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Green Building News

Major U.S. Builder Tests Net-Zero Market

Pulte, the third biggest home builder in the country, joins a California demonstration project

Pulte's prototype net-zero house is under construction in a Bay Area development in California. The company says that it is using the pilot program to find the most efficient path to net-zero construction.
Image Credit: PulteGroup Inc.

One of the country’s biggest residential developers is dipping its toes into the high-performance housing market with a prototype net-zero-energy house in California.

PulteGroup announced earlier this month that it would wrap up work on its first net-zero home in a Brentwood, California, development called Botanica in May. The goal, PulteGroup President Ryan Marshall said in a press release, “is to help define the most efficient path to building zero-net-energy homes that effectively balance constructability, cost, and quality.”

Net-zero houses are relatively rare, but California has more of them than any other state in the country, according to a survey published earlier this year by the Net-Zero Energy Coalition. They are likely to become much more common as the state approaches its 2020 goal that all new houses be net-zero, and the state’s zero net energy action plan for reaching that milestone lists a number of steps, including construction of single-family and multifamily demonstration projects.

According to rankings by Professional Builder, Pulte is the third biggest home builder in the U.S. with a total of 17,196 closings in 2014 and sales of $5.5 billion. The company says that it’s the largest builder to date to take part in the net-zero demonstration program.

In an email response to questions from GBA, Brian Jamison, PulteGroup national procurement director, said that the company has been “testing and implementing innovative energy solutions and sustainable practices” in new houses around the country. Some of the houses have been very efficient, but the Botanica house will the first one designed specifically to hit the net-zero mark.

Other big builders also are working their way into the net-zero market. For example, KB Home, ranked at #8 in the country with 2014 sales of $2.4 billion, debuted a net-zero energy home in Los Angeles County in 2014. The 2,537-square-foot house in the city of Lancaster also uses no water for landscaping, making it what KB calls a “double zero house.”

Features of the prototype house

The part of California where Pulte’s demonstration house is being built, 55 miles east of San Francisco, is in Climate Zone 3. As described by Pulte, the slab-on-grade house will have two levels with three bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, and a total of 2,343 square feet.

Botanica is a 297-unit subdivision, but the prototype will be the only one in the neighborhood to get the enhanced package of energy upgrades. Pulte has yet to set a sales price for the house, but the base prices of homes in Botanica range from the high $400,000s to the low $600,000s and vary in size from 2,343 square feet to 3,590 square feet.

Asked what Pulte estimated to be the additional costs to bring the house to the net-zero level, Jamison sidestepped the question. He responded, “The energy performance of the home will be monitored for a year after it is sold, and overall energy performance and consumption will be evaluated. We are collaborating with many valued partners in building, tracking and evaluating the prototype and hope to get more insight into the cost and myriad of energy efficient offerings our homes in California and beyond will offer in the future.”

Here are some of the home’s features:

  • A building envelope with an air leakage rate of 3.5 air changes per hour at a pressure difference of 50 pascals (ach50). Accoding to Pulte, an air leakage rate of 5 ach50 is typical in new houses.
  • A HERS Index target of zero.
  • A whole-house ventilation system consisting of an exhaust fan that runs continuously and a duct that brings in fresh air.
  • A conditioned attic with a sealed, insulated roof deck insulated to R-38. (The company didn’t answer questions about the type or amount of insulation in exterior walls or say whether any insulation would be placed beneath the slab.)
  • Heating and cooling with a SEER 19 air-source heat pump made by Lennox.
  • A tankless water heater made by Rinnai. The hot water system includes a dedicated, insulated loop that connected to a pump controlled by switches in the kitchen or the master bedroom. The system is designed to reduce water waste.
  • A 4.34-kilowatt photovoltaic array installed by SolarCity.
  • LED lighting.
  • A Site Sage energy monitoring system that keeps track of plug loads, major appliances, and lighting.
  • Low-e vinyl windows, Energy Star appliances, an induction cooktop, and a front-loading gas-fired dryer.

A time of turmoil in the company

The project comes at a time of unrest in the company. The Wall Street Journal reports that Pulte founder William J. Pulte and CEO Richard Dugas Jr. are battling over the direction the company is taking, and that Dugas had agreed to step down next year.

Pulte’s grandson, also named Bill Pulte, has complained that the company’s share price, revenue, and housing deliveries have been “relatively stagnant over the last two or three years.” The two Pultes and director Jim Grosfield launched a surprise attack on Dugas in late March, demanding that he retire or “there would be war.”

But the Pultes and Grosfield are apparently at odds with the rest of Pulte’s board. In a letter to shareholders, James Postl, an independent director, said that the trio had undertaken a “misguided” effort to boot Dugas and “influence our considered succession planning process and change the strategic direction of PulteGroup,” the newspaper said.

The public dispute points to how volatile the politics at big, publicly traded companies can be, and how quickly company strategies can change.

4 Comments

  1. John Clark | | #1

    Smart of Pulte to try this in California.
    California has some of the highest profit margins in the country.*

    *Per a member of my family who worked for a large production builder in this area of California the margins for production builders were around 30-40%.

  2. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #2

    3.5ach50?
    Hardly very impressive features. I suppose net zero in CA zone 3 is a pretty easy target. Does the 3.5ach50 even meet code?

  3. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Response to Stephen Sheehy
    Stephen,
    Q. "Does 3.5 ach50 even meet code?"

    A. According to the way I read the 2012 International Residential Code, Pulte wouldn't pass code with this house if it tested at 3.5 ach50 (assuming it was built in Climate Zones 3 through 8; note that almost all of California is in Climate Zones 3 through 8).

    To meet the 2012 IRC, a builder working in Zones 3 through 8 has to show that the house tests at 3 ach50 or tighter -- at least if they are following the prescriptive rather than the performance path of the code.

    The reason that Pulte can get away with these leaky houses is that California has its own energy code, Title 24. I assume that these Pulte homes meet Title 24 requirements, but I'm not an expert on Title 24.

  4. Peter L | | #4

    Zone 3 Is Relatively Easy
    Attaining Net Zero in a Zone 3 climate is not that difficult. Like mentioned, the 3.5 ACH 50 is not that impressive. If they did PassivHous levels of 0.50 ACH 50 then I would be more impressed or if they attempted to bring it to US Passive House levels, that would impressive.

    It will always come down to the home OCCUPANTS whether or not after a year it attains true Net Zero levels. Lots of electrical loads such as big screen TVs, computers, lights kept on during the day, many occupants in the home, running the AC all day, etc. will make it harder to attain true Net Zero.

    Before I get accused of being a Negative Nancy or Debbie Downer, this project is a step in the right direction. Whether it catches on or not will be seen and how expensive these homes will be is another factor.

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