Zero-Energy Homes

A Passive House, utilizing photovoltaic panels. (Shutterstock.com)

The Future Is Now

By Donald Gilpin

Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of all greenhouse gases, and every building, including your home, creates CO2 through the energy used in construction and the energy required to operate it.

Most climate scientists (along with the Paris Agreement of 2015) warn that the world must reach net-zero carbon by 2050 to avoid the most disastrous effects of heat, flooding, sea level rise, and weather extremes. The climate crisis is an international security threat, as it increasingly creates dislocation of millions and migration of vast populations. This climate-fueled instability creates military tensions, financial hazards, and world health emergencies.

In the United States the climate catastrophe has resulted in record droughts in the West; wildfires in California, Montana, Utah and elsewhere; power grids strained in Texas and throughout the nation; reservoir water supplies at record lows; flooding throughout the country; and pervasive crises caused by extreme weather.

Sooner or later – and many experts say our planet’s survival depends on making that sooner – all buildings will need to achieve net-zero carbon. Homeowners and buyers, as well as designers and builders, must focus on net-zero carbon in all facets of construction, renovations, and operation. This may extend further as time goes on, for example, if a homeowner needs an electrician in Charlotte or wherever they are based, then these professionals might need to be trained in eco-friendly services and know how to service a home that has been constructed with net-zero carbon, the same can be a possibility for others like plumbers and contractors.

Ed Jenks’ zero-energy home. (Photo courtesy of Ed Jenks)

Ed Jenks’ Zero-Energy Home

On a cold, rainy morning in early February I visited Ed Jenks in his zero-energy home, one of very few in the state, nestled in a wooded setting just off Route 12 near Flemington.

“Ed’s house is unique in that he had a full commitment to meeting the criteria of a net- zero end result, which is a very ambitious goal, especially in our climate with its heating and cooling demands,” said Rob Faucett, the architect and builder who teamed up with Jenks in the planning and construction of his home. “Not everyone is willing to make that level of commitment. He was very committed to hitting that goal net zero in every aspect of his house – and he did it. It’s quite impressive.”

About eight years ago, Jenks and his wife Joan decided to move to the Flemington area to live closer to one of their daughters and their grandchildren, but they were unable to find a one-story house that suited their purposes for aging in place.

“All the one-floor houses in the area were built in the ’50s, ’60s, or ’70s,” Jenks wrote in his Net-Zero House blog (net-zerohouse.com). “All had poor insulation, poor windows, and small rooms.”
So, they decided to plan and build their own comfortable, energy-efficient home, designed to resemble a 1920s Craftsman dwelling.

With its focus on human-made craftsmanship and the beauty of natural materials and forms, the Craftsman style, with the appeal of its simplicity, remains popular for homes. Some of the distinctively Craftsman-like characteristics in Jenks’ home, are the low-pitched roof with gables and overhanging eaves, the earth tones – light green and brown, the one-and-a-half-stories height, and the wide front and back porches held up by tapered columns. Along with that, the large windows letting in plenty of natural light make for a complete eco-friendly look to the home. Such windows can be used in zero-energy homes as a way to regulate the light and heat inside the home, with options such as secondary glazing windows offering much on that front. The hunt for one of the Best Secondary Glazing in London companies could be the first step in getting such windows installed. Homeowners may look to such service providers in their vicinity so as to begin their contribution towards creating a zero-energy home.

Jenks started his career more than 50 years ago as an IBM field engineer fixing IBM mainframe computers – “the most complex machine ever made,” he claimed. He moved into management at IBM in 1979, worked in the federal systems division of IBM and then Lockheed Martin for many years before “retiring.” Then he went into real estate investing and started a construction business in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

“My background is in computer analysis, then 20 years in IBM management,” he said. “I challenge things. I question.” He is a problem-solver, and the problem he decided to solve seven years ago was how to build a net-zero energy home. “I knew energy efficiency was the way to go,” he said. “I didn’t know much about it then, but I spent two years researching it.”

Jenks knew he could build a home that was more energy efficient than anything on the market, but he did not know how far he could go.

Ed Jenks’ zero-energy home. (Photo courtesy of Ed Jenks)

He first came across the Passive House, a concept developed in the early 1990s in Germany. A Passive House is an ultra-low energy building with reduced ecological footprint requiring little energy for heating or cooling. It is designed to capture solar energy to help heat the house. The house would face south with lots of windows on the south side and no windows on the north side.

