This article was originally published on Houzz on Feb. 2, 2015, as "Zero Net Energy: A Hardworking-House Term to Know," and is presented here with permission. Read the original article.

If you have not yet heard the term “zero net energy,” or ZNE, you will soon be hearing it everywhere. Most simply, it means that a building consumes only as much energy as it can produce by renewable methods. Since buildings consume about 25 percent of our nation’s energy, the savings and implications of ZNE are enormous. For several years, the U.S. Department of Energy has supported innovation in this area by sponsoring the Solar Decathlon. The biannual competition invites contestants to design and build a house that runs primarily on solar power and produces as much electricity as it consumes. 

California building codes have already mandated implementation of ZNE by phasing in complete compliance by 2020 for all new homes, and remodels and additions that significantly upgrade a house, constructed in the state. Since California has at least 10 percent of the nation’s population and the ninth largest economy on the planet, its influence in this area is quickly scaling and spreading across North America. However, California codes prioritize renewable energy production last on the list of requirements that can assist with a home’s compliance. Energy consumption reductions and improved building design performance standards and technology are being phased in first.

Here are a few things that can be and already are being addressed by innovation to achieve this goal.

Financing the investments 

When ZNE applications show a return on investment in a relatively short amount of time, financial entities are keenly interested in supporting them. California has built incentives into its programs to promote them. Yet the savings on energy consumption alone has propelled lending institutions to support them, as they clearly see the payoff. The trend is spreading. The Colorado residence seen here, by Caddis Architecture, was designed to be ZNE. While its progressive and innovative design embraces a contemporary aesthetic in conjunction with achieving ZNE, vernacular home design, as illustrated in the Florida home below, can be adapted to meet this goal just as easily.

Photo by Caddis Architecture; original photo on Houzz.

Reducing consumption

Probably the most obvious energy-saving consideration is doors and windows. In the past the glass-enclosed sunroom seen here, by Crisp Architects, would have been impractical during New York’s winter months. Dual- and triple-paned glass, along with other techniques and advances in window design, allows configurations to reduce energy use. In the Seattle house below, awnings with automated systems that sense rain and shading requirements provide a more passive solution to energy consumption at doors and windows.

Photo by Crisp Architects; original photo on Houzz.

Regulating consumption

The incandescent bulb is gradually being phased out. First, compact fluorescent lamps took their place, which cut energy usage significantly. Lately, LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, have been cutting energy consumption even more. These compact and long-lasting fixtures not only greatly save energy, but they also allow innovative and dramatic lighting effects to be achieved. The flush and elegant undercabinet fixtures seen here have been mounted snugly, keeping the crisp, clean lines in this modern kitchen. Dramatic lighting effects define the contemporary bath design below. In addition, LEDs can be designed to change color, adding another dimension.

Photo by Divine Design + Build; original photo on Houzz.

Managing consumption

If you think all of your home electronics and mobile devices that need electricity are contributing to a larger electric bill, you are correct. Utility companies estimate that about one-third of an average home’s juice is consumed by such equipment. Most appliances and electronics with power cords plugged in draw some electricity even when their power button is off. One of California’s goals is to require switches on all electrical outlets so that electronics that normally stay plugged in can more easily and conveniently be switched off. Even if you just can’t live without the soft yellow glow of the incandescent bulb in your favorite lamp, you can save energy by installing a dimmer switch on that light fixture or on a hardwired light switch that controls it. Dimmers can save half or more of the energy of a bulb’s full capacity.

Another California requirement is that lights in certain rooms, such as baths and garages, be connected to motion sensors. This helps, for example, to keep the kids in check when they go around the house turning on the light in each room they enter without turning if off when they leave. In addition, depending on the type of room, incandescent fixtures are not allowed to be installed. The state requires that any hardwired fixture be “high efficacy.” This can be types with compact fluorescent bulbs or LEDs.

Image by TV Controls; original photo on Houzz.

Usually, on the higher end, there are systems with control panels, like this one, or ones that can be coordinated with a smartphone application. The ability to manage systems throughout the home will allow consumers not only to monitor their own habits, but to coordinate with peak energy demands in their regions. Utility suppliers place a premium on consumption during the hottest days of the year, for example, when demand surges. Being able to use less air conditioning on those days and planning to spend time out of the house can be a strategic method to lower your bills and help the system meet demand where it is needed most.

In addition, lighting that can respond to daylight, building designs that allow in sufficient daylight to minimize or eliminate the need for artificial lighting, and windows and ventilation that can be automated to respond to desired interior conditions are other features that can help to reduce and manage energy consumption. 

