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Green Homes

Large Connecticut Home is ‘Zero-Energy-Ready’

Brookside Development built this DOE Zero Energy Ready certified home on an estate once owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company heiress.
Image Credit: Brookside Development
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The walls have three layers of insulation: 1 inch of exterior polyiso, 1 1/2 inch of closed-cell spray foam against the interior side of the OSB wall sheathing, and 2 inches of fiberglass.
Image Credit: Brookside Development
The insulation system starts with a 1.5-inch layer of closed-cell spray foam to seal up any cracks or holes in the exterior walls. The closed-cell foam is supplemented by 2-inch thick fiberglass batts inside the walls. The walls also have a continuous layer of 1-inch polyisocyanurate on the exterior side of the OSB wall sheathing.
Image Credit: Brookside Development
The foil-faced polyisocyanurate doubles as the water-resistive barrier (WRB). Windows are flashed with peel-and-stick flashing adhered to the foil facing of the polyiso.
Image Credit: Brookside Development
Before the attic insulation was installed, ceiling air leaks were sealed with expanding spray foam.
Image Credit: Brookside Development
About 90% of the home's lamps are compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). The remaining 10% are light-emitting diode (LED) lamps.
Image Credit: Brookside Development
The home is EPA WaterSense certified. The kitchen faucet is a low-flow fixture.
Image Credit: Brookside Development
The home has a HERS Index of 45.
Image Credit: Brookside Development
The living room windows are generously sized, providing plenty of natural light.
Image Credit: Brookside Development

The builder says that the incremental cost of the energy-efficiency features was only $6,000 more than minimal compliance with the the 2009 code

Builder Mark Nuzzolo of Brookside Development has energy savings all sewn up at his new development, Singer Village in Derby, Connecticut. The high-performance homes are located on land surrounding the historic Singer House, once home of the granddaughter of Isaac Merritt Singer, founder of Singer Sewing Machines.

The first home constructed in the seven-home community earned certification from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home program. The program requires homes to meet a host of energy, health, and durability requirements, including those of the Energy Star Certified Homes program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor airPLUS and WaterSense programs. In addition, they must meet DOE Zero Energy Ready Home prescriptive or performance requirements and a checklist of “renewable ready” solar power measures that ensure the home is wired for a future photovoltaic (PV) array and plumbed for a future solar thermal system in case the homeowner ever wants to install them.

The home was honored with a 2013 Connecticut Zero Energy Challenge Award sponsored by the State of Connecticut. The housing development, Singer Village, was designed to meet the National Association of Home Builders’ National Green Building Standards criteria and will become the first development in Connecticut to achieve a multi-star certification. This certification recognizes the builder’s efforts to design a development that reduces storm water impact on local waterways and infrastructures, preserves native habitat and wetlands, minimizes erosion, and reduces environmental impacts during excavation and construction.

The builder got serious about energy efficiency

Nuzzolo, a veteran home builder who has built more than 400 homes over a 30-year career, has been recognized with numerous home building industry awards from the Home Builders Association of Connecticut. Although educated as a lawyer, Nuzzolo chose real estate development and has served as president of the New Haven Home Builders Association and as a current member of the association’s board of directors. He is also a Certified Green Professional. Mark’s wife, D.J. Collins, works with him as a builder, marketer, and coordinator of sales.

Nuzzolo has been participating in the Energy Star Certified Homes program since 2004. He took a serious look at increasing the energy efficiency of his homes in 2008 when oil prices rose and the recession hit hard. “I thought, we’re never going to sell a house in this market doing the same old thing. Let’s change the equation from initial cost of the home to the cost of homeownership. We decided to push the envelope,” said Nuzzolo. Nuzzolo began participating in the Energize CT New Construction Program, which offers incentives to builders who build energy-efficient homes, with tiered amounts based on the level of energy efficiency the builder achieves.

Through this program, Brookside began working with Steven Winter Associates, a research partner in the DOE Building America Program, who told Nuzzolo about the DOE Zero Energy Ready Home program. With one DOE Zero Energy Ready Home done, Nuzzolo plans to build the remaining six homes at Singer Village to meet the program criteria. “The only thing I have to figure out is making the WaterSense water distribution requirement work with all of our house designs,” said Nuzzolo. “The other requirements all make sense. Building a house this tight, you almost have to do the things Building America requires.”

