This Net-Zero House

A Jamestown home gets an efficiency makeover

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Architect Donald Powers has designed a number of “net-zero” communities with his firm over the years; that is, communities with homes that over the course of a full year, make as much energy as they use. Finally, he was tired of only talking the talk and sought to walk the walk. Along with his wife Dana and teenage sons Nate and Theo, Donald set out to find a home of their own to renovate and make net-zero. They found a 1,000-square-foot cottage in Jamestown built in the 1920s with two bedrooms and one bath. “That didn’t really matter to us because we knew we’d be completely gutting into the stud and starting over,” explains Donald, who ultimately doubled the size of the home.

Although the Powers family already had four home renovations under their belt, this project was different. “The hardest part is getting the whole design and construction team to buy into the goals and pay attention to the details as they are building it,” says Donald. “We had a great team who all really got it.” He says his contractors knew what they were getting into and all the critical areas that needed to be addressed. “It’s all about reducing load and maximizing solar,” explains Donald.

In the winter, he explains, homes are typically net-negative when you are using more energy than the solar can produce. “In the summer, it switches, and you hope to be exporting energy to the grid. Over the whole year, you are trying to balance production of energy with the use of it.”

Donald specifically designed the barn to have a long, south-facing slope to carry a lot of solar panels by Vivint Solar, a residential solar provider. There are other factors that contribute to its maximum efficiency. The house is insulated to about double the required minimum, has triple glazed windows, and it is sealed against air leakage about three times better than the aver- age new home. “Also, all of the fixtures, appliances, and systems are the highest efficiency possible,” adds Donald.

Besides the obvious benefit of little to no electric bill, Donald says the home is very comfortable due to the very little amounts of air flow required from the heating and cooling. “There are absolutely no drafts in the house,” he says. “It’s also extremely quiet — the triple glazed windows and the insulation really cut down on the noise transfer from the outside.”

“Even if you do not actually produce any energy through solar, the techniques of building a very well insulated, well air-sealed house requires a very good insulation system to bring in fresh air and manage humidity,” says Donald. “No house, no matter how well built to be net zero, [will be] if the occupants leave the lights on or windows open in the winter or are generally wasteful in how they live.”