Employing technology

A good example of such technologies is the Nest thermostat, which works with smartphones to assist in the management of a home’s climate. A good example of how Nest can save you energy is to consider a time when you are out of town for business. Let’s say you are in Los Angeles for three days, and a heat wave has enveloped Dallas, where you live. You set the temperature in your house to 82 degrees Fahrenheit while you are away, which keeps your electricity consumption down. When you board the plane in L.A. to return to Dallas, you open the app and set the temperature in your house to 72 degrees. By the time you get home, the temperature in your house will be just right.

Photo by Nest; original photo on Houzz.

One of the best advantages of California’s implementation of energy codes is that the price of photovoltaic technology is falling dramatically. While California will always have abundant sunshine, it is likely that future household mechanical systems will use several technologies in unison to achieve a home’s energy demands and climate control. An urban Philadelphia residence employs geothermal, solar electric and solar thermal systems to provide comfort. A Montana home uses geothermal and solar systems for a large and sprawling design.

Solar panels double as shade devices and overhang protection for the doors of this Seattle house. Traditional architecture, as seen below, can include solar panels just as easily. Look for a future in which any house can be retrofitted with a myriad of technologies, as the solutions likely will be fluid and flexible.

Photo by Modern Exterior; original photo on Houzz.

Energy storage

Probably the biggest challenge at this time is energy storage. It is currently difficult to achieve on an individual scale. Our public energy grids are still primarily dependent on power generated by fossil fuels, which can be readily adjusted based on demand. There are already problems with utilities wishing to maintain control of the energy grids and how they will handle the influx of individually generated supplies. Flexibility, on both the individual and public levels, will probably solve all of the challenges. Zero-net-energy homes may sound complex, but imagining zero dollars for electric bills, for at least a couple of months a year, seems simple enough. 

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On Fridays, USGBC shares green home-related content curated from around the web. If you see a great article on aspects of environmentally friendly home living such as green building, renovation, energy use or cleaning, please send it our way.

This week, we've got a roundup of some of the best sources for home energy info.

  • In today's tech-centric world, you can find plenty of mobile apps related to energy savings. Check out the Eartheasy blog's rundown of some of the popular green apps you can download to help you track your energy consumption.
  • With "100 Ways to Save Energy at Home," Duke Energy provides tips sortable by category: cooling and heating, lighting, appliances, electronics and other aspects of household energy use. 

  • The Department of Energy's infographic on appliance standards offers some striking stats on how much you can cut CO2 emissions—and household bills—by using energy-efficient appliances. Take a look below, and then go on to learn more about DOE's standards program.

Infographic courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

This year alone, Fannie Mae has provided more than $1.2 billion in financing to qualified green multifamily properties. Fannie Mae’s green financing solutions use pricing breaks and higher loan proceeds to give multifamily investors an incentive to make sustainability improvements to their properties and/or to pursue green building project certifications.

Now the Green Rewards product upgrades make it even easier to invest in sustainability improvements in multifamily properties. Last week, Fannie Mae announced it will cover the cost of the required energy and water audit and lenders will now be able to underwrite 75 percent of the owners’ projected cost savings. These improvements will augment the current offer to underwrite 25 percent of projected cost savings for building tenants through the Green Rewards product. Investors can access the benefits of the program for refinance, acquisitions, supplements and second supplemental loan arrangements.

Fannie Mae, a government-sponsored enterprise/publicly traded company, provides mortgage-backed securities to expand the secondary mortgage market. For example, it buys the mortgages that banks provide to individual homeowners and packages them up to make them secure investments for outside investors, in turn allowing those banks the capital they need to extend more mortgages to qualified individuals.

As one of the largest financial institutions in the world, it is an important signal that Fannie Mae continues to innovate and lead the multifamily green financing market through its suite of products, including Green Rewards, Green Building Certification Pricing Break, Green Preservation Plus and C-PACE consent. These loan products are available to properties that will save 20 percent or more on annual energy or water consumption through improvements, in addition to properties that have already achieved certification through a third-party rating system like LEED®, the world’s most widely used green building rating program.

For many, Labor Day weekend is one of the last opportunities to get outside and get grilling.

But, before you reluctantly send off summer, consider entertaining with sustainable practices in mind. The backyard grill session is the perfect place to implement some green techniques to share with the family, friends and community. It may be your last shot for this year, but “better late than never,” we like to say.

Here are our top tips to get all fired up!

Grill veggies

Keep it vegetarian! This is the most sustainable move you can make when it comes to grilling green. For meat-eaters, we encourage you to at least buy your products locally to reduce that carbon footprint. Most farmers markets are still open well into the fall, and that’s a great spot to get locally sourced meat, dairy and produce.

Use an electric grill

Gas is preferable to charcoal...but electric wins the eco-grill game! Charcoal emits VOCs that are harmful to the environment and to the guests breathing in all that smoke. It also releases ground-level ozone, which we know to be a major smog factor.