According to Nuzzolo, building to the DOE Zero Energy Ready Home requirements only cost him about $6,000 more than building a home that minimally complies with the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code.

R-68 roof insulation

Nuzzolo starts with a standard 2×4 16-inch on-center wood-framed wall, and insulates between the studs with the “flash and batt” approach (1.5 inches of closed-cell spray foam, followed by unfaced fiberglass batts). “I’ve tried both open-cell and closed-cell spray foam. The closed-cell spray foam increases the strength of the wall and provides exceptional air sealing,” said Nuzzolo.

On the exterior, the 7/16 inch OSB sheathing is covered with 1 inch (R-6.5) of foil-faced polyisocyanurate rigid foam. This continuous layer of foam provides a thermal break between the framing and the siding, reducing thermal bridging through the studs.

The polyiso is taped at the seams to provide a continuous drainage plane for any rainwater that might get past the vinyl siding. The walls have a total R-value of R-25.

The vented attic has 19 inches of cellulose (R-68) piled on the attic floor. All cathedral ceilings are insulated with R-50 of closed-cell spray foam.

Heating and cooling systems are in the basement

The heating and cooling equipment is located in the basement, which is insulated from the ceiling to 3 feet below grade with R-10 of foil-faced, glass-fiber-reinforced, polyiso rigid foam insulation. (While the 2012 International Residential Code requires R-15 in this location, R-10 meets local code requirements.)

The builder chose Thermax polyiso because Thermax offers a code-accepted thermal break, i.e., building codes allow it to be left without a covering of drywall. Therefore, the basement can be left for the homeowner to finish as desired. Beneath the slab is 10 inches of packed gravel and a polyethylene vapor barrier to keep moisture out of the slab and minimize radon. There is no horizontal rigid foam under the slab.

Space heating equipment consists of an air-source heat pump with a gas furnace for back-up. The 2-ton heat pump has a heating system performance factor (HSPF) of 8 and a seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) of 14. (Minimum federal appliance standards are 7.7 HSPF and 13 SEER). The high-efficiency gas furnace has an annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) of 96%, far exceeding the federal minimum of 78% AFUE. The system includes a MERV 10 filter.

All of the HVAC equipment and ducts are located within the home’s conditioned space.

The heat pump works in conjunction with natural gas fuel

The builder worked with Steven Winter Associates to select the HVAC equipment and settings. They recommended setting the heat pump switch point to 50°F, which means if the outside temperature drops below 50°F, the heating system will switch to the natural gas furnace. “Analysis by Steven Winter Associates showed the heat pump lost its cost effectiveness below 50°F because we have natural gas on the site,” said Nuzzolo.

The home was designed with enough roof space and the proper orientation to permit the installation of 5 kW of PV panels. Metal conduit has been installed from the attic to the electric panel to accommodate the future installation of a PV array. “We have tremendous solar capability on the site,” said Nuzzolo. The local electric utility lets the meter spin backwards, crediting the homeowner for every kilowatt-hour produced up to the amount used by the home, at a rate of 19 cents per kilowatt-hour. But, once the meter reaches 0, any surplus electricity produced is credited back to the homeowner at 4 cents per kWh rather than 19 cents per kWh. With the dual-fuel system, the homeowner can adjust the switch point on the heat pump to rely on electric power (the heat pump) for heating after the meter has reached zero to “absorb” the excess electricity, explained Nuzzolo.

To further increase energy savings, the home is equipped with an Energy Star refrigerator and dishwasher. The lighting includes a mix of high-efficiency strategies – the exterior and interior lights that are used most often are LEDs (about 10% of the total fixtures); the remaining 90% are CFLs. There is a daylight sensor on the exterior lamp. The ceiling fan in the master bedroom is Energy Star rated. The water heater is a tankless gas water heater with an energy factor of 0.92.

Clean air measures include active and passive ventilation and low-VOC products

The home meets all of the EPA Indoor airPLUS requirements for healthy air including a passive radon venting system; low-VOC paints, finishes, and carpets; moisture management details; and an exhaust ventilation system that meets ASHRAE 62.2 ventilation requirements.