Jenks was not satisfied with the Passive House concept for his New Jersey home. He did his research and started going to conferences. He saw difficulties in trying to gain passive solar heat energy, not the least of which was overheating the house in the summer. “Maybe it worked in Germany,” he said, “but in the United States it didn’t sound right.”

As for the Passive House certificate to hang on the wall, “I didn’t care about the piece of paper,” said Jenks, “I just wanted a comfortable house.”

In his research Jenks came across the term “net-zero house,” a standard created by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). He was looking for a comfortable house and the lowest possible energy bills, and after reading several DOE and Canadian studies on net-zero he decided that was the route to take.

Jenks knew a lot before he started on the path to zero energy, and he learned a lot more along the way. “The easiest way to describe a net-zero house is that it is built like a thermos bottle with windows,” he wrote in his blog. “It’s a house that is so well insulated and so tight it takes very little energy to heat or cool it.”

The whole idea, if you’re building an energy-efficient house, whether it is a park home or a traditional one, is two things: insulation and tightness, how tightly the house is sealed.

He cited examples of homes he had read about that would retain almost all their heat overnight despite sub-freezing temperatures. “And heating bills going from thousands of dollars a year to low hundreds,” he added. “Then what little energy it takes to run the house, that gets covered by a small solar photovoltaic (PV) system.” (Solar panels cover the roof of Jenks’ garage.)

Abundant, strategically placed insulation is key, from the basement floor and walls to the above-ground walls and the roof. This would especially benefit park homes, given that proper park home insulation can help keep the residents cool in summer and warm in winter, which could be important since many residents tend to move from one place to another quite frequently. “The idea is a continuous flow of insulation surrounding the house,” he wrote.

His large basement includes R-10 insulation under the floor and R-20 in the walls, with R-40/45 in exterior walls and R50/60 under the roof.

A crucial problem Jenks had to solve was “thermal bridging,” the conductivity of heat and cold through walls, doors, windows – a major source of energy loss. “Thermal bridging is a four-letter word in house construction,” he said. “In a traditional exterior wall the studding will thermal bridge cold into the house, so will traditional windows, sill plates, and on and on, so fighting bridging is a high goal.”

Strips of insulation helped Jenks to “break the thermal linkage” and stop the cold on the outside from coming in. He insisted on two 10-inch-thick walls and a 10-inch cavity between them built to break the thermal barrier.

For insulation, Jenks used a combination of cellulose and spray cell foam. He found a vendor in Easton, Pennsylvania, who sold the product he was looking for and was interested in his zero-energy project. They sealed up as many leaks as possible by spraying two or three inches of closed cell foam on the inside and a layer of high R value cellulose next to it.

The doors of the house are another energy-saving measure. They are all thermal doors with an R-19 value and latching in several places. “It closes like a refrigerator door,” said Jenks. “It’s airtight. When it closes it pulls the seal in.”

All the windows and doors are from the same manufacturer based in Cork, Ireland. “The Europeans are way ahead of us on this,” Jenks said. He showed me the European-style windows. They are triple-paned, three panes of thick glass for each window, with an insulation value of R-7. The outer pane, of course, felt cold to the touch, but the inner pane was completely warm. “And because it’s not cold,” he added, “it’s not chilling the air next it.”

He continued, “If your house is airtight and you have double-pane Andersen windows, this inside pane will be cold. It chills the air. And you have a draft, so you feel air movement in your house even though you don’t have a leak.”

The next step was sheathing the house, using R-6 value insulated zip sheathing, after which they tested the house for air leaks, then worked to minimize those leaks. At one point in the process Jenks went down into the basement when there was no light on and was alarmed to see light coming in through the cracks. “I had about 50 leaks,” he said. “We’d done everything possible to eliminate them, but because it was dark in there, I was able to go around where I saw all the leaks and I marked them with blue tape for the guys to come in to recaulk. We did the same thing upstairs.”

The next step on Jenks’ zero-energy quest was a blower door test. The Easton insulation man came back, and mounted a box with a fan in the front door. They measured the amount of air being sucked out of the house to tell whether there were any leaks. With a smoke wand they were able to locate a few small leaks, which they plugged up.

“This house is airtight,” said Jenks, “about as airtight as a house can possibly be.”

The house has a small ventilation system which brings outside air in and takes inside air out. It takes the heat in the house out of the air and puts it into the cold air coming in, so the cold air that it’s bringing in is warmed up before it gets into the house and comes in at 60 degrees, only taking heat out of the existing air, not making heat.