According to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a gas burner emits about 5.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per hour, compared to 11 pounds per hour for cooking over the coals. Additionally, about 90 percent of propane makes it out of the production process as useable fuel, whereas only 20 to 35 percent of the source wood ends up as a charcoal briquette (the rest burns off into the air).

Electric is best, especially if you are already sourcing your energy from alternative sources such as wind or solar. For some, flavor profiles matter a great deal, and there is insistence that fire is necessary for the best taste. If so, give the pellet grill a try! Also, check out the Rainforest Alliance Smartwood program. They carry environmentally certified products that may suit your needs.

Put out reusable plates

Reusable over disposable: one of the most impactful ways to entertain sustainably is to use reusable cookware and utensils. If disposable is your only option, one of the best recommendations for maximum recycling potential is Leafware. It’s compostable, versatile and sturdier than many other plastic or paper products out there.

Keep it clean

Clean up! Naturally, even in your own backyard, you are a guest of the Earth you inhabit. Be sure to tidy up after your engagement, putting all materials in the appropriate receptacles. However, with these tips in mind, regular old trash should be hardly existent!

Find even more great tips on green grilling and suggested menus from some of our favorite earth-friendly sites.

Clean green with our DIY kitchen cleaner recipe

On Fridays, USGBC shares green home-related content curated from around the web. If you see a great article on aspects of environmentally friendly home living such as green building, renovation, energy use or cleaning, please send it our way.

  • Going zero-waste can sound intimidating, but reading "Trash-free Is the Way to Be" on Green Living Ideas, you'll see that it can be simper than you think. The blog links to resources on textile recycling and zero-waste grocery shopping.

 

Get tips on sealing your butcher block countertops

Energy.gov has plenty of resources for keeping your home's electric use manageable, with advice on how to save energy with heating and cooling, insulation, lighting and appliances.

They even have a quiz, Test Your Home Energy IQ, with 13 quick multiple-choice questions that will give you a snapshot of how much you already know—or don't know—about energy conservation in the home. Are you an energy genius? Each selected answer expands to show you more facts on the topic.

If you wish, you can then move on to the site's other quizzes, such as Test Your Lighting IQ and Test Your Climate Change IQ.

Take the home energy quiz

How do you get your children to participate in keeping a green home and caring about the Earth? Whether your kids are first-graders or teens, there are age-appropriate ways to talk to them about green living and sustainability. These tips will help you get your kids enthusiastic about pitching in.

Reuse and recycling

  • Even fairly young children can learn to sort items to be recycled from those to be thrown away. Place your bin for recyclables in the kitchen and have kids deposit cardboard, metal, glass and plastic materials into the bin themselves as you use them up. Ask your child if a particular item can go in, and let them be the expert.
  • When you're at the store, teach your kids about "precycling" by making wise choices in purchasing products. Lovetoknow shares how you can talk with your children about buying in bulk to save money and resources, as well as choosing items with recycled or no packaging to reduce waste.
  • Children quickly outgrow clothes. If siblings can't use the items, show your child how to select used clothes and toys in good condition and pass them along to the Salvation Army or another outlet so that someone else can enjoy them. In addition, you and your child can peruse these stores yourselves rather than buying new every time.

Energy conservation

  • Kids love being in charge of an important duty! The Once Upon a Child blog suggests electing a child "Captain Energy."  Let your child keep track of the family's electric and water use. You could even encourage them to make an official badge for their job, and let them be the enforcer of turning off light switches when family members leave a room.
  • Young people may not think about how much water it wastes when they take long showers or leave the tap running, so throw some EPA stats their way to make the idea more concrete. It's an easy fix to turn off the tap while brushing teeth or set a timer for a five-minute shower. Make it more interesting by charting daily progress with stickers that lead to a reward after a month of saving water.

Valuing the great outdoors

  • Help your kids enjoy being in nature so that they evolve a desire to protect the Earth. Visit forests and seashores, bicycle through urban parks and point out wildlife in your own backyard. Depending on the age of your children, there are different approaches you can take to talking about subjects such as climate change—check out this article from Scholastic for tips.
  • Gardening gives children an absorbing, hands-on activity and a sense of ownership. Start your own veggie and herb garden in the backyard or set up a community garden in your neighborhood, let your kids help plan the layout and assign them times to work in it. 
  • Worms! Dirt! Composting is an activity that seems made for kids. Gardening Know How offers simple directions for ways to engage your children in managing their own composting containers.

How to home compost without the hassle

On Fridays, USGBC shares green home-related content curated from around the web. If you see a great article on aspects of environmentally friendly home living such as green building, renovation, energy use or cleaning, please send it our way.

