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.