‘Net-zero’ home a first for Gunnison
Times Staff Writer
Imagine living in a home that produces the energy needed to keep it running — and then some. Such is the case with so-called “net-zero” energy homes. And a prime example of a net-zero home that offers all the spacial elegance and refinement of a more traditional residence can be found right in Gunnison.
Mountain Solar owner Steve Schechter has built a two-story, 3,000-square-foot house on North Boulevard that is so energy efficient it is actually produces more electricity than it uses. Schechter planned it this way so he could eventually purchase an electric car and charge it at his home, still maintaining net-zero status.
“This is an ‘all electric’ house,” Schechter said, adding that no fossil fuels are used to provide energy to the home.
Additionally, the home has been constructed to make it as "tight" as possible — meaning there is little to no air leakage. Air exchange occurs through heat recovery vents which alternate the flow of air inside and out.
The foundation consists of 74 yards of concrete poured over high-compression-strength polystyrene so heat won't be lost into the ground. The home is built on what is called “insulated slab on grade.” It is a shallow slab to prevent frost from forming, especially around the edges, and wing insulation is buried eight inches deep around the entire house.
The walls of the home are 40 percent straw bale construction. These walls are 18 inches thick and have an insulation value of R40. The remaining walls consist of “advanced energy framing” — double 2x4 walls that are one inch apart with staggered studs to prevent “thermal bridging,” or the escape of heat.
Schechter has constructed an ample attic area insulated to R80. The attic can only be accessed from the structure’s exterior to prevent air leaks into the home. Insulation in the attic is so deep that he added catwalks for ease of movement.
Passive, active solar employed
Most important for providing energy efficiency is that the home includes "mass" — such as a wall or floor that will retain solar heat captured throughout the day. Such mass exists in his foundation and walls.
Covering the south-facing roof of the home is a 9.5 kilowatt array of photovoltaic solar panels, which capture the sun's energy and convert into electricity. The home produces more electricity than it uses, so energy is put back on the City of Gunnison's electric grid.
Since the system was activated in November 2015, the home has consumed 12,231 kilowatt hours but has produced 17,071. A "smart," or bidirectional, meter keeps track of the numbers. The house is heated with two high-efficiency 50-gallon electric water heaters, which provide hot water distributed by tubes into the slab.
"When the house gets too cold a pump turns on which circulates water through the tanks and sends it to a heat exchanger … which takes it into the floor," Schechter explained. "It's really a simply system."
But heating is not limited to the active solar system. Passive solar principles can be found throughout the home.
A solarium facing south gives the family a space to grow food — tomatoes and a lemon tree currently reside in the space. The room shares an adobe wall — 30 percent earth and 70 percent sand — with the garage. The wall retains heat generated by the abundance of south-facing windows. It also transfers heat to the garage through vents. In addition, the south wall of the home includes multiple windows.
There is little need for electric lights during daytime hours. Schechter has constructed shafts throughout the home with reflective tubing and domed skylights. As a result, sunshine lights closets, bathrooms and the dining area on both the first and second floors. At night the home is illuminated by LED lighting, and the homeowner is very careful to turn lights off when they are not needed.
No small structure
Yet, most impressive about the home is its size — a spacious first floor is built utilizing an “open” concept and includes beautiful finishes. The kitchen is adorned with quartz countertops and stainless steel appliances and overlooks both the large living room and dining area.
A broad staircase trimmed in Douglas fir harvested from South Park leads to the upstairs, which includes three large bedrooms and a master suite. The nine-foot ceiling height gives a feeling of airiness in each room. The walls within the home are finished in a colored plaster made out of white clay, while exterior walls have a lime-based finish.
Despite today's hot real estate market and the cost of construction rising, Schechter said his home only cost $150 per square-foot to build, along with a lot of "sweat equity." However, he noted, real estate assessment does not take into account the importance of energy efficiency when valuing a home.
"If they don't take into account how much energy you're saving, it's not being properly valued," he said.
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)