What is a Prudent Living Net Zero Energy Home?

Prudent Living was incorporated in 2009, but it feels like it could have happened this morning. It amazes me how much we have changed and how fast it’s happened; almost as if I got into a DeLorean on my way to work this morning and punched in the year 2013. Does time really go by that fast or did I get transported into the future without knowing it? It hasn’t always seemed to go so fast. When I was in the second grade, four years seemed like an eternity. I wanted so badly to be one of the big guys that wandered the halls in Junior High. Then I blinked and I was a freshman in High School thinking the same thing all over again about those seniors with facial hair, low voices, and their own cars to drive. Suddenly, I am sixty years old and I have grandchildren to entertain with my electric trains.

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In 1971, I graduated High School and, to my family’s displeasure, I decided to enter the building trades. They all expressed strong and loving concern about my decision not to go to college. It’s not that I didn’t listen. I just couldn’t help the fascination I had for construction in all its categories. I never saw a piece of construction equipment I didn’t like. I loved architecture and drawing plans. I also liked the hustle and bustle as well as learning how to build cost-effectively without building cheap. I enjoyed being a part of the solution and not being the problem. I learned how to plan and choreograph multiple subcontractors at once and how to build round objects out of square pieces of wood. I also learned a work ethic and about dealing with adversity, including bad weather, volatility of the economy, and difficult people. Finally, I learned how to wear a minister’s hat and contractor’s hat at the same time because every home construction project is a very emotional journey full of unpredictable variables and interruptions; not just with clients but with my own employees, site conditions, dry well-holes, environmental and permitting processes, and uncertain health.

Well, I blinked again and another five years went by. I became a journeyman builder, got married and started my own business in 1976. Since then, we’ve designed and built hundreds of homes and I just shake my head when I ponder how quickly time has flown. But here’s an interesting dilemma for every seasoned builder like me. One day I realized that bragging about being in construction for more than forty years only impressed me. It was a rude awakening when I realized that my credentials could actually be detrimental to impressing educated clients, who are more interested in how we build houses in the 21st century than how we built them in the 1900s. In fact, there were only a few stars in my crown of glory that really mattered to clients and they were standard equipment, like wheels on a car.  

For example, it always matters that we have a good reputation and good credit. It matters to some, but not to everyone, that I never left the town I grew up in. It matters to my clients that I have good, trustworthy men of high ethical standards and without a criminal record. But other than that, the main thing most of them want to know is: How cheaply can I build them a house?

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With the advent of emerging sciences that increase the cost of building a home while decreasing the cost of owning a home, I often find myself frustrated as I struggle to explain the prudence of investing wisely, and that while these investments may cost more in the beginning, they will pay back handsomely over time. These investments must also be built into the design of the home while it’s under construction and therefore, can’t be postponed. Some of our clients listen and I get excited when they do, but the truth is that not everyone wants to hear this. Their eyes glaze over and I get depressed when I fail to convince them that if they invest wisely, they can own a house that pays them rather than costs them. They prefer to spend their money first on other essentials, like dream kitchens, man caves, hot-tubs, and garages. If only they would take the time to do their math, then they would realize that if they invested first into performance, then they would get these things later, simply because the cost-savings for operation would be enough to pay for these things later.

Here enters the “Tale of Two Houses.” One house is built to minimum energy standards and no investment is made into high performance strategies. While this house looks good on the street and on the bottom line in comparison to a Prudent Living home that has the same footprint and floor plan, the truth is that within a few short years (remember how fast Junior High and High School went by?), the Prudent Living Home will not only have repaid the amount invested, through pure savings with utilities, it will multiply those savings with a handsome return on investment (ROI) that will rival the cost of four years of college for one child. When we crunch the numbers and put them on a payback chart, it reminds me of a horse race. The house that costs less to build goes out to an early lead and maintains that lead for about five years. Suddenly, from nowhere, the house that cost less to own comes barreling around the corner from behind and from out of the foggy mist it gains ground until somewhere around the eight- to ten-year-mark, it passes by the other home, which is now bogged down with the burdens of global crisis energy cost palpitations and instability.

The first thing that a new owner feels when they move into a brand new Prudent Living Home is “peace of mind.” They know that the cost of energy won’t matter as much because a high performance Prudent Living Home consumes a lot less energy. They also know that, as energy costs for electricity and fuel increase, the payback time for their investment accelerates. So, for example, if the cost of electricity doubles because of unforeseen calamities like hurricanes and oil spills, their investment into a net-metered solar system will just pay for itself twice as fast. The same is true of geothermal. If the cost of heating oil doubles, then geothermal will pay back twice as fast. Most of the time, during a time of stability and world peace, we consider a five to seven year payback to be normal. 

At Prudent Living, we offer five energy performance levels for our net zero energy home(s) but, in reality, the floor plan could be the same for all five homes. I suppose that if the Solar PV  (photovoltaic) systems were remotely located and you couldn’t see them on the actual house, it would be possible to drive by all five homes and not be able to tell the difference from the outside or perhaps even from the inside. In no way would we compromise our level of quality based on level of performance. So, with that stated promise, let me describe how we do it. Let’s just say that you contacted Prudent Living about building one of our Prudent Living Homes and that you already had a plan that you like. Once we meet and greet and we decide that the chemistry is there for us to work together, our next discussion would center on energy treatments. That’s when I would explain the five different levels of performance. They are:

Level #1 – This is the normal “basic” energy package that satisfies State Energy Codes. Not much more needs to be said. The state gives us guidelines and we comply with them.

Level #2 – We choose to meet or exceed “Energy Star 3” compliance standards.

Level #3 – We add Renewable Energy to the “Energy Star 3” package. This would include geothermal and a net-metered Solar PV system, if you have a suitable southern exposure.

Level #4 – We upgrade the #3 net-metered Solar PV system to a bi-modal system, meaning that even though you are still tied to the power grid of the electric company, and have access to it, you would also be able to run your house “off-grid” if you chose to or if the utility grid went down and the power was out. You can’t do that if all you have is a net-metered Solar PV system. A bi-modal system requires battery backup.

Level #5 – We build you a house that is totally able to operate “off-grid” with no connection whatsoever to the grid. Finally, every Prudent Living Home comes with a one-year supply of food for a family of four. We just happen to believe that a house needs more backup than just a reserve supply of electricity.