Arizona-based Meritage Homes—one of the top 10 home builders in the country—has been integrating standard energy-efficient and sustainable elements into its homes for years, which has resulted in production homes that are 80% more efficient than existing homes.
Now, the company has raised the bar on itself by rolling out the nation’s first net-zero production home. While more than 100 true net-zero homes exist in the United States, they are custom homes. The implications of net- zero energy homes available at multiple price points and in different markets, is a huge step for the housing industry—and the planet.
We talked with Meritage’s vice president of environmental affairs, C.R. Herro, to learn how the company achieved this ground-breaking goal and to get his take on what it will take for net-zero energy homes to gain traction.
GB: Net-Zero energy homes has been the holy grail for many builders. How did you achieve this in a production setting?
CRH: We have spent a lot of time challenging everything about how we build homes to see it there are improvements we can make that don’t cost more than they add value. It was really easy to get to net-zero energy once we got our houses energy efficient because we eliminated the energy demand and what’s left represents a small step to net-zero energy.
GB: But that last step to net-zero energy is largely considered to be the toughest. That’s the point where the costs often outweigh the benefits.
CRH: First, we are not taking an energy pig house to zero. We are starting with highly efficient homes. We have integrated spray foam insulation, Energy Star-rated windows, CFLs, advanced framing, among other features. We build a great shell and tie it in with great appliances. Then, in certain solar communities, we include solar as standard, which takes the energy efficiency from 50% of typical baseline demand to 25% demand.
At that point, buyers can option up from the 25% to 0% by adding more solar. So, for example, a typical family of four in a 2,000-square-foot house would use 30,000 kW of energy; with our energy-efficient houses, it is closer to 15,000 kW. Renewables can produce 7,000–15,000 kW, which takes demand from 25% of typical energy use to nothing. The cost also depends on the utility district.
In Phoenix, it is $10,000 out-of-pocket cost for a buyer to get to net zero, but they get a $10,000 tax credit for the system, so it’s free. It varies with other utilities, with costs of solar ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 and tax credits ranging from $0 to $10,000.
GB: Are you offering net-zero energy in all your communities?
CRH: Any place we offer solar, we offer this option. We have 21 solar communities today and are adding one or two new communities every quarter. And we offer our solar communities wherever there is a good utility program—Nevada, California, Colorado, and Arizona. Florida doesn’t offer any incentives so the value equation changes. In Phoenix, they have such good programs, we can add solar at no extra charge.
GB: What solar system do you use?
CRH: Echo solar system generates twice as much energy as a basic solar electric PV system, according to the company. It also offers real-time performance monitoring.
GB: How has your solar program been received by buyers and how much do you think the net-zero energy aspect is driving traffic?
CRH: We’ve built the most energy efficient homes for two years. And we stand on the corner and shout about it, but no one cares. They don’t care because the building science underneath intimidates people, and energy efficiency is not why people buy new homes. They are looking for lifestyle, amenities, a new home … We offer that and get them to net zero, too. That’s the draw.
GB: What have you set your sites on in terms of new technology to make your homes even more efficient and how do you decide which technologies to adopt?
CRH: We really watch the technologies that are out there. Some are better than what we do, but they cost more than they add value. LED lights, for example, are much better but they are so expensive that their incremental cost doesn’t justify the reduction. We use SEER 15 HVAC. You can go to SEER 21, but it costs more than the value it would generate to the buyer. We have a long list of technical improvements that we consider, and we’ll talk to anyone with a good idea.
GB: What do you think it will take to tip the balance in favor of net-zero energy homes—or even just homes that perform far better than code?
CRH: I have an answer to that, which I’m really passionate about: Right now the gap between what we can do and what we do is 100% awareness. If we had these three things, the world would change:
1. Awareness: We need a national energy label, like the MPG rating on cars.
2. Validation: We need a change in the appraisal process that would delineate features that make a home work better.
3. Monetization: We need a mortgage industry that monetizes energy efficiency and allows people to buy more energy-efficiency upgrades.
One of the things I’m most proud of is that DOE has a national goal to get net-zero energy homes built on a large scale by 2030. We beat by 19 years. And that sets something up, shows it can be done—and that changes the world. We as builders can create innovation but until consumers demand it or it is able to be offered as standard, it’s a challenge.
Lead photo: The first net-zero home in Buckeye, Ariz., is now owned and lived in by the Ploeser family.
Meritage Homes believes in the net zero concept so much that they are hosting a Net Zero Revolution Home Sweepstakes now through May 30, to give away another net zero home in Phoenix--pictured below.
Shown below is the example of the model home Meritage built to show behind the walls features on their efficient houses. "We are building home learning centers throughout the country to enable customers to understand and demand homes that are better built, less expensive to own, and healthoer for their families," says C.R. Herro, vice president of environmental affairs.