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Drew Kann/Alan Yu/MEDILL

Chicago landscape architect Marcus de la fleur is rebuilding his entire Lawndale bungalow to make it net-zero, which means the 100-year-old home uses no energy over the course of a year.


Chicago architect rebuilds his bungalow for zero energy use

by Drew Kann and Alan Yu
Dec 04, 2012


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Alan Yu/MEDILL

Damien Casten, a wine distributor who lives in Bucktown,  spent 19 months renovating his house with recycled materials.

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Alan Yu/MEDILL

Casten made most of his furniture himself using recycled building materials that would otherwise be discarded in landfills.

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Courtesy of NREL

The affordable net zero home built by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Habitat for Humanity ended up generating more energy than it uses, going beyond even the net zero standard.

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

The price of installing residential and commercial solar panels will fall in the future, according to data from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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U.S. Department of Energy

Your water heater probably uses the most energy of any appliance in the home.

Save energy immediately without remodeling your house

 Not everyone can spend years remodeling their houses, but you can still save energy and drop your utility bill now:

• Air dry clothes and dishes instead of using dryers or dishwashers
• Wash your clothes in cold water whenever possible
• In the winter, open the shades on your south-facing windows to let heat in, and close them at night to keep the chill out. During the summer, close the shades to keep the light and heat out.
• Plug in appliances to a power strip, and turn off the power strip when you’re not using those devices. That small green or red light still uses energy.
• Program your thermostat at as low as possible temperatures in the winter, and as high as possible in the summer.
• Buy a low flow showerhead. You can adjust it so you barely feel the difference, and you’ll save water in the long run.
• Get dimmers for lights. They give you the flexibility to lower the lights.
• Insulate hot water pipes and ducts if they run through unheated areas. You can actually lose energy from heat lost to the environment.
• Use the U.S. Department of Energy’s Home Energy Saver or other tools to inventory how much energy each part of your home is using. That way, you can figure out where you can save the most.
Marcus de la fleur spends his time installing triple-glazed windows, wiring electrical systems and insulating his walls in what is probably the ultimate green DIY project.

For the past three years, the landscape architect has made a full-time job of remodeling his Lawndale bungalow on Chicago’s West Side, then blogging about it.

He picked this particular orange and white house, opposite an unkempt field, because it was trashed. He wanted to rehab an existing house, and someone had already stripped out this one for free. He also wanted a home within walking distance of grocery stores, a clinic and public transit. 

As an architect specializing in sustainable landscaping, he is rehabbing the house into a net zero building that produces as much energy as it consumes. He said he wants to show other homeowners how to make the renovations and reap the savings. Net zero homes use no energy overall in a year.

“Having worked on a lot of sustainable projects, you can’t just do the green stuff for work then go home and live another kind of life,” de la fleur said. “There’s really no information out there on how to turn (existing) buildings into green buildings. And then we thought, okay, that’s what we need to do because that’s where we can make the biggest difference.”

A net zero energy building reduces its energy use with efficient insulation and lighting systems, and then generates as much energy as it consumes using solar panels or solar water heaters. The de la fleurs may buy some energy during the winter months, but feed it back to the grid during the summer to cancel out the cost. Thus, the building consumes no energy overall in a year.

Much of the technology required to make this happen is already available. Researchers expect to see more of these super-efficient buildings in the future, particularly if energy becomes more expensive, and solutions such as triple-glazed windows and solar panels become more affordable.

Governments subsidize net zero construction


Net zero technology such as solar panels is expensive now, but some local governments do support homeowners who use it. Chicago offers to waive permit fees as long as homeowners remodel their projects to meet a checklist of efficiency measures. De la fleur saved approximately $1,500 in waived fees to the city, about 1 percent of his construction cost. It’s not much, but he still appreciates the incentive.

“The city is working really hard to institutionalize some of this green thinking,” said de la fleur.

Both federal and state governments encourage efficient construction techniques as well by offering rebates to offset the cost, said Paul Norton, an energy consultant at his own company Norton Energy R&D and a former engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) until two years ago.

“That’s an excellent role for government because there’s strong societal benefits of efficiency,” said Norton, who researched net zero technology at NREL. “For example, if you increase your efficiency in a large number of homes, you can put off or eliminate the need for a new power plant down the line.”

Illinois residents who install solar or wind energy systems can recover up to 30 percent of their project cost starting in September through a rebate program through the lllinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. They can also save up to $1,750 for installing efficient insulation through Energy Impact Illinois, part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Program.

This September, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to improve the city’s energy efficiency, and transform Chicago into a hub for the sustainable economy. The plan “is a clear path to achieving our vision of making Chicago the greenest city in the world,” noted Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter, in the press release.

In the U.S., all federal buildings planned after 2020 will have to achieve net zero by 2030, according to an executive order signed by President Obama in October 2009, but there are no other legislative efforts planned in the short term.

De la fleur introduced sustainable landscaping to his clients because facilities such as green roofs and rain gardens are very common in his home country of Germany. Roofs provide insulation and rain gardens collect water that might otherwise flood the basement.

The European Union is the leader in net zero legislation. It passed a directive for efficiency measures this July, and one of the articles instructs member states to ensure all new buildings get close to net zero by 2020, and the respective governments will have to draft national plans by next January.

That will drive the revenue to net zero buildings globally. Worldwide revenue from investments in zero energy buildings will increase by 43 percent annually to reach almost $690 billion by 2020 and nearly $1.3 trillion by 2035, according to a report released by the clean energy research group Pike Research earlier this year.

