Building Columbia’s first net-zero energy house

May 22, 2014

Daniel Karlov, the architect of Columbia’s first net-zero house, explains how the vaulted ceilings will help support the solar panels on Monday March 31, 2014 in Columbia, Mo. Construction on the home began in October 2013 and is expected to be finished in May 2014.
Credit KBIA

The house under construction at the corner of Ash and Sanford streets isn’t like its neighbors. Beyond the huge roof and shiny silver siding, the house is designed to produce energy as well as consume it.

The project started a year ago when Peoples’ Visioning, a renewable energy advocacy group, came up with the idea to build a self-sustaining house. The group decided to partner with Habitat for Humanity to push the plan forward. The Columbia Community Development Commission gave $65,000 in federal funding to build the house.

Peoples’ Visioning Director Monta Welch believes there is a real need for environmentally responsible housing. “There’s a lot of pollution that is created both in a build for a home, but then later on to heat and cool and come up with the energy [for daily use],” Welch said.

One of the big obstacles for building energy efficient homes is changing the outlook of both buyers and builders in relation to green energy homes.

Generally, buyers and builders think about costs in the short term and not the savings in the long run, according to Terry Freeman, supervisor of the Residential Energy Services Department. Freeman has been pushing the idea of green energy in Columbia and is excited about the net-zero house to show what green energy can do for the community.

“I’m hoping that this first net-zero home will show people that it’s possible and that it isn’t this big, mysterious, hard thing to do. That it can be mainstream,” Freeman said.

Eric Hempel, housing specialist for the Community Development Department, elaborates on how green energy homes can be more realistic. “None of it’s impossible. For sure net-zero is a step above higher energy efficiency, but I think a lot of it is just being aware of the options, getting good design, and making it more standard practice,” Hempel said.

According to Freeman and Hempel, changing the way construction workers think about green energy is one of the first steps in changing their overall outlook on building more energy efficient houses.

“It’s a builders’ kind of a mind set. And they typically hate to stray away from the way they usually do things because that’s worked for them for years and they’re comfortable with it, and doing something different sometimes is a roadblock for builders and customers.” Freeman said.

People’s visioning hopes the project will raise awareness for energy efficient housing around Columbia.

“That’s why we decided to do this net zero energy house as one of the main goals of Peoples’ Visioning because it helps to educate both the public, the builders, and the policy makers,” she said.

As an attempt to promote net-zero building, Columbia Water and Light has even offered discounts on energy saving features for existing buildings.

“We offer rebates for existing houses now to increase their insulation level to be more efficient. We offer rebates for sealing up the house so there’s less air leakage. So we can kind of get to that point where we hopefully reach a sustainable lifestyle and use the least amount of energy that we can,” Freeman said.

Despite all of these challenges, the project is meant to be an example of energy efficient housing that is a realistic and affordable option.

This story originally aired as part of Under the Microscope, a weekly program about science, health, and technology in mid-Missouri.