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Thrive/New Town Builders' Net-Zero Energy Displays

Thrive/New Town Builders' Net-Zero Energy Displays
A modern design with minimal details.
Builder Nails Net-Zero Energy Displays! 

How many times have you walked one of those behind-the-walls technology exhibitions in the garage of a model home? You know, the series of displays that show why a builder builds a better home than everyone else. Most salespeople are scared to set foot in there, for fear of getting technical questions that they can’t handle.
I’m happy to report that I had the exact opposite experience this summer when visiting Thrive Home Builders' (formerly New Town Builders) garage displays in Hyland Village, located in the Westminster suburb of Denver. I toured three models. Not only were the displays instructive, but a salesperson expertly guided me through them, focusing on the benefits for me.
A little background is in order. Thrive has won the Department of Energy’s top award for innovation each of the last two years. The merchant builder not only builds an extremely energy-efficient home, it also designs homes with strong family-friendly floor plans and then beautifully merchandises them. The builder’s approach to energy efficiency is designed to hold down home prices. Thrive builds Zero Energy Ready homes with advanced framing techniques, including double-stud walls and added layers of ceiling insulation. It economizes as much as possible before adding mechanical equipment that costs more money. Here’s a link to my interview with Thrive's CEO Gene Myers in Fine Homebuilding, where Gene explains exactly how they build these extremely energy efficient homes.

The salesperson who greeted me took me straight through the decorated model (of the Berkeley plan, shown

here) to the garage, where she called my attention to a HERS chart. The Zero Energy Ready homes come with a HERS of about 30, much better than anything else in the neighborhood. The typical Energy Star home, she pointed out, has a HERS of about 70 and costs $175 more per month to operate.

The Zero Energy Ready homes seemed like a bargain to this Easterner. Ranging from 1,878 to 2,457 square feet, they retail for between $438,000 and $508,000. That’s pretty reasonable considering the short commute to downtown Denver and the shopping mall located less than a mile away. But for an additional $35,000 or so, I could buy a net-zero home that virtually eliminates electrical bills, the salesperson explained. “We basically substitute a heat pump for our standard high-efficiency air conditioning unit, give you windows with even lower U-values, and a provide a bigger photovoltaic array.”
As the salesperson guided me through displays of construction details in the Berkeley model, she focused on the comfort each one created inside the home – consistent temperatures and quiet rooms. She showed me a mock-up of New Town’s double-wall construction, which results in a deeper wall that holds more insulation. “It eliminates the loss of heat through studs that touch the inside and outside walls,” she said, pointing to an adjoining display that showed typical 2x4 wall construction, with studs touching each side of the wall.

Next stop was a display of the company’s insulated 14-inch heel height of ceiling trusses, which raises the roof slightly above the walls, allowing more insulation to be piled in the critical area at the eaves. I had never seen a display of this detail before. Pointing to a companion display, she noted that most Energy Star homes have only a 10-inch heel height. They can’t back as much insulation (for more on the science of Net Zero Energy, click here). 
Another display highlights Thrive/New Town’s value-engineered, insulated window details. “This is what you’d typically get in a resale around here,” she said, showing me how needless studs and headers leave less room for insulation and waste lumber.
The presentation complete, the salesperson was eager to take me through the model homes. I decided to see them alone, which was probably a mistake – I’m sure she would have done a marvelous job relating the main features of the homes to my lifestyle needs and aspirations. The first thing I noticed about these highly
  energy-efficient homes (the Strathmoor model is shown below) is that they were bright inside. Unlike some passive home designs that restrict window size and placement, these homes were long on natural light in key living areas – the family room, entry hall, and bedrooms in particular. Despite abundant windows and patio 

doors, there wasn’t much glare in the homes either. This partly stems from carefully placed eaves and porch roofs that restrict solar gain on hot summer days even as they allow light to penetrate.

There were no eye-level windows in two of the kitchens of the model homes. But in both cases, the kitchens looked out on light-filled great rooms. Tall windows, transoms, and 10–foot ceilings made the homes feel spacious. The interior design was strong, a pleasant blend of traditional and contemporary details. The designers mixed contemporary fireplace walls and metal balustrades with wide-plank oak floors and rolling barn doors. Creative kitchen designs combined granite countertops and stainless steel appliances with colorful birch cabinets with a “Bronco” door style (kitchen and living room images courtesy Thrive Home Builders).

I was surprised to learn, as I left the models, that sales weren’t stronger. Some of the sluggishness may be due to lingering perceptions about the project’s location – a subdivision that failed during the housing downturn. Once construction hits a critical mass, objection should dissipate as more people recognize the value to be had.

Boyce Thompson is the author of The New New Home, published by The Taunton Press.

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