By LEW SICHELMAN
Richard Bruce is looking forward to moving into his new Austin, Texas, home with his wife by year’s end. When construction is complete, the 1,700-square-foot abode will have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, plus lightning-fast Google Fiber internet service. But here are the real selling points: the geothermal heating and cooling system and photovoltaic (PV) panels which will ensure the new house produces as much energy as the couple consume.
“It’s an exciting new community,” says Bruce, 62, who works for the Veterans Health Administration. “It’s using all the newest eco-friendly technology, and it’s going to save us money on energy bills.”
The couple, who are relocating from Oklahoma City for a job opportunity, are among the first buyers in the master-planned community of Whisper Valley, the largest “net-zero” housing development in the nation. The roughly 7,500 eco-friendly standalone houses, townhouses, and rental apartments are designed to be completely energy-self-sufficient, sending as much power back to the grid as residents use.
Largest net-zero project in the U.S.
The $2 billion community, which opens in the next month or so, is sprawled over more than 2,000 acres about 8 miles east of Austin.
“This is the largest zero-energy project of its kind anywhere in the United States,” says Lorenz Reibling, co-founder of Taurus Investment Holdings, the developer of the community.
Until recently, net-zero houses have been sporadically built on single lots, or in small subdivisions. But rising energy costs combined with widespread concerns over environmental damage and global warming — and lower costs of eco-friendly tech — have given the concept a big boost.
Whisper Valley amenities will include a geothermal-heated community pool, electrical vehicle charging stations, community gardens, and miles of hiking and biking trails. The first units will range in price from the high $100,000s to the $300,000s.
Bruce is particularly excited about the pool and community meeting space, along with the smart, energy-efficient features with which the home will be equipped.
“I’d like to see more communities go this way,” he says.
Ground-source heat pumps heat and cool
What makes Whisper Valley most unique is its energy-efficient heating and cooling system that makes use of the earth itself. The homes will be hooked up to ground-source (“geothermal”) heat pumps that are 50% to 60% more efficient than traditional HVAC systems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The system at Whisper Valley will cycle water through the homes and then through a series of water-filled underground coils. In summer, the water will absorb the excess heat from the home, then cool off as it runs through the coils. The cooled water is then sent back to each house, where a compressor turns it into cool air. In the winter, the process is reversed.
In addition, each house will feature solar panels, energy-efficient appliances, and smart home products that will adjust thermostats to their owners’ schedules.
Homeowners don’t pay a dime upfront for the geothermal system, PV panels, energy-efficient appliances, or even the maintenance on them. Those green amenities are estimated to cost about $30,000 to $50,000 per house, according to developer Taurus.
Instead, buyers are on the hook for a 25-year financing program to pay off those amenities. They’re expected to shell out about $175 a month through the program — about what they’d spend on their monthly utility bills, according to the the developer.
“By taking this approach, we will make a significant impact by making high-performance homes much more affordable,” says Douglas Gilliland, president of Taurus of Texas, a segment of Taurus Investment Holdings.
Demand is high
About 150 would-be buyers have already signed up for the first 30 houses.
That’s not exactly surprising because the homes are expected to cost less than many other, less energy-efficient properties currently for sale. For example, the median home list price is $455,000 in Austin and $371,000 in East Austin, according to realtor.com.
“They’re competitively priced with conventional homes,” says Realtor Ken Altes, of Eco Homes Austin, who specializes in green homes in the area. Plus, “a lot of people are concerned that the cost of conventional fuels in the future is uncertain [and could rise].”
The development is expected to foster a strong sense of community among residents who are all committed to reducing their carbon footprint.
That’s an incentive for Kimberly and Herman Juarez, who also hope to move in later this year. The couple want to downsize from their 2,800-square-foot Austin home now that their son is about to leave for college. They chose Whisper Valley for its location, eco- and budget-friendly features, and like-minded neighbors.
“We like the concept of it being all green and eco-friendly,” says Kimberly, who works at Whole Foods. Her 49-year-old husband is a financial executive at an insurance company. “Having a child, we look out for his future and that of our other nieces and nephews.”
Would a ‘passive’ approach to green design be better?
But not everyone is sold. Austin architect Peter Pfeiffer, a pioneer in green building, isn’t a big fan of Whisper Valley. He favors clean home layouts that maximize energy efficiency rather than “clean by gizmo,” he says.
Pfeiffer believes the houses at Whisper Valley would perform just as well if they were designed to take passive advantage of the sun’s rays.
“We are so wrapped up in efficiency by technology that we forget about design,” he says. “If most of the windows are oriented properly, either north or south, you can save 30% on your heating and cooling bills right there.”
Plus, a quarter-century is a long time to be paying off those geothermal and other energy systems.
“There are a lot of infrastructure costs,” says Altes, the realtor. And with continued advances in technology, “most of that [energy] system will be obsolete in 25 years.”
Lew Sichelman writes a nationally syndicated column on housing and mortgages. This post originally appeared at realtor.com.
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