers through the design process of these truly green dwellings.
  • Vermont Zero Energy House
    Zero-energy houses, such as this one in Vermont, start with carefully detailed building envelopes. Controlling air leaks through exterior walls and roof and adding lots of insulation reduce the amount of energy needed for heating and cooling.

  • Toward A Zero Energy Home
  • Vermont Zero Energy House

The following is an excerpt from Toward a Zero Energy Home by David Johnston and Scott Gibson (The Taunton Press, 2010). This comprehensive home energy self-sufficiency guide explores the design of zero-energy, near-zero-energy, off-the-grid and carbon-neutral homes from start to finish, giving readers an unparalleled look at these emerging trends in environmentally friendly building. This excerpt is from the Introduction, “The Case for Zero Energy Houses.” 

The petroleum economy bared its teeth in 2008, and it wasn’t pretty. In mid-July, the cost of a barrel of crude oil reached an all-time high of $147, a 50 percent increase in just seven months and a threefold jump in three years. A few months later, as the world economy took a nosedive, prices dropped to less than $60 a barrel and gas prices dipped to nearly $2 a gallon. Heating oil customers in the Northeast who had locked in a winter’s worth of fuel at more than $4.70 a gallon looked wistfully at a cash price of less than $2.20. It was the most recent upheaval in our fossil fuel economy, and it almost certainly won’t be the last.

The cost of oil has a huge impact on every corner of the economy, in part because we continue to use so much of the stuff. Americans manage to burn more than 20 million barrels of petroleum products a day. About 12 million barrels of that is imported, making us the world’s largest consumer. Until a few years ago, that didn’t seem to matter. Oil was relatively cheap, and the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s was long forgotten. Now it matters a great deal as the developing world competes for a bigger share of this limited resource.

All of this affects how much we pay for energy. But the cost of fuel oil or gasoline looks like small potatoes in comparison with the environmental consequences of burning the enormous quantities of oil, natural gas and coal we pull from the Earth. Climatologists link an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases to a steady rise in average global temperatures and a variety of climate changes, some of which may prove catastrophic. Carbon dioxide — a byproduct of burning hydrocarbons — is an especially noticeable culprit. Glaciers are melting. Weather patterns are changing, bringing bigger, more frequent storms to some regions and droughts and high temperatures to others. High energy costs and a lack of potable water could make some parts of the globe very difficult places to live in the future. Worse, climate changes are occurring faster than scientists had predicted only a few years ago.

What does building houses have to do with any of this? A lot. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 40 percent of all primary energy consumed in the United States and 70 percent of the electricity produced by U.S. power plants goes directly to commercial and residential buildings. By some estimates, buildings are responsible for 48 percent of the carbon released into the atmosphere.

This is where sustainable building first found a toehold. Using less energy for heating and cooling makes houses less expensive to live in while reducing their environmental impact. Other fundamentals of green building help buildings last longer, give them healthier interiors, and helped reduce the natural resources needed to construct them. People got it. Green building has prospered. As we write this, green building is just about the only good news in the building industry.

5/27/2011 8:39:24 AM

Clearly oil funded propaganda is creating climate change denialists but it brings nothing to the conversation. The science is clear that the climate is changing - regardless of the reason. It's also undeniable that most of the world is heavily reliant on sources of energy which are beginning to diminish and are more and more expensive and risky to obtain. (All of the oil leaked in the recent Gulf disaster, the largest of its kind - amounted to just 6 hours of consumption in the US - was it worth it?). Energy efficient homes just make sense. However, I do want to point out a home cannot 'create' energy and that the grid cannot store electricity. Solar panels convert energy from the sun into electricity. Power plants convert sources of energy, be it nuclear, coal, gas or otherwise into electricity. The grid is very inefficient and electricity entering it is either used or it goes to waste. So a 'net-zero' home achieved by a grid tied home may not be a huge improvement. Off grid, in my opionion is much better but it needn't be the huge sacrifice suggested by this author. In any case, the conversation is good but denying anything is not useful.

Steve R
9/20/2010 10:02:55 PM

Lots and lots of green rhetoric!! But no new ideas. I've read this article, or many other ones like it since the Oil Embargo and Jimmy Carter. I KNOW that I need to use less energy. I KNOW that I need to be more green. I KNOW that I need to make a difference. Tell me how to build this zero-energy house. Tell me where the builders are, the products are, the suppliers are. However, I'm with James above, I didn't believe it before, I believe it even less now. But I have a finite amount of money to live on. Saving money is a good idea regardless of your political leanings. Believe it or not, many CONSERVatives, believe that we need to CONSERVE, I'm one of them. Conservation is NOT a left wing, liberal ideal.

M-Kaye Richards
9/20/2010 6:41:30 PM

Here we read again and the same thing again. I know as do most readers know why we need energy effeciency homes; but where is all the info: one place said the roof over hang should be 4' for summer shading; what about the 'slip' forms? how thick should the glass be for passive energy? is there any one place where there is all this info.????

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