Jenks added that his hot water heater is a heating pump, not using electric coils to make heat but taking heat out of the air in the house. The heating in the house is provided by a ductless heating system – a minisplit, the smallest available at 9000 BTUs – but no heating is necessary throughout the fall. There’s another small minisplit in the bedroom, but it has hardly ever been used. “We didn’t know,” said Jenks. “Nobody knew what would heat this house. It hadn’t been done before.”

He continued, “The house almost self-heats, which is why our energy bill is so low, about $250 per year. A solar panel covers the cost.”

The house has a small second floor used for guests about three times a year when family is in town, but it’s closed off and never heated or air-conditioned. It stays at about 60 degrees all year.

“Everybody should do this,” Jenks emphasized. “It cost only 10 to 15 percent more to build this house, about $700,000 total, and I didn’t spare expenses. It’s built for quality. Look at the baseboards, the windows. Look at the Craftsman look. Everything is done to a high standard.”

“Everything I added has paid off,” he said, pointing out that the savings in energy costs had already paid for the extra building costs incurred. “We got paid back and we have a house that’s more comfortable,” he said.

“You’re looking for a high energy-efficiency, airtight house,” he summed up. “Those are the two things you’re trying to produce. If you believe in climate change, you have to believe that human beings are the reason for it. For that reason alone you should do this, but also because of costs. You’re going to save money if you’re going to stay in a house for at least five to 10 years, and you’re going to have a more comfortable house.”

Ed Jenks’ zero-energy home features specially insulated building framing, doors, and windows. (Photo courtesy of Ed Jenks)

Faucett Construction

Faucett, who is CEO of R Faucett Construction in Flemington, was impressed with the extent of Jenks’ knowledge and understanding. “It was a nice arrangement. We became partners in the building of the house. He brought a lot of resources to the table, and we leaned on each other for knowledge and information to make decisions together that would accomplish his goals and create a comfortable environment for him and his family. I don’t have many clients who are that committed to every aspect of the house the way he was. It’s impressive. He was committed to hitting that goal of net zero, and he did.”

He continued, “If I had the option to build every single house to that standard, I would be happy to do that. I wish I had more opportunities to build to that level. That’s ultimately the most responsible way to build.”

He said that state and municipal building codes are influencing the way people build and he predicted that they would evolve to push all home builders in the direction that Jenks took towards zero energy. California is already approaching the zero model as a baseline, he noted.

“It will take some time to get to that level,” said Faucett, “but it’s not going to be that far down the road when every house will need to be built that way. California is probably about 10 years ahead of the rest of the country. That’s the way we’ll have to build out of necessity, but we’re not there yet. It will be more and more common, not necessarily because more people are making those decisions, but because those decisions will be imposed on them.”

Faucett and his company have focused on sustainable construction and renovation throughout the region for several years, though many clients are not as committed to energy efficiency as Jenks. “Some of the houses we work on have just one or two sustainable components and other projects have a full commitment to be 100 percent sustainable, and we’ve worked on everything in between,” he said.

Sustainability in construction, Faucett noted, almost always requires the willingness to pay a bit more, to make an investment. Sustainable components don’t necessarily add a lot of costs, but they add some costs, so there needs to be a willingness to invest. Sometimes you get your money back quickly, sometimes it takes more time. “You just make a commitment to doing the right thing, and if they have the resources to do that, some people will make those decisions regardless of the time it takes to recoup the investment,” he said. “It depends on people’s priorities, but construction is expensive right now.”

High-performance insulation with a spray foam rather than fiberglass is probably the most effective and popular single option, he emphasized. “People immediately recognize the comfort level and obviously the energy efficiency,” he said. “That’s the most common upgrade that people are willing to make.”

As a relatively easy upgrade to a regular house, Faucett recommended the Energy Star rating, a program run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the DOE to promote energy efficiency. Many different products and buildings bear the Energy Star label, including appliances like washing machines that use less water or driers that consume less energy. The same concept, meeting certain standards above and beyond the baseline, can qualify homes as Energy Star structures and provide resale value as well as opportunities for tax credits.

Opting for electric appliances over gas and oil is also a decision that is both environmentally conscious and smart, according to Faucett. “When you’re burning any kind of fossil fuel, you’re not doing the environment any favors and you’re adding to pollution,” he said, adding that electric heating and cooling systems have rapidly become increasingly efficient in terms of energy use and cost “to the point where they can compete dollar for dollar with any gas-fired systems that are out there.”

Faucett pointed out that more and more people are opting for electric heating and cooling systems which include heat pumps, as well as geothermal systems, which are more expensive up front but pay off in the long run. He also noted that more people are considering solar panels and accommodations for car chargers for electric vehicles. This could involve the expertise of professional electricians who can perform a panel upgrade for the home, to accommodate the newer, energy-efficient appliances along with EV chargers and solar power stations.

