ABC Green Homes – How an Orange County project is helping builders meet a mandate for ‘net zero’ homes

The Orange County Register

May 8, 2016

With the deadline less than four years away to start building homes that produce all their own power, California’s housing industry faces tough options and daunting technical obstacles.

Should walls be thicker? Should insulation be denser? Can lighting, heating, cooling and cooking become more efficient? Should roofs be flatter to orient more solar panels toward the sun?

But most daunting of all questions is this: How can they keep construction costs in line so buyers don’t forsake new housing for cheaper resale homes?

“Generally, the customer is not happy paying for any of this,” said Adrian Foley, regional president of Brookfield Residential of Southern California.

“That’s our battle,” he said. “… We’re going to have to re-engineer our solutions going forward. It’s not an easy road from a consumer’s standpoint. It’s not their first love.”

But an unheralded Orange County pilot project may be helping builders find the Holy Grail of green residential development: An affordable way to build the “net zero” home that produces as much power as it consumes.

The path to 2020

The pilot, ABC Green Home, seeks to build a net-zero home with existing materials and equipment at an affordable price.

The first ABC Green Home went on display at the Orange County Great Park in October 2012.

By the time the one-story, 1,700-square-foot, Craftsman-style home was dismantled last November, 30,000 people walked through it, including contractors, subcontractors, architects, builders and even a busload of construction officials from Shanghai, according to Green Homebuilding magazine publisher Nick Slevin, the project’s chief developer.

Southern California Edison partnered with Slevin, paying most of the concept home’s $300,000 building costs. Students from high school building programs helped with the construction.

“If we can build the greenest house in the land with a utility and high school kids, what can you do in the homebuilding business?” Slevin asked.

Now, two more ABC Green Homes are under construction, one in the San Gabriel Valley and another in Fullerton. The original dismantled home is about to be reconstructed in Santa Ana.

And three more homes are in the works. Eventually, the six ABC Green Homes will be sold to disabled veterans and their families through Habitat for Humanity, organizers said.

Habitat and Green Homebuilder advertisers are helping to pay for the last five homes. The cities of Walnut and Fullerton donated two of the three lots being used.

Some of the ABC Green Home’s features already have been adopted by homebuilding companies. Others have been ridiculed as too costly.

But the project has been applauded for helping show the way to meeting the state’s 2020 “net-zero energy” goal.

“This home was seen by industry professionals, both on the design side and the builder side,” said the first home’s designer, architect Manny Gonzalez of Irvine-based KTGY Architecture and Planning.

“When we get to 2020 and look at what got us there, the ABC Green Home certainly would be at the forefront of that effort.”

A net-zero mandate

New California building codes mandate that by 2020, every newly built home should produce as much power as it uses during the course of a year.

Builders say they expect to achieve that goal through a combination of reduced energy consumption and solar electricity production.

Added insulation, energy-efficient lighting and appliances, double- and triple-paned, coated windows – all features of the ABC Green Home – will help homes cut power consumption.

Those energy-saving features could add $20,000 to $50,000 to the cost of housing – on top of already high home prices, builders say.

But just as prices have dropped for everything from pocket calculators to electric vehicles, industry officials expect net-zero costs to fall as they achieve economies of scale.

“Because the state green code is driving toward this in 2020, (builders) are all trying to get better and do this in a cost-effective way,” said Mike Balsamo, CEO of the Building Industry Association of Orange County.

Builders already green

Concept homes like the ABC Green Home are not new.

The National Association of Home Builders annual builder’s show has featured a demonstration home since 1984, showcasing all kinds of features for developers to incorporate into their construction.

Green building has been a component of The New American Home program since at least 2009, said the NAHB’s Tucker Bernard, who oversees the program.

Los Angeles homebuilder KB Home has built 12 net-zero demonstration homes around the country since 2011, including one in Lake Forest and three others in California.

Since its first concept house went on display during a builder show in Orlando, construction costs for net-zero homes have dropped 50 percent and the time needed to build them has been reduced 75 percent, said Jacob Atally, KB Home’s vice president of sustainability.

KB Home also is teaming up with KTGY’s Gonzalez, the ABC Green Home’s first designer, to produce another demonstration house for the Greenbuild International Conference in downtown Los Angeles in October.

Sometime within the next year, the company plans to launch it’s first net-zero community for the mass market somewhere in Southern California.

“We’re beyond building homes for R&D,” Atally said.