After completing his first DOE Zero Energy Ready certified home, Nuzzolo said that he enjoyed the experience and he’s learned from it. “I’ve got the expertise now. The next house we do, we’re streamlining the design and possibly reducing the size to go for a lower price point,” said Nuzzolo. “I may adjust the products and reduce the size but I don’t want to compromise the energy efficiency. Your best shot at getting an energy-efficient house is to build it that way from the start. Once the envelope is closed in, you’ve pretty much lost your opportunity.”

Lessons Learned

Mark Nuzzolo says that building highly energy-efficient homes requires some homework, teaching ability and collaboration.

"The first hurdle to overcome is gaining the science knowledge which enables you to teach. Take a building science course, lecture, read a lot of articles. Do it more than once as it takes time to absorb. I am still learning," said Nuzzolo.

"Once you acquire the knowledge, you must commit to a strategy. Do you want to get to zero at any cost, or do you want to reach the point of diminishing returns? Either way, you must team up with a competent, experienced, and knowledgeable rater.

"After committing to a whole-house strategy, you are able to seek supply chains and subcontractors and teach, teach, teach. Also, measure everything to determine value and effectiveness," he said.

Working to high energy standards can be frustrating because the code and knowledge lags behind cutting-edge technology.

"The whole concept of green building is to reduce the demand which enables you to use fewer resources to satisfy the demand. Most challenging is saving the money and resources after lowering the demand. The industry workers beginning with engineers right down to the HVAC mechanics force you to design to current standards, partly because the codes and standards lag and partly because they have little or no experience with high performance building and lack confidence," said Nuzzolo.

"I have been doing this for some years now, and I am content with my current systems. However, technology is changing every day. You must keep pace," he added.

The benefits of green building still suffer from a lack of awareness by both the pubic and the building industry.

"This is the next biggest or maybe even the biggest challenge. Builders, realtors, appraisers and customers have very little experience with high-performance homes and therefore cannot place a value on it. The sales force needs to be very educated and passionate and demonstrative. In order to get people's attention, we have guaranteed the energy costs," he said.

"Our economy (in Connecticut) has severely lagged the nation, we have had an exodus of employers and households. We have a large amount of foreclosures and short sales which have kept prices low. Development costs, building costs, and lack of demand has kept new homes at depressed levels. It is very difficult to obtain commensurate appraisals and there is therefore little incentive to add costs to a home," said Nuzzolo.

General Specs and Team

Location: Climate Zone 5A, Derby, CT
Bedrooms: 4
Bathrooms: 2.5
Living Space: 4456

Builder: Mark Nuzzolo, Woodbridge, CT, Brookside Development Rater: Steven Winter Associates, Matt Slattery

Construction

Foundation: Conditioned basement with R-10 foil-faced rigid insulation from top of wall to 3 ft. below grade; no horizontal insulation under the slab.

Walls: 1 inch (R-6.5) polyiso on exterior side of OSB sheathing; 2x4 16-in. o.c. walls with R-18 flash and batt insulation; vinyl siding.

Windows: Vinyl windows with double-pane, argon-filled, low-e glazing; U=0.28, SHGC=0.30; basement U=0.46, SHGC=0.61.

Attic: R-68 (19-in.) of cellulose on attic floor; R-50 of closed-cell spray foam in cathedral ceilings.

Heating and cooling: 2-ton air-source heat pump (HSPF 8, 14 SEER); 96 AFUE gas furnace; ducts inside, MERV 10 filter

Domestic hot water: Tankless gas; EF 0.92

Mechanical ventilation system: 90 cfm exhaust-only system that meets ASHRAE 62.2.

Lighting: 10% LED; 90% CFL; daylight sensor on exterior lamp.

Appliances: Energy Star refrigerator and dishwasher

Blower-door results: 2.03 ach50

Energy

Solar: House is pre-wired for a future PV system and plumbed for a future solar thermal system.

Energy Specs

HERS Index: 45

Projected annual energy cost savings: $1,730

Projected annual utility costs: $2,110

Annual Energy Savings: 6,319 kWh, 654 therms gas

Water Efficiency

EPA WaterSense fixtures

Storm water management during and after construction; invasive species removed; rain garden designed to accept all runoff from home; conservation easement planned.

