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10 Things to Know About Zero-Carbon Home Building

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The push for sustainable and environmentally friendly home construction techniques and technologies picks up steam every year. Soon-to-be homeowners want to reduce their impact on the planet while still designing the home of their dreams.

With this in mind, zero-carbon home building is becoming more popular. So what do you need to know about zero-carbon home building before you put it on your resume?

1. What Does Net Zero-Carbon Mean?

First, what does it mean for a home to be zero-carbon? There are two parts to that answer — your home’s operational energy and embodied energy.

Embodied energy refers to the carbon expense of your building materials — concrete, timber, steel, etc. You can begin to offset that portion by choosing recycled, reclaimed, or other eco-friendly construction materials and selecting options designed to be energy-efficient.

Your operational energy, on the other hand, refers to the power you use and your impact on the environment. This is where things like eco-friendly electric heat pumps and Energy Star appliances come into play.

2. The Materials and Appliances Play a Large Role

Instead of choosing traditional building materials, the first step toward creating a zero-carbon home is to choose materials with a smaller carbon footprint that will be easier to offset in the long run.

Recycled materials are closer to zero-carbon than new ones, and choosing things like limecrete instead of concrete can help further reduce that number.

At this stage, you’ll also want to choose windows that help reduce heat loss. Double- or triple-glazed glass are the best option, allowing plenty of natural light into the home without bleeding heat during the cooler months or allowing too much heat in during the warm months. This, in turn, reduces the home’s energy usage and shrinks its carbon footprint, bringing it closer to that zero-carbon goal.

3. No Gas Here — Zero-Carbon Is All-Electric

Gas ranges are popular for cooking, and gas is a standard tool for heating homes across the country. But you won’t find either in a zero-carbon home. Instead, these properties come equipped with electric ranges and ovens, as well as electric heating or geothermal gas pumps, which we’ll look at in more detail in a moment.

This has a secondary bonus of improving interior air quality. Burning natural gas releases many contaminants, from carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides to sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds, all of which can negatively affect interior air quality.

Plus, no matter how clean it is, natural gas is still a fossil fuel. And one of the primary goals of a zero-carbon house is to get away from fossil fuels as much as possible.

4. Zero-Carbon Homes are Airtight and Insulated

Two of the biggest aspects of zero-carbon homes are airtightness and insulation. This is a step above what you’ll find in a more traditional home. These properties are designed to be as airtight as possible unless a door or window is open, and are more heavily insulated to reduce the amount of energy necessary to heat and cool the home.

These homes also focus on elements like blown cellulose insulation rather than a more traditional fiberglass because it’s renewable, carbon-neutral, and biodegradable.

5. The Carbon Footprint May or May Not Include Transportation

There are two schools of thought on this. Some believe your home’s carbon footprint doesn’t include your transportation. Others believe it should all be lumped together.

The argument is that the home’s eventual location plays a large role in the household’s total carbon footprint. The farther you are from work, school, and other facilities, the farther you have to travel and the more fossil fuels you expend. Your carbon footprint expands as a result.

Homeowners can offset this by making the switch to electric vehicles — especially if their home runs primarily on solar or other green energy — reducing their commute, or using public transportation whenever possible.

6. They’re More Expensive Than Traditional Homes

This is something potential homeowners will need to consider before breaking ground. Zero-carbon homes are usually 5%-15% more expensive than conventional home construction.

This isn’t a bad thing, though the idea of paying more on day one for the same size home could be a little off-putting for some homebuyers.

On the flip side, there are savings to consider. The reduced utility costs mean the house and its zero-carbon improvements start paying for themselves from day one.

7. There Are Additional Steps to Obtain LEED Certification

While it’s not necessary for a zero-carbon home, many homeowners wish their homebuilders to apply for LEED certification. There are six categories to consider when applying for LEED certification:

  • Location
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy/atmosphere
  • Material/resource selection
  • Indoor air quality
  • Innovation

Make sure you study the requirements if a LEED certification application is also in your construction plan.

8. Many Zero-Carbon Homes Incorporate Heat Pumps

Instead of relying on gas or electricity to heat and cool the home, many zero-carbon homes rely on heat pumps to keep warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and to offset the carbon output of a given structure.

These pumps are connected to a series of pipes buried deep in the ground below the house. During the winter, they collect Earth’s heat and use it to keep your house warm. In the summer, they can pull heat away from your home, keeping it more comfortable.

This is often the best option for heating and cooling a zero-carbon home. Even electric HVAC systems have a small carbon footprint due to their reliance on electricity, especially if you’re still hooked up to the grid. Heat pumps are optimal when other forms of green and renewable energy aren’t available or are impractical.

9. You Can Retrofit Existing Properties to Make Them Zero-Carbon

You don’t have to start from the ground up to build a zero-carbon home, although it is often easier. You can retrofit existing properties to make them as close to zero-carbon as possible.

The only place you’re likely to run into issues is with the original building materials. But you may be able to mitigate that with a carbon offset program to achieve true zero-carbon status.

There isn’t a lot of information yet on how these retrofits affect the overall value of the property. But with new zero-carbon homes already costing more than traditional construction, it’s safe to assume investing in retrofitting an existing property will help increase the overall value.

10. The Government May Offer Incentives to Go Zero Carbon

As with most green technologies, many state and federal government offices offer incentives to encourage homeowners to seek out zero-carbon buildings.

The exact details of these incentives vary from state to state and from country to country. The future homeowner may be able to claim these incentives in the form of tax credits or rebates, or even as discounts on construction materials.

Construction companies may also be able to claim incentives for building these zero-carbon structures, depending on the rules of your local incentive program.

The Future of the Zero-Carbon Home

Zero-carbon homes will become an essential part of the construction industry moving forward as countries around the globe look for ways to reduce their carbon footprints and adhere to the outlines set up by the Paris Climate Accords.

This will continue to shape homebuilding for years to come, making now the perfect time for construction companies to get their foot in the door and start offering zero-carbon building solutions.

Jane covers topics in green technology and construction. She also works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co.

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