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Zero Energy Ready Homes: An Interview with Chris Urbanus

We sat down with Chris Urbanus, Director of Burgess Energy Services, to talk about the hot topic of the Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home program- what it is, how it works, and the impact the program has on the future of home building.

So, what are Zero Energy Ready Homes?

Chris Urbanus (CU): In short, Zero Energy Ready Homes are high performance homes that are designed with the future in mind. The program was introduced by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2008 as a kind of “all-in-one” package to homebuyers looking for solutions in reducing energy consumption, increasing long-term value, and enhancing comfort and durability. The program has several requirements. Meeting ENERGY STAR standards and full certification in the EPA’s Indoor airPlus Program to name a few. Zero Energy Ready Homes are built with the primary concept that by using the program’s criteria most or all of annual home energy used can be offset with renewable energy.

What builder incentives are available for constructing Zero Energy Ready Homes?

CU: Currently, there are no direct incentives to builders for choosing to build Zero Energy Ready Homes. However, most utility rebate incentive programs allocate funds to builders based on their performance compared to a home built to code minimum standards. A Zero Energy Ready Home is going to perform at a much higher level with lower operating costs, which will afford the builder more incentive dollars to reinvest in their energy efficiency efforts. We have seen cases where builders are able to sell at higher values utilizing this program. The builder, in those cases, was able to educate the buyer about the performance of the program and that spending would be less overall when the buyer factored in energy cost savings over time. Buyer education is key.

How many ZERH projects has Burgess worked on? I read that 1,000 ZERH were built in 2016.

CU: To date, we have worked on two that were specifically part of the DOE’s ZERH program. We also work with clients who are involved in projects that are close to the same level without actively pursuing the ZERH certification. Code standards are definitely becoming more stringent. As the industry progresses, I imagine that at some point in the near future, every new home will meet or exceed the requirements of the program.

Do we handle ZERH inspections different from typical inspections?

CU: The inspection process is not that different from an Energy Star Home, per se. There are additional elements that add to our scope of work, but the main difference is the collection, storage and reporting of documentation that builders provide in order to verify the compliance with the DOE ZERH program.

In what regions are Zero Energy Rating Homes most popular?

CU: Our involvement with ZERH has primarily been in the North Texas and Colorado markets. Boulder County, Colorado has one of the most stringent adoptions of the 2015 IECC with requirements (depending on home size) that make participation with the ZERH program mandatory. We have been involved with 11 homes in Boulder County, all of which had varying energy compliance targets based on the 2015 IECC adoption. Many of which had Home Energy Rating System (HERS) index targets in the low double digits and some in the single digits.

Do you foresee this becoming the standard for all homes in the future?

CU: I foresee more community developers moving toward LEED certification for homes in their developments, so it would make sense that these same developers would move builders toward this strategy. Whether it becomes standard practice is tough to say; it is a relatively costly certification and as you have heard most volume builders are hesitant to reduce their margins so dramatically. On the other hand, Energy Code continues to drive the market toward these solutions so it is feasible that builders could adopt ZERH certification as a standard if they are going to be required to utilize a majority of the strategies for code compliance anyway.

Why will builders benefit from having a consultant on their team when building a ZERH?

CU: For a builder, a qualified consultant will have access to strategies and ideas that may be unavailable to a busy purchasing and construction management team. Our work with other clients and the lessons we have learned through the process allow us to provide new insight to the next client that can help them to see the potential road blocks ahead; and collaborate with their purchasing and construction teams to make the most cost effective decisions in pursuit of ZERH certification.

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