It will be up to the state or local governments to further efficiency measures in the U.S., said Eric Bloom, a research analyst at Pike Research.

“Industry looks to government for rulings on energy efficiency in Europe, in contrast to the U.S. where the federal government stays out of things and industry lobbies for specific things it wants,” Bloom said.

Financial and technological challenges

De la fleur is rebuilding his own home to show it can be done on a budget of $160,000. Most of the net zero homes now are luxuries that can cost millions and that makes it hard for the technology to catch on. For example, a net zero showcase home unveiled by the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology this September cost $2.5 million. The two-story, four-bedroom home was built in Gaithersburg, Md., as a test facility.

“Just a handful of people can afford to live in a building like that. What about the other 99 percent trying to get the climate back on track?” de la fleur said. “That’s the reason why I do this work myself.”

Most of the technology behind net zero buildings has existed since the 1990s, said Barbara Miller, president and co-founder of the National Affordable Housing Network, a nonprofit that encourages energy efficient designs as a means to lower the cost of housing.

“Right now, you can build a close to net zero home that doesn’t cost any more than a conventional house,” Miller said. “The real extra cost now is just the rooftop solar.”

That is the same conclusion the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) reached in 2008, after a pilot project with Habitat for Humanity in Colorado. NREL adapted a model developed by the National Affordable Housing Network, and tried to build an affordable net zero home for Habitat.

It cost about $23,000 more than a conventional home, mainly due to the electrical system, which includes solar panels on the roof. The solar panels generate more energy than a home typically needs, and draws from the grid when the panels cannot generate the amount needed, bringing the home to net zero in a year.

However, the price of installing solar panels in homes has been falling steadily, and people are  increasingly aware of recovering their investments faster with rising energy costs. That makes a net zero energy home more attractive, said Norton.

There aren’t as many net zero homes partly because they cost more to build, but they recover that cost and save money in the long term, he said.

“When most people buy a home, they don’t sit down and figure out what that cost is going to be to own and operate, they only think about the sticker price, what they have to pay upfront,” Norton said. “So in some cases, zero energy homes can be the cheapest home to own, this is especially true in places where energy is expensive.”

For example, electricity in California costs 13.01 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2010, compared to 9.13 cents per kilowatt-hour in Illinois. California has 54 percent of all residential and commercial solar energy projects in the country, according to a survey released this November by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

But we may not see net zero homes for some time, precisely because it takes so long to see a return on the high construction costs, said Matt Slavin, founder and principal of the Sustainability Consulting Group and author of the book Sustainability in America’s Cities.

“There’s a much greater return on investment on larger buildings rather than single family homes, just as a matter of economies of scale and how much it costs to install efficiency measures,” Slavin said. “Net zero buildings are few and far between because they’re very expensive.”

Closing the information gap

De la fleur plans to close the information gap with his home project so that a homeowner without a specialized background can take on do-it-yourself steps to save energy.

“The expertise is probably out there; it’s just not accessible and so we decided that we need to put the information out there and make it accessible,” he said.

His blog documents his entire process, from installing a shower drain to wiring his electrical system. The blog attracts around 4,000 readers by his estimate.

Norton echoed de la fleur’s concern about the lack of accessible information on energy efficient construction.

“There’s a mind-boggling amount of information out there,” Norton said. “It’s not so much of an issue finding information as it is deciding what is best for you.”

Apart from terms such as HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) and AFUE (annual fuel utilization efficiency, a measure of how efficient a furnace or boiler is), some aspects of net zero construction still lack common standards, Norton said.

For example, a typical building may lose heat in the winter or gain heat in the summer through the insulation, wasting energy to heat or cool the house. A net zero building is well-insulated so very little air gets in or out through the walls, not unlike a submarine, but then the home needs better ventilation to recycle the stale air. Experts have yet to agree on how much ventilation a net zero home needs under different climate conditions, as these can vary wildly in the U.S. alone.

Green buildings on the rise

Net zero construction is one of several movements to make buildings more energy efficient, and these movements have been growing together in recent years, Norton said.

Some parts of the country have “very enlightened builders who are committed to extremely efficient homes,” Norton said. “This core of enlightened builders is growing from my perspective, certainly near where I live in Boulder, CO. These houses are marketable and there’s more demand for them.”

In addition to net zero, some people follow the green building movement, which recycles materials from torn-down buildings for new homes or renovations. Damien Casten, a wine distributor who lives in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, spent 19 months renovating his house with recycled materials. He made his own tables, railings, garden walls and other pieces of furniture. He found a lot of what he needed at the Rebuilding Exchange, a warehouse of recycled wood, appliances and fixtures at 1740 W. Webster Ave.

“Having planted that seed, try driving by a dumpster where you’ve got wood sticking out, and not look at it,” Casten said. “It’s amazing because you see these pieces of wood that are 10, 12 feet long, and if you have any inclination to do anything with them, it’s stunning that they would be thrown out.”

Ultimately, de la fleur’s motivation is trying to live sustainably.

“I don’t want to be in a position where in 25 years, I can’t afford to run and maintain the building anymore because natural gas prices are so high or electricity costs are so high,” de la fleur said. “The more we reduce the consumption of those resources, the more likely that I’ll have an easy time to afford running the building 30 years from now. Nothing else made sense to us.”