Certification

DOE Zero Energy Ready Home Program

EPA Indoor airPLUS

2013 Connecticut Zero Energy

NAHB National Green Building Standard, whole development

16 Comments

  1. Daniel Hagan | | #1

    Large Connecticut Home is ‘Zero-Energy-Ready’
    NET zero is NOT zero.

  2. User avater
    Reid Baldwin | | #2

    Are these walls really R 25?
    When I calculate the wall R value for a flash and batt 2x4 wall with an inch of polyiso, I get something considerably less than 25. What do others get?

  3. Andy CD Zone 5 - NW Ohio | | #3

    Yup, something less.
    It is mindboggling that code allows this to be a nominal R-25. De-rate the exterior polyiso in cold weather; account for massive thermal bridging in what appears to be a VERY complicated conventional framing design with lots of corners, figure on installation imperfections with the spray foam and batts, and you've got a compelling argument for a performance-based standard. The attic cellulose is nice, though, although it looks like it's more cathedral than attic.

  4. KEVIN ZORSKI | | #4

    Zero Energy Ready
    I'm sorry to appear so snobbish and maybe protective of this site, but WTF is this article doing here?A 4400 sq. ft. behemoth is going to be "zero-ready" with the possible 5Kw PV system and its 2x4 walls?I guess only one person is going to live here and they go away in the winter to Florida.

  5. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Response to Kevin Zorski
    Kevin,
    Not all builders in the U.S. are at the same level of proficiency when it comes to energy details. Some crews are now building their fourth Passivhaus; others are just beginning to learn about air sealing.

    GBA tries to provide a mix of stories, including this one -- focusing on a builder who is just beginning to learn about air sealing and energy efficiency. I have no reason to doubt the report that the methods that Mark Nuzzolo used to build this home were a substantial improvement over the way he used to build.

    GBA expects its sharp-eyed readers to know the difference between a truly superinsulated building and one that is taking beginning steps. No one is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. (And this is a good time to remind our readers that GBA welcomes submissions from readers. We are always on the lookout for homes for our Green Homes department -- so if you are proud of your new green home, share your pride with the world. The ideal submission is a first draft of an article, including photos. For more information, contact me anytime: martin [at] greenbuildingadvisor [dot] com.)

    I learned something from this article: that the requirements of the DOE's Zero Energy Ready Home are a pretty low bar. It's evidently possible to meet the program's requirements with double-glazed windows, R-10 basement insulation, and no horizontal insulation under the basement slab. Understanding the requirements of the various programs that are out there helps stimulate discussion on this web site and contributes to a dialogue on appropriate standards.

    I can think of two possible reasons for this low bar. The first possibility is programmatic and boring: It's simply that the DOE set the bar low to encourage participation by as many builders as possible.

    The second possibility is a technical one and is more intriguing: It's possible that the cost of PV modules has dropped so far that there is no way to justify the installation of triple-glazed windows, R-15 basement wall insulation, or sub-slab foam in Connecticut. If that is the correct answer, it's interesting.

  6. Dwight Harris | | #6

    Spray foam
    That's a lot of spray foam... He must have already been using a whole lot of it for there to only be a 6k total up charge.

    Also, is there any concern about the OSB being unable to dry out since it's sandwiched between closed cell and poly iso?

  7. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Response to Dwight Harris
    Dwight,
    I'm trying to avoid piling on with criticisms of this home's details -- but you have identified one that also caught my eye. In general, if a wall has exterior rigid foam, you don't want to install any closed-cell spray foam on the interior side of the sheathing. A vapor-permeable insulation (for example, dense-packed cellulose or open-cell spray foam) would have been a better choice for this location.

    In 30 years, we'll have a better idea of whether this type of foam sandwich results in failures.

  8. Ven Sonata | | #8

    PV array size for net zero
    So at first glance the place seems modestly insulated. Still... do the numbers. They spent $6000 to reduce their costs by $1700. Good. 3.5 year return on investment. And they are short $2110/year for electric production. Sounds like a lot until you realize the grid is 19cents/kwh. So they are short about 10,000kwh per year. In their apparently ideal solar orientation that would require a 7kw pv array. At the national average of $3.34 watt that is $23,380. With Tax credit 30% about $16,000. That is an 8 year payback. Overall excellent. So they did the right thing without the triple glaze and double stud walls. They simply could not have done those items for $16,000. Yes, with PV prices the way they are (and falling) it doesn't take much to hit net zero and to basically outdo many technologies such as triple glazing.