  • More than 70 percent of electronics, including old cell phones or televisions, may be recyclable. Earth 911 has created a helpful search feature for you to look up places to recycle electronics. Just type in a term such as "cell phone" and your zip code, and generate a list of stores and stations near you that accept that item.
  • Going out of town this summer? You can travel and still be green. Take a look at these tips from IndependentTraveler.com for ways you can be environmentally conscious while flying, staying in hotels and sightseeing.
  • If you've been thinking of switching over some of your old incandescent light bulbs to LEDs, read this article from CNET. They'll show you what lumens measurement you'll need, what color type to buy and whether you'll need a dimmer.

Get more reuse and recycling tips

Buildings are the backdrop of our everyday lives. We spend the majority of our time inside, and a growing body of research indicates that indoor air may be more polluted than it is outside

A possible fix to this issue? Houseplants.

In the late ‘80s, NASA published a study that examined whether plants could double as air filtration systems. The federal agency, exploring long-term space inhabitation, knew that volatile organic compounds released by the materials used to make a space capsule's interior could pollute the air inside it. 

NASA found that specific plants could filter out air pollutants, such as benzene and formaldehyde. Other research since then also concludes that houseplants could help reduce the amount of air pollutants. 

Looking to spruce up your home with shrubs but perhaps your thumb isn’t that green? Take a look at these six plants that are easy to care for and that can also help you breather easier at home.

1. Spider Plant

 

Photo by madaise via Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

Removes: Formaldehyde

This grasslike plant, with its long narrow leaves is a popular for its ease and speed of growth. Spider plants grow best in bright, indirect light and typically reach 2 to 2 1/2 feet wide and 2 to 3 feet long when in a hanging basket. 

2. Peace Lily 

Removes: Ammonia, benzene, formaldehyde, TCE trichloroethylene, toluene, xylene

Peace lilies thrive in indirect sunlight, making them great for rooms with few windows. Place this hardy plant around 5-7 feet away from a window, and make sure they're in a room with a temperature between 65 and 80 degrees.

You can water peace lilies around once a week. They usually signal when they need additional water when it starts to sag.

3. Snake Plant 

Removes: Formaldehyde, benzene

Also known as Mother-in-Law's Tongue, the snake plant has leaves that grow upright, some with variations of yellow or white edges. It can grow in a variety of lighting conditions and in any normal room temperature. 

4. Aloe Vera

Removes: Carbon monoxide, benzene, formaldehyde

Aloe vera, commonly used for burns and cuts, requires little moisture to survive like its fellow succulent species. Water the plant only when the soil is completely dry, and place it in a window, where it can receive bright, direct sunlight. 

5. Golden Pothos

Removes: Carbon monoxide, formaldehyde

These plants with heart-shaped leaves favor indirect bright light, high humidity and warm temperatures within the 65 to 80 degree range. They're capable of growing leaves that are 20 inches, but in homes, they seldom grow larger than five inches. 

6. Bamboo Palm

Removes: Benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene

In finding the right spot to place a bamboo palm in your home, look for a place that offers indirect or filtered sunlight. Water the plant only when the soil feels dry, and make sure that it's not under a vent. The bamboo plant favors temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees during the day and no lower than 60 degrees at night.

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Seeing parking garages around a city is a pretty normal thing. And besides, people use them every day, right? That actually may not be the case anymore. At least half of all available parking spaces are vacant 40 percent of the time. Enter SCADpad

SCADpad represents a grand vision for urban renewal that fits into the size of a parking spot. Given the current urban population and the new commuting trends, SCADpad is a relevant answer to the growing need for affordable, efficient housing in cities worldwide. And on top of that, this model is replicable. SCADpad is a community of three micro-residences on the fourth floor of SCAD Atlanta’s parking deck.

Each of the three SCADpad units has a unique theme and visual identity, reflecting SCAD’s global footprint. A common green space extends the living area, creating a community environment. An organic garden is fed by a graywater filtration and delivery system, while a composting and recycling center helps ensure there is minimal waste. A rapid prototyping area featuring a 3D printer lets residents customize their unit to their preferences and needs—a perfect way to maximize life in a micro house.

As the housing shortage in crowded cities becomes increasingly apparent, finding a solution seems daunting. But repurposing existing structures is an incredible way to use our space wisely, instead of attempting to build on new land and increase our footprint.

People aren't just focused on housing, though. In California, architects have taken an underutilized parking deck and turned the two-acre area into a park with basketball courts, vegetable gardens and meditation spaces.

As we move forward and encounter these issues that have to do with space, I think it's really important we focus on what we already have. Existing buildings aren't out of the question. Are there more ways we can repurpose them for future use? I think it's also a reminder how important it is to build new buildings that last. These parking decks are old, but that doesn't mean they are unusable. Let's make sure we use space wisely, and keep our footprint small! 

Learn more about SCADpad