Thousands of miles away, the Gulf Coast is hemorrhaging oil. Global temperatures are increasing, coal-fired power plants continue to pump toxic emissions into air and water, and let us not forget the polar bears on the melting icebergs.
That’s the big picture.
Here, in north Boulder, the geothermal-powered air-conditioning softly hums while the 9.99 Kilowatt photovoltaic system on the roof powers the LEDs in the kitchen, and the super-duper air-sealing package (also referred to as “a guy with a calking gun”) keeps the coolness in, the heat out and everyone happy.
This is Spring Leaf, a net-zero energy infill housing project that is like no other in the county and probably even in the country. The model home—which will be one of 12 total homes in the development, including six single-family homes and six townhouses—is net-metered, and it will produce as much energy, if not more, than it consumes annually. It boasts what is possible with cutting-edge materials, conscious planning and contemporary design, and it’s the culmination of lessons learned on numerous low-energy and net-zero energy projects.
This, however, is still a home: its “greenness” does not outshine the warmth or the simplicity, the mountain views or the lux tub in the master bath. The home has a contemporary, clean aesthetic with warm woods dancing with steel, white walls and big, well-placed windows.
“We want the material to be expressive of its own use and its history,” architect George Watt said. “…When it comes down to it, we build homes that are welcoming. It’s your house, your sanctuary. All these systems and materials need to fade into the background.”
To Watt, the hominess trumps the sustainability. It’s more important to have the home feel like a home, he says, than for it to be fanatically green. Still, the systems and the materials lend to the aesthetic—and ultimately make this project extraordinary.
The all-electric home is crowned with a sleek-looking, inlaid photovoltaic system that can produce more than enough power to keep this house cool and calm in the summer and produce more than it uses over the span of a year; in the winter, the home will occasionally use the electric grid for backup.
Watt and the developers have also focused on conservation, insulation and sealing. Likely to receive LEED-platinum certification, which is the highest of all LEED achievements, the house is filled with sustainably harvested woods, passive solar, xeriscaping, toxin-free and low-flow water systems, sustainable and recycled countertops (the kitchen counters are made of concrete and wine bottles, which is more beautiful than it sounds), cabinets and other materials. Beetle-killed trees find a second life here as fencing, and a permeable pavement stormwater drainage system to filter water is just part of the landscape.
The home is a treehugger’s dream and a modern environmentalist’s haven. And it satisfies many of the promises made by urban development. The project is across the street from a Lucky’s Supermarket, a coffee shop, restaurants and all the essentials.
“When we do a project, we can create the technical pieces, but the lifestyle is up to the homeowner. Here, we enhance the ability to live an efficient lifestyle,” Watt said.
Overall, the house and the future homes and townhouses are placed, planned and designed to maximize their efficiency and conservation as well as the efficiency of the future homeowners. It’s overwhelming in its attention to the details of sustainability and eco-awareness. Yet, it’s all about simplicity. Which is why the architect and the developers wanted to put everything on an electric system (a reason why the house doesn’t have a solar thermal system).
But green doesn’t always translate to green…as in, cold hard cash. And a photovoltaic system can seem like an ancillary investment in this economy. So, adjustments have been made, like giving homeowners the option of not having solar panels or the geothermal system. Instead, the next 11 homes will be “net-zero ready” unless a buyer is willing to fork out the extra money right now.
“We are giving people the opportunity to grow into their house,” Watt said.
According to Deanna Franco at 8030 Realty, it’s a consumer-driven change. She said the townhomes will start at $650,000, which is down from $800,000; the single family homes will start at $800,000. If the consumer does want to make the net-zero plunge, the single family homes could reach $1.2 million, which is big bucks in this economy but not unheard of in the Boulder area.
“What we provide for them is an incredibly energy efficient home. If they want to be a team player, they can,” Franco says.
Mary Coonce, principal of developer Porchfront Homes, said while the decision was not part of the plan, it does allow potential customers to have freedom to pick and choose what their homes look like. At the same time, it’s making them more realistic.