House & Home

Net-WHAT?! The Net-Zero Building Trend and You

Posted August 28, 2013

This just in, in case you missed it: Green design is hot. And with a flood of different approaches, products, certification programs, and more hitting the market, it's hard for eco-conscious consumers to keep it all straight. Here at Networx, we like to empower you, the consumer, with the information you need to make great choices about your life -- and if we can help the environment along the way, so much the better.

Today, we're taking a closer look at so-called "net zero" home design and construction. In a nutshell, it involves building a home that has an annual net energy consumption of, well, zero. Such homes use a combination of alternative energy generation methods like solar and wind to harvest energy and efficiency measures such as high-efficiency HVAC systems, specially-designed insulating windows, and more, all to reduce energy use in the first place.

So while the home uses energy, it also generates it, and in the end, the balance comes out to zero. The home is self-sustaining, and everybody, including the environment, wins. It gets better, though. Some net-zero homes actually generate an excess of energy, because they're just that good, and they're known as "energy plus" homes. Imagine an electrical meter running backwards, and you'll have a good literal and metaphorical idea of how such homes work: that's right, they can actually feed energy back into the grid and generate income for their occupants.

Net zero is a very, very new concept. This budding industry trend is just getting started, with advocates both building new homes and looking at retrofits of existing homes to bring them to a net zero state; San Francisco remodeling firms, for example, are very interested in net zero and other low-energy home designs because of demands from their customers. The relative newness of net zero (although it already has its own certification program) means that everyone is still testing the boundaries and learning more about how it works and how it can improve. 

In this type of construction, contractors think from the ground up. They use insulation in much the way it's used in a passive house, to retain heat in the winter and keep houses cool in the summer. Double-paned windows help control the interior climate too, as do interior air circulation fans to keep air moving without allowing the outside temperature to unduly influence the indoor temperature. A good net zero home also has a well-insulated roof along with options like solar panels, active and passive solar heating measures, and other choice green design elements to both conserve and generate energy.

Such homes can be complemented by their surroundings, as well. Good landscaping can help with temperature control (hint: keep big trees away from a house so they don't heavily shade it in the winter, making it feel colder), and the landscaping can become part of the energy reduction, too. Drought-tolerant plants and other environmentally-appropriate landscaping can become integrated into the design of the home, and the addition of food plants can provide a snack right outside the back door so people don't have to go to the store for basic staples.

While they don't have to be, net zero homes can be part of a net zero lifestyle, where the goal is to bring the carbon footprint as close to possible to zero. Reducing emissions related to the home is a huge part of keeping overall emissions down, as many homes contribute a huge share of pollution every year, though it may be indirect. Just because houses don't have coal stacks pumping out CO2 doesn't mean they're not involved in the consumption of fossil fuels to manage their numerous systems.

Some ambitious projects, like this development in New York, are bringing net zero closer to the masses and making it more accessible. They're working with the government in the hopes of making their designs more affordable, because cost is a serious obstacle to many people interested in the concept; unfortunately, building to protect the planet often isn't cheap. That's changing as more and more people adopt the building techniques and technologies recommended by firms involved in green design, but right now, it can be a bank-busting endeavor. 

Keep an eye on net zero construction, because this development in the green design and construction industry may just grow legs.

Katie Marks writes for

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