EEBA Newsletter

Posts From June, 2019

Paths to Zero

There's more than one way to reach the goal of building Zero Energy homes. A new EEBA training helps builders chart their best course.
Paths to Zero

As more high-performance zero-energy ready homes get built, and as more customers learn the financial benefits of owning such a home, demand for them will continue to rise. But for builders who have never exceeded minimum code requirements, the prospect of building to zero can seem daunting. 

Those preparing to embark on the journey usually have a lot of questions. What features should they start with? How long will it take to master this way of building? How will my customers pay the extra upfront costs?

The answers to the first two questions, according to Bruce Sullivan, who teaches EEBA's new Path to Zero Energy Homes training seminar, are 1) you can start almost anywhere, and 2) once you get going you can move along at your own pace. He also says that the path can unfold in a nearly infinite number of ways. In fact, the seminar might better be called "Paths" to Zero, since the journey will be different for every builder. 

The path an individual builder takes will depend on an array of factors that include local market demand, climate zone, price range, architectural style, utility rates, and even company culture. "When it comes to Zero Energy there's no silver bullet," says Sullivan, who has been involved in high-performance and green building education for more than 37 years and has trained thousands of builders and other industry professionals. "It's more like silver buckshot because you're spreading your efforts over a lot of small actions."

Those who complete this journey with the fewest bumps, detours, and dead-ends are those who have a customized map to follow. EEBA's training teaches how to create such a map.

Charting the Course

In the Path to Zero seminar, EEBA presents a 12-step model for drawing such a map. If that sounds like a recovery program for addicts, it's an apt comparison.

Unhealthy behaviors often begin as responses to short-term anxieties, then end up creating more problems than they initially were intended to solve. What does that have to do with homebuilding? The answer is that conventional production building helps the builder satisfy the typical consumer's demand for trendy features and affordability--but this may lead to long-term destructive effects on both the environment and the builder's business, as the market changes. And the ongoing operation and maintenance costs are often more than the homeowner bargained for.


Sullivan presents his map as a more effective way to satisfy demand for affordable housing. "I'm bold enough to say that a zero energy home can be free," he says, and as an example, points to his own Bend, Oregon home. "The house my wife and I built a few years ago is all-electric, including charging for our electric car, and it still ends up paying us $8 per month."



He has taken the lessons learned from his home, as well as from other builders and designers, and applied them to the production environment. "In EEBA, we recognize that production builders have special situations," he says. "They need to create economies of scale, so the options include things that are reproducible and affordable."

Each of the map's steps includes an overall goal, a set of design principles and construction details, as well as a menu of equipment and material options to chose from. For instance, nearly all builders understand the benefits of a thermal envelope with high R-value insulation, minimal thermal bridging, and advanced air sealing--but many lack a good system for evaluating the options that will get them there. Will it make more sense to use 2x6 studs and foam sheathing or to frame double 2x4 walls? What are the advantages, disadvantages, and economic consequences of each?

Or take the example of heating. The vast majority of U.S. production builders install gas furnaces with an average efficiency of about 90 percent, but a zero energy home might be better served by a smaller, more efficient unit. If the builder is also the developer, switching to heat pumps might let them eliminate the cost of installing a gas infrastructure in the community. 

In each step, you can choose the most cost-effective option or the one that makes the most sense for your homes. The end result will be a home tailored to your climate, your market, your architecture, and your business.

Pyramid Scheme

Having a set of steps is more than most builders have, but the steps will have even more impact if they're weighted. The Path to Zero training groups these 12 steps into what Sullivan calls the Zero Energy Pyramid. Although you can get on the path anywhere, the Pyramid shows you how to prioritize your actions to get the best returns.

It looks like this:

Design (the base)

1. Start with Smart Design

2. Orient for Sun Tempering

3. Optimize with Energy Modeling


4.Super-seal the Envelope

5. Super-insulate the Envelope

6. Select Optimum Window Efficiency


7. Ensure Clean, Fresh Air

8. Specify High-Performance Heating and Cooling

9. Heat Water Wisely

Plug Loads

10.Select High-Efficiency Lighting

11. Choose Efficient Appliances

Renewables (the capstone)

12. Use Renewable Energy

The path to zero energy building is a pyramid with each successive level building on the one below it.

The Pyramid structure makes an important point. A good thermal envelope will offer the most benefit if it's part of a well-designed home with solar features optimized for the climate. Likewise, efficient HVAC equipment will only deliver its full value if placed in a well-designed and detailed shell. For instance, Sullivan's own zero energy home includes a 4.3-kilowatt solar array, but the reason he enjoys a new monthly profit from the electricity it generates is that he started with good design principles then moved up the pyramid.

Learning to Sell

While the path to building a zero energy home is one of design and technology, selling it is a matter of knowing how to present the benefits in a compelling way. The EEBA Path to Zero Energy Homes seminar covers that, as well, and teaches builders how to use various calculators to show homeowners the economic consequences of each choice. "If someone is more concerned about initial cost than ultimate benefit, you need to know how to turn that around," he says. "You need to show them they will benefit economically the minute they walk in the door."