  9. KEVIN ZORSKI | | #9

    Zero- Energy
    Martin - Thank you for your response, and for explaining the choice of this article. Ven - I appreciate your "back of envelope" analysis. The article, however, mentions 5kW capability. How does the natural gas fit into this analysis?How about hot water usage with 4 bedrooms for a potentially good sized family? How can 5kW pv make this house "ready" to be net zero? Are their electric usage and savings numbers realistic? I've read that 5kW pv just won't cut it for even a fairly thrifty and careful small family, And that 7-10 kw is more realistic. So, Ven, 2 hard questions: 1. Are these numbers realistic? and 2.How does the natural gas usage fit into the net zero capability? If you are willing, I think answers would be helpful for a lot of us. Thanks.

  10. Shane Claflin | | #10

    cold slabs
    The uninsulated slab is the achilles heel in this building, providing a continuous 50 degree thermal break year round. Are the poly-iso seams caulked or sealed before they are taped?

  11. Jeremy M | | #11

    Can Light in Image 5
    In Image 5 there's a can light that's air sealed (I believe) and then a flexible duct coming off of it? It caught my eye since it's so bent, but now I'm just confused what it's doing if that's just a can light, as it appears and as the image title/text states.

  12. Ven Sonata | | #12

    kevin Zero energy reply
    The PV will make it net zero electric, not net zero energy. The gas water heater and the gas furnace will not be cancelled by a 7 kw array. They do have heat pumps which will cancel the "shoulder season" gas requirements. Apparently the HVAC guys have recommended not to use the heat pumps below 50 degrees! A higher efficiency rating on the heat pump would help, however at 19cents kwh, PV beats heat
    pumps at any efficiency. If they want net zero energy they would need about 12 kw PV. That will cancel their hot water and heating requirement. And it will still be cheaper than triple glaze and Zendher HRV. So yep....more PV!

  13. KEVIN ZORSKI | | #13

    Net Zero ELECTRIC
    Thanks, Ven. I knew from eyeballing these numbers and claims that they weren't right. For a more modest sized house, at what rough price do you think that PV beats mini-splits? At this point does PV always beat them, assuming the current price range of most utilities ? If and when I build new, I suspect I'll use mini splits anyway, as a way to not overload the grid on cloudy days, as long as it isn't too much more of an investment. I don't want you to do more complicated calculations, as I feel I've abused your willingness and expertise already. You have a great way of providing simple estimates for comparisons. Thanks !

  14. Ven Sonata | | #14

    Kevin heat pump vs pv
    Bascically at $3.50 watt PV beats Heat pumps at $4000. It also beats Hrv and Triple Glaze windows, but not super insulation. But if you don't want to stress the grid in winter then heat pumps ,if they have a high cold climate rating reduce your usage in "real" time. Net zero pv uses the grid as storage and if you have feed in tariff you can get that power back (theoretically in winter when the PV is not producing so well. I have done the numbers and some curious things result. For instance a heat pump is a better investment on a poorly insulated house than a super insulated house because you use it a lot. The shoulder seasons are when the heat pump is most effective and a super insulated house hardly needs heat in the shoulder season. However in the coldest part of winter the heatpump is less efficient. So this is an irony of insulation. PV lifespan is more than 30 years heat pump 15-20 plus possible repairs, at 19cents kwh the heatpump is paid off in about 8 years and returns its full value by the time it expires. pv can return twice the value at 19centskwh. There is a long thread on this subject a few months back on GBA. The realization dawned on me after Martin showed that PV had surpassed solar hot water panels in "Solar thermal is really, really dead" Heat Pumps got wounded in that shootout!

  15. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #15

    Response to Jeremy M (Comment #11)
    Jeremy,
    Q. "In Image 5, there's a can light that's air sealed (I believe) and then a flexible duct coming off of it?"

    A. I'm not sure what the photo shows. It's possible that there is a bathroom exhaust fan under the cover, not a recessed can light. If so, that would explain the duct.

  16. Sonny Chatum | | #16

    Almost Good Enough for Fine Homebuilding Magazine
    Tried to delete the whole comment, but couldn't. Comments were valid, but maybe a little mean.

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