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Ground Zero: An Adventure in Net-zero Energy Building

The finished house featuring the photovoltaic array solar panels on the roof of the garage. Photo: NESEA.

Jenna Batchelder

To the untrained eye, the Eisinger net-zero energy (NZE) house in Keene, New York, would seem like any other single-family Adirondack homestead. The roof-mounted solar panels aside, the 1974-square-foot home is conventional looking, maybe even quaint, surrounded by trees with a beautiful view of the mountains all around, and sky. Unless you lived there, you would never guess the amount of work that went into making this seemingly normal home into a self-maintained machine.

Net-zero, also known as zero-energy building or zero-net-energy building means a building or structure that consumes zero-net energy, meaning that the total amount of energy used to maintain said building per year is the same as the total amount of energy created on site in that same year. There are endless advantages to this type of building, with a few being improved energy efficiency and subsequent reduced costs for owners, improved energy reliability, complete sustainability, and reduced greenhouse emissions. While these methods are relatively new and initially more expensive than traditional energy solutions, many countries are looking at net-zero as a long-term solution for sustainable living.

When Brian Crowl started Crowl Construction, he didn’t intend on building net-zero homes. However, after attending several seminars and conventions such as those put on by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA), he decided that he would begin weaving elements of what he had learned about sustainable and zero-energy building into all of his projects in order to make the absolute best version of each home.

Crowl Construction, in partnership with TruexCullins Architecture + Interior Design, broke ground on the Eisinger NZE home on November 18th, 2015. The goal was to build a completely self-sustaining, single-family home that could survive the harsh winters of the Adirondacks without relying on any outside energy. To do so, the team focused a lot on carefully insulating each aspect of the home, using four-inch-thick insulating foam on the exterior of the concrete, installed with both weatherproof flash tape and spray foam for long lasting durability. Once the basic insulation was set in place, building picked up pace, much like a normal house. Crowl said, “At each step along the way we had to stop and rethink our methods…some of this is really typical construction technique, it’s all basic stuff, and then we have other elements that we’re figuring out on the fly.”

Since this was the first attempt made by Crowl Construction to create a completely net-zero building, communication with the architects was key. One big point of concern was the reliance on adhesives to hold all of the flashing and outer insulation together. So, after much back and forth, it was decided that they would also invest in house wrap that would go under the siding to hold it all together. However, there was also the issue of moisture collection and venting under the siding, so after much thought they used Core-A-Vent strips applied to furring strips attached to the side of the house that created a drainage plane for any trapped moisture. Crowl stressed the importance of the back and forth with the architects that led to this innovative combination of sustainable building elements showcased in the Keene house.

Once these aspects had been hammered out, the rest of the house went up fairly smoothly. The most important detail of most net-zero houses is that they are sealed tightly to conserve energy. To test this, Crowl performed a series of blower-door tests, a simple measurement of how much air filters out of your house. The common rule is that your home should have a blower door number less than the square footage of said home. In this case, it was significantly lower, with the final test reading just .26 ACH (air changes/hour), meaning the air leaking out was almost none. Satisfied with this result, they then installed an HRV filter, which provides fresh air and exhausts pollutants from the home. They also installed a three-ton air source heat pump that provides all the heating and cooling for the entire house, and finally a 13-kilowatt solar panel system on the roof of the house and garage. The solar panels themselves provide 100% of the on-site energy demand and are designed specifically to accommodate the house’s solar gain and shading.

It may not look like anything other than a beautiful family home nestled in the woods, but the Eisinger house is a modern marvel, a testament to the future of sustainable building and living.

Jenna Batchelder is a 21-year-old climate change activist and passionate clean-energy supporter. She is excited to be writing for Green Energy Times and encourages all young adults to become more involved in activism.

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