Microprocessors double their speed every 18 months.  People now carry powerful computers in the palms of their hands, connecting to virtually anyone on the planet through the Internet.  Technologies are advancing rapidly, yet we still build the vast majority of our homes using 19th century methods (stick-built, balloon frame)… Why has residential construction been somewhat comatose when it’s been surrounded by such technological evolution?  Certainly a tough question that demands much more attention than it’s currently getting… I don’t have the answer, but what I do have is an example of how homes SHOULD be built today… Let me introduce you to the NZE House, designed and constructed by architropic.

Located in Boulder, CO, the 3,000 sq foot abode is a shining example of how to use building technologies correctly.  It is called the NZE because it is a ‘net-zero energy’ home… it produces as much renewable energy as the house and its occupants use… pretty incredible!  To reach this goal, many innovative passive and active features were implemented in both the design and construction phases.  For starters, the home was passively oriented towards the south, gaining the suns rays for heat in the winter months.  Secondly, an incredibly energy efficient building envelope was created to insulate interior thermal conditions… a rockin’ R-33 double-studded wall system featuring advanced framing (24″ on center instead of 16″) and foam insulation help to make the structure extremely air tight.

Another element brought into the construction phase was a heat recovery ventilator… HRVs are mechanical systems that recover energy from exhaust air…. kinda like squeezing every last drop from the energy inside a home.  HRVs are also used to neutralize pressure between indoors and out… when pressures are not matched, air flow is impossible to stop through thermal breaks like exhaust fans, windows, and electrical outlets… basically, HRVs are our da bomb and should become mandatory in new construction!

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With a ridiculously efficient building envelope, energy requirements were cut drastically below traditional construction standards… this also made it significantly more attainable to reach the prestigious net-zero status as smaller on-site renewable energy systems were required to make up the distance.  Photovoltaic panels were placed on the roof to offset electricity and an array of solar thermal tubes were designed to send hot water to a 512-gallon storage tank below the house… this hot water was then converted into heat and distributed throughout the home.

For cooling, a geothermal system was set up to tap into the constant cool temperature underground.  A couple feet below the foundation, temperatures vary from 50-55 degrees year round… a nice chill for that hot summer day!

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Another key component to the design of the NZE House is its relatively modest size… It’s easy to add room after room into a new home design… the temptation is certainly there to have a second living room, home theater, guest quarters, wine cellar, etc.  It’s a bit more difficult to cram all of one’s needs into a smaller footprint… architropic was able to do this by integrating a lot of functional design elements (and a 350 sq/ft home office) into a 3,000 sq/ft layout.  Building small also saves a nice chunk of change…. a general rule of thumb is 500 sq/ft of construction costs about $70,000, which can go a LONG ways in energy upgrades!

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Photo credits: Allison Fleetwood

So yeah, a pretty incredible project that is showing the residential market what’s up… A couple years back, many thought net-zero energy homes were decades off.  Efforts like these are proving that the strategies and technologies to make this concept a reality are not a distant pipe dream but are here today… and they can’t come soon enough.  Like I started the post off with, our housing stock and building methods are outdated and are in desperate need of an innovation overhaul.  As homes like these further develop, costs will come down, reliance on fossil fuels will be reduced and new jobs will be created… who can argue with that? (besides petrol lobbyists of course!)

-j

About Joshua Foss


Joshua is a leading voice for transformational change. He is the editor of Metro Hippie, co-founder and director of development of the Ecala Group, and adjunct faculty at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He is also an ambassador for the Living Building Challenge and is a frequent speaker at national conferences, trade shows and summits.