The seminar includes detailed information about returns on the investment in zero energy features, the costs of ownership in different parts of the country, and other metrics that can be used to educate homebuyers. 

As you would expect, this article barely scratches the surface. Those who want to learn more should check out the new EEBA Path to Zero Energy Homes seminar in-person as more trainings are scheduled around the country. It will also be offered at this year's EEBA High Performance Home Summit, October 1 - 3 in Denver, along with dozens of other technical sessions and networking opportunities for builders and manufacturers. If you're in the high-performance building industry, you don't want to miss it!

Q&A with Geoff Ferrell

The new board president shares his thoughts about the future of EEBA.
Q&A with Geoff Ferrell

In January of this year, Geoff Ferrell stepped up as President of the EEBA board, succeeding Gene Myers of Thrive Homebuilders.

Mr. Ferrell's deep immersion in high-performance home building makes him well qualified for the position. He currently serves as Chief Technology Officer for Mandalay Homes in the Prescott, Arizona area, a company that has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Energy as one of the most innovative home builders in America and was recently named ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year for the 3rd consecutive year. His duties include ensuring that the company's specifications and construction practices consistently meet its performance goals, and as part of that he leads the company's quality assurance efforts.

We asked Mr. Ferrell for his thoughts on the EEBA board's priorities for the next few years, as well as his personal goals for the organization.

EEBA: How did you get introduced to EEBA and why have you stayed active?

GF: I attended my first EEBA Summit in 2013. Mandalay had just competed in the DOE Challenge Home competition, the predecessor to the Housing Innovation Awards.

I was very impressed with the people I met. In addition to well-known industry names like Sam Rashkin, there were many top-notch builders, raters, and others. It was a great learning opportunity.

What really surprised me at my first Summit was the attendees' willingness to talk about what would be considered trade secrets in other industries. Everyone seemed willing to freely share their expertise and their hard-won lessons. As someone who began his career in the computer technology world, where so much information is considered proprietary, this openness was new and refreshing to me.

My first impression was of a community of professionals who genuinely wanted to raise the quality bar for the industry. That impression hasn't changed.

EEBA: Why do you think EEBA builders are so willing to help one another?

GF: As a group, and as individual builders, we agree that the buying public deserves better homes. In this day and age, it's ridiculous that a more affluent homebuyer gets higher quality construction, while a couple busting their butts to support a family of three has to be satisfied with lower quality because they can't afford anything better.

These days, an inexpensive car will run trouble-free for well over 200,000 miles, even though it doesn't have the same amenities or cache that a more expensive model does. We need to do the same. A $150,000 starter home should be as durable, efficient, healthy, and safe as a multi-million dollar mansion.

Everyone I've met in EEBA has this same concern and agrees that we need each other to learn how to consistently deliver that level of quality. We're trying to change the industry, and we need each other to make that happen.

EEBA: What do you see as your role as board president?

GF: My perspective is to re-evaluate what EEBA does publicly, to strengthen the things we do best and to look for ways we can offer more value to the industry.

We want to continue to be a training and a networking resource for industry professionals. We want to be the place builders, manufacturers, raters, specifiers, and others go to help one another.

Going forward, I want to get the board involved in expanding our reach. We need to find ways to connect with more builders locally and to get them to attend a training seminar like Houses That Work.

EEBA: How would you like to see EEBA evolve over the next few years? What would you like to see it accomplish?

GF: I think it's important that we continue to grow our training programs. For instance, we will launch a program at this year's Summit called “The EEBA Path to Zero Energy Homes” that will give builders a roadmap for reaching the goal of building Net Zero Energy homes. Training is the top obstacle to a builder when it comes to consistency and performance in my mind.

A priority for all builders is to attract more young people to the industry. I believe that high-performance builders are in a unique position to do that because of our embrace of new technologies and our environmental commitments. EEBA is the process of launching a NextGen initiative that will include scholarships for students to attend our Summit and our regional trainings. I want to see more of that.

would also love to see EEBA partner with other organizations. For instance, the Passive House Institute (PHIUS) and the Structural Insulated Panel Association (SIPA) do great work but they don't have our industry reach today. A partnership would help get them in front of a larger audience and would help the EEBA tribe benefit from their amazing resources too.

In short, we want to be the place that builders and designers who are new to high performance building come to get solid grounding in high-performance building and to learn from others who have gone before them. Then we want to serve as a forum where more experienced people can continue learning from one another.

EEBA: If you had to give a big message to the building industry, what would it be?

GF: We all need to care about what we are doing. Building a home is about more than profit or units sold. When you go to an EEBA event you will connect with people who really care about the impact they have on their customers and their communities.

If you have never experienced a gathering like that before, it will feel like another world at first. If you want to connect with some really amazing, innovative, passionate professionals, EEBA is the place to be. Join us and help make the industry a better place through collaboration and learning.