“I challenge my clients to build responsibly and building responsibly means building a house that’s going to consume the least fuel, in sourcing materials locally, in minimizing the materials that are coming from overseas, in framing the house in such a way that you minimize the amount of lumber going into the house, and just being smart about how your house is constructed.”

He continued, “With the internet everybody has the opportunity to do their homework. Everybody has access to the knowledge and data, and I encourage my clients to research different options for themselves and to understand those options based on what’s important to them and having an open discussion with their builder and their architect to decide whether a certain component is a good one to include in their new home.”

Thermal image of the first Passive House in New York City, in blue, on a 12 degree F winter night. Yellow and red indicate heat loss. (Shutterstock.com)

Zero-Energy Activists

One of the most helpful resources in investigating what choices to make in seeking to save energy, Faucett noted, is 475 High Performance Building Supply, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a national leader in green building and zero-energy construction. “The people over there are the most committed and the most knowledgeable people I know on the subject of specialty construction components to build a sustainable house,” said Faucett.

Johnny Rezvani, 475’s director of communications, emphasized the importance of air-sealing tape and airtightness for the greatest impact on a building’s energy efficiency in heating and cooling.
“Low-energy buildings are essential to realizing our post-carbon future – mitigating the worst effects of climate change,” the 475 website states. “So, at our core, we are activists for a sustainable environment.”

Rezvani added, “Consequently 475’s mission is to supply essential materials, building components, and knowledge that will lead to a transformation of the North American construction industry toward making durable, high performance passive house and zero-energy buildings.”

He recommended a visit to the 475 website at foursevenfive.com to find numerous tips for driving down the energy usage of any building. “Those of us in the high performance building community are seeing far greater demand than ever before,” he wrote in an email. “Although the reason many of us do the work we do is to promote low-energy, low-carbon building, the main draw in the last few years has clearly pivoted to a desire for greater health, comfort, and control over indoor environments.”

He continued, “We arrived at those buildings by focusing on carbon emissions, but ultimately people choose them because they’re higher quality and provide a greater living space.”

Rezvani explained that the net-zero energy building is not just a building of the future. It’s here today. “People are building like this around the world today for nearly the same cost as standard construction,” he said. “It’s important to seek out architects and builders who understand how this is done affordably and who are familiar with the methods to achieve it.”

Growth of ZE units from 2015-2020. (Courtesy of the Zero Energy Project)

The Zero Energy Project

Another rich source of information on zero-energy building is Joe Emerson, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Zero Energy Project (zeroenergyproject.org).

About 10 years ago, Emerson, a retired nutritionist who had a company called Emerson Ecologics, which sold nutritional supplements to doctors all over the country, was planning to move to Bend, Oregon.

“I went on a green and solar tour of houses, taking a tour of these supposedly energy-efficient homes – and none of them were energy-efficient,” he said in a phone conversation from his energy-efficient home in Oregon. “It really annoyed me that none of them were energy efficient.”

So, Emerson started learning about zero-energy homes and decided to build one. He worked with builders, got involved with a number of zero-energy construction projects, and launched his Zero Energy Project. “Because of my business I had some background in marketing, so when we built a website we wanted to be sure it would be an effective marketing tool for zero-energy construction,” he said.

Emerson described the progress towards zero-energy buildings as slow but picking up speed, especially over the past two or three years.

“Nationwide we’ve had a good impact,” he said. “Our goal is to urge designers and homeowners to get on the path to zero and zero-energy homes. They should also get electric energy vehicles, zero-energy homes and transportation, zero-energy living.”

There are many possible steps towards zero energy, Emerson noted, steps that everybody can take. “There are so many things to do, and they’re easy to do when you’re renovating,” he said. His first recommendation was to go all-electric: a heat pump electric water heater to replace the gas water heater, a heat induction stove, and a heat pump heating system, just for starters. The website provides a wide variety of additional suggestions for insulation and other energy-saving strategies.

“Princeton residents are the people who should be leading the effort to get to zero,” Emerson said. “They are also probably the people who are most concerned about global warming, who talk about it with colleagues, friends, and families. They may be members of environmental groups. They may be environmentally conscious but not environmentally active, and the action has to start in their own homes.”

He continued, “The clock is ticking, and most people are sitting on their thumbs. This is a call to action to the Princeton area. Get on the path to zero.”

He urged anyone with questions to email him at joe@zeroenergyproject.org. “I hope to answer their questions and get them inspired,” he said.