Eco-friendly model home in Maryland reflects green movement’s edging into the mainstream

Not long ago, the house of the future was designed to let you to stay plugged in to your music, sports and movies no matter where you were in your home. For instance, a TV screen embedded into the refrigerator door meant you didn’t have to wait for a commercial to grab a snack.

But that was before the recession. Now, the new house of the future is being marketed with a decidedly more practical goal in mind: to save you big bucks in energy and water consumption.

Next week, KB Home plans to open a model home in Waldorf targeting the increasingly eco-friendly and cost-conscious consumer who has emerged in wake of the housing slump spurred by the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It is the first uber-green house that the Los Angeles-based firm has built on the East Coast.

The model, experts say, illustrates a shift in how houses will be built. The builder isn’t so much playing up the big lot and spacious interior that appealed to buyers a few years ago, even though the house has both. The main selling point is the variety of innovations aimed at saving homeowners 50,000 gallons of water a year and reducing electric bills to practically nothing.

Built-in features of the “net-zero” house — a sort of Energy-Star-on-steroids designation that means the house produces more energy than it expends — include solar panels, a water-saving irrigation system and a charging station for an electric vehicle in the garage. The house even has a monitoring system that allows homeowners to keep tabs on their energy consumption in real time via their smartphones, tablet computers and TVs.

These features to a varying degree are currently available mainly in the custom-home market. But the Waldorf house demonstrates how green is migrating into the mainstream.

“Taking a house from energy efficiency to net zero is a dramatic change,” said Doug Moran, president of KB Home’s Washington region.

“Becoming more environmentally friendly has been the focus of the country,” Moran added. “We want to give people a vision of where we think home building will be in a few years.”

Thus far, net-zero houses are a very tiny segment — perhaps as small as 1 percent — of the market.

Production of energy from solar panels, one of the largest components of the green-home movement, is growing. The amount of megawatts produced by home solar panels rose 104 percent in 2010, 109 percent in 2011 and is expected to increase 75 percent this year, according to Boston-based GTM Research, a consulting firm that tracks the industry for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Moreover, 16,000 additional existing and new homes installed the panels during the first quarter of 2012, up from 11,800 in 2011 and 11,700 in 2010, according to the firm.

“The vast majority of new installation has been on existing homes — far more than new homes,” said Shayle Kann, GTM’s vice president for research. One factor in the rapid increase “in residential solar is the cost [of installation] is falling very, very rapidly.”

Still, he added, “it does make sense to bring it to the mainstream . . . it has been relatively niche in the past” for new homes.

Officials at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) say green homes represented 17 percent of the market of new and remodeled houses in 2011, up from 2 percent in 2005. By 2016, they are projecting that green homes will comprise up to 38 percent of the market.

Homeowners are recognizing that “making design decisions to decrease the amount of energy they require can make good fiscal sense,” said Kevin Morrow, the NAHB’s senior program manager for green building.

The drawbacks, Morrow said, can be the costs: Homeowners can spend in the tens of thousands of dollars on the upgrades. In some cases, the costs can be offset by government tax incentives.

Nevertheless, the gizmos on the Waldorf house didn’t seem to substantially raise the price. The house will be offered at around $450,000, which is about as much as non net-zero new homes in the area.

Model home’s features

The two-story, 4,000-square-foot house in the Middletown Woods development looks like a typical suburban home. It has a dark-brown brick facade in the front, tan vinyl siding on the sides and back and sits on a quiet cul-de-sac.

Except for the sign designating it as “Zero House 2.0,” no feature on the front of the house distinguishes it as part of a broad ecological experiment. But from the back yard, 42 solar panels are visible all across the roof.

“They didn’t have this [model] when we purchased our home” three doors down the street in October, said Nickiea Youmans, who along with her husband, Linzy, walked into the back yard to check out the house. “We would have been very interested in this,” she added.

The ability to generate solar power offers “a huge savings,” Linzy Youmans said, given that energy prices are “constantly going up.”

Energy- and water-saving features can be seen just about anywhere you look, outside and inside the house.

Beneath the sod are automatic sprink­lers that run not on a timer but on climate conditions: A sensor on the side of the house, which looks like a thermometer wrapped in black rubber, triggers the watering cycles based on the temperature and moisture in the air. Also, the patio is covered by permeable pavers, which allow water to seep through to the ground.

In the basement, accessed by a sliding glass door off the back yard, workers were arranging a green suede sofa on the beige carpet in the TV room. A mechanical closet off that room contains an 80-gallon solar water heater. The water is heated by a gel that cycles between solar panels on the roof and the tank.

The kitchen does not have a garbage disposal. Instead, food waste can be disposed of in a 3-foot-by-3-foot compost pit in the back.

Also in the kitchen, a white button under the sink allows owners to get hot water instantly without waiting, “so you aren’t wasting water” in having cold water run into the sink, said Lucas Morris, KB Home’s purchasing manager.

“I certainly hope to see this kind of model spread across the landscape in D.C. and have people learn about water sense and how they can contribute to the environment,” said Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency, in a phone interview. The faucet is certified by the agency’s WaterSense program for using 20 percent less water than conventional products.

“What we’ve seen over time is that water conservation can keep the water use level even as the population increases,” Stoner added. “What we have is the ability for people over time to continue to moderate their water use without sacrificing anything.”

In the family room, the walls are covered with a gray paint, free of toxins. The floor is covered in hardwood to minimize the pollutants often found in carpets.

Moran stood in front of a flat-panel TV mounted on the wall, demonstrating the energy monitoring system. He accessed the home’s energy data online, then displayed it on the screen.

A chart spread across the screen, showing hour-by-hour energy consumption and use. Power generated by the solar panels was represented by a yellow bar; energy usage was represented by a blue bar. The yellow lines become visible in the daylight hours, generally from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The readout from a recent day showed the house produced 50.76 kilowatts of power but used only 42.73 kilowatts, generating a credit of 8.02 kilowatts. The credits would act like rollover minutes on a cellphone and could be used to pay for months when energy usage exceeds production.

‘Major selling point’

“During the downturn, builders told us being able to point out the Energy Star label [for energy-efficient appliances and home features] was a major selling point,” Roland Risser, program manager of Department of Energy’s building technology program, said in a phone interview. “Now we’re seeing a step beyond Energy Star.”

KB Home acknowledges that the fully loaded eco-friendly house would only likely appeal to consumers on the extreme side of the energy efficiency spectrum.

Consumers can select as few or as many of the options as they want. Still, KB Home officials say they think most of the features will be standard on new houses in the not-too-distant future.

KB Home introduced the net-zero model earlier this year in California, Nevada, Texas and Colorado, states that are further along in the conservation movement because they’ve had to grapple with persistent water and power shortages.

Company officials say they decided to locate their first East Coast net-zero house in the Middletown Wood development because it has had strong sales there.

The model will open to the public June 23.

 
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