Brookfield Residential of Southern California built a pilot net-zero home in Ontario in 2012. Now many of its homes are solar-ready, featuring thicker exterior walls with added insulation, features of the ABC Green Home, said Bart Hayashi, a Brookfield project manager in Costa Mesa.

Like the ABC home, Brookfield also uses more efficient water heaters and does leak tests on air ducts.

Irvine-based City Ventures has built 900 solar, all-electric townhomes in the past five years and has 500 such homes under construction from Chula Vista to Santa Rosa, said Herb Gardner, the company’s homebuilding president. The company also built 13 all-electric, solar houses in Carson.

On average, solar panels supply about 30 percent of the power used in City Venture’s homes.

“Are we on track to meet that (2020 net-zero goal)? I think the answer is yes,” Gardner said. “(But) it has to cost the same as a regular home.”

The basics of green

The key feature of ABC Green Homes is “tightening the envelope,” said Gonzalez and Don Neff, CEO of LJP Construction Services, which certified the first ABC Green Home as meeting green-building requirements.

Rather than build walls with 2-by-4 studs on 16-inch centers, the ABC Green Home used 2-by-6 studs set 24 inches apart.

Though that may or may not have saved lumber, it made walls thicker. Walls then were filled with spray foam, then encased in 2-inch-thick rigid foam panels for added insulation. Rafters were “healed” away from walls to provide more room for attic insulation.

That cut heating and cooling costs.

The home used more efficient heating, lighting and appliances. Tests were performed to make sure walls and ducts were leak proof.

Other green elements included a cistern to capture rain water, using grey water from showers to flush toilets and wheel-chair accessible doorways and counters.

Many of those items now are required as part of updated building codes, Neff said.

More builders use rigid foam and even spray foam to insulate exterior walls. Others mount conventional fiberglass insulation but use improved installation techniques to make it more effective.

Pressurized air tests also ensure that exterior walls and ducts don’t leak.

Vireak Ly, residential construction program manager for Southern California Edison, said the ABC Green Home’s insulation worked well.

What didn’t work? A heat pump that reused hot water from the drain to preheat incoming water. Less energy was needed to get fresh water hot.

“It’s technologically viable, but the cost was a lot higher than your standard water heater,” Ly said.

City Venture’s Gardner maintains that the ABC Green Home “put a lot of things in there I didn’t think were very cost-effective.”

Focusing on increased insulation needlessly increases construction costs at a time when solar panels are getting cheaper and more efficient, he said. Solar power costs half as much today as it did five years ago.

Eventually, Gardner said, homes won’t need the electrical power grid.

“You’re going to get more juice from solar panels,” he said.

Slevin, Green Homebuilding’s publisher, said designers are refining each new version of the ABC Green Home.

The Fullerton house, for example, will use 1-inch rigid foam instead of 2-inch-thick panels. It will use conventional fiberglass insulation rather than spray insulation. That will cut costs.

“We’re constantly tweaking the math,” Slevin said.

The BIA’s Balsamo said the ABC Green Home gives builders “a trial run on zero-net energy now, ahead of the 2020 mandate.”

It’s a huge risk, Neff added, for builders to make large capital investments in concept homes without knowing if buyers will accept them.

“Builders are very pragmatic, and (the ABC home) presented a very grounded pragmatic solution for the theory of green building,” he said.

The project “opened the door to builders. … They could see and touch and feel a home that was very green and way ahead of the curve.”

‘Greenbuild’ home will showcase the house of 2050

While California homebuilders grapple with requirements to build “net-zero” homes by 2020, a new concept home will show what a house will look like in 2050.

Called the Greenbuild KB ProjeKt, the home is planned as part of the Greenbuild International Conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Oct. 5-6.

Here’s one hint: The home will be modular, meaning that walls and other features will be prebuilt in factories. With modularity, it will be easier for residents to remodel their homes as their lifestyles change.

“That’s the vision for the future,” said Jacob Atalla, vice president of sustainability for KB Home, the project’s builder.

The goal will be to show three time periods: Today’s home, the home of 2020 and the home of 2050 – all under one roof.

The home’s designer is KTGY architect Manny Gonzalez, who designed the first ABC Green Home at the Orange County Great Park.

“There were a lot of things that we did on the ABC Green Home that we’re carrying forward on this house,” Gonzalez said.

Among them, making walls wider and leaving space between roof trusses and outer walls to allow for greater insulation of the home’s exterior.

“They’re just good, solid low-tech things that make sense,” Gonzalez said.

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