Betting on Extreme Efficiency

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The Portland Press Herald

Friday, June 22, 2012


Buyers these days expect hardwood floors, granite counters and oversized windows in an architecturally designed house, and the model home in the new Brackett Estates subdivision doesn't disappoint.

The space is bright and beautiful. But beyond the amenities, the house is so energy-efficient, it will be able to produce more energy than it consumes over the course of a year.

Do mainstream buyers want that energy independence? How much extra will they spend to get it? And is there enough demand in southern Maine for zero-energy homes, as they're called, to build 26 of them in a stylish subdivision?

Those will be the key questions today at an open house for what's being called Maine's first net-zero ready community.

Brackett Estates is the culmination of the vision of two well-regarded builders in York County, a green-leaning Portland architect and a manufactured-housing innovator in the Oxford Hills. In an era of volatile oil prices, the developers are gambling that the local market is ready for a suburban community of zero-energy homes.

"This really brings green energy and zero energy to the median-priced home buyer," said Jesse Ware of JP Ware Design in Portsmouth, N.H.

Ware teamed up with Craig Briggs of CB Builders in York to form Futuro Inc. They eventually want to create similar zero-energy subdivisions elsewhere in Maine.

But they first will have to be successful at Brackett Estates, where they hope to build seven homes by year's end.

Off Loop Road, west of the Maine Turnpike, the model home is a two-story New Englander with a porch, a two-car garage and white clapboards. It has 1,750 square feet of finished space, with three bedrooms and 2½ baths. It's being listed for $429,000. Other designs will start at $379,000.

That's more expensive than some comparable new homes in this part of Wells that offer more living space. That makes some real estate agents skeptical about the project's appeal.

But Ware and Briggs say the energy-related features, well-planned use of space and quality materials justify the higher price per square foot. "It costs more to get a home that's this efficient," Briggs said.

Homes that can make as much energy as they take sometimes are called net-zero, because there's a net gain of power over a year. Such homes tend to use solar electric and solar hot-water panels, and sometimes wind turbines, to generate power. In most cases, electricity is fed into the utility grid.

Zero-energy homes are becoming more common. The next step is zero-energy communities, several of which are rising across the country. The idea is to lower prices by spreading design costs among many homes.

The model home here has a range of features to achieve zero energy.

The walls are a foot thick and have an insulation value of R-40, nearly twice that of a typical new home. The roof is insulated to R-60.

Windows contain a heat-blocking gas within three panes of high-performance glass. South-facing glazing is positioned to welcome winter sun, and shaded by overhangs that repel high-angle summer rays.

The building is warmed in winter and cooled in summer by a high-efficiency electric heat pump called a mini-split. Similar heat pump technology warms water with a so-called hybrid water heater in the unfinished, daylight basement.

Nearly every crack and seam is caulked and weather-stripped, making the building so tight that a special ventilation system is used to provide fresh air. One reason the home is so well sealed is its modular construction. It was assembled in the Keiser Industries factory in Oxford.

It's what's on the roof that makes the home net zero. The southern slope is covered with solar electric panels. They add about $17,000 to the total cost of the home, after tax credits.

Every home in Brackett Estates will be factory-built to the same energy-efficiency standards and wired for solar electricity. That's what makes them "net-zero ready."

But buyers will get to choose whether to install the panels. The number who will spend the extra, upfront money remains to be seen.

"As much as we plan, it depends on the market," Briggs said. "We want to keep it as affordable as possible."

The idea of marrying high-efficiency, modular construction with solar net-zero capabilities has been successful in subdivisions in California and Texas, for instance, but it remains unrealized in Maine.

Two years ago, Keiser and Portland-based Kaplan Thompson Architects introduced a product line called Modular Zero. They thought the time was right for a zero-energy, factory-built home that would appeal to middle-income buyers and be ready in 12 weeks.

The partners had an early contract for two homes in a work force housing project on Peaks Island. But the budget didn't cover solar panels, and the project was delayed.

There also have been plenty of bites from private buyers across New England, but no firm sales.

The lingering recession didn't help. But now, as the housing market recovers, Keiser and Kaplan Thompson are optimistic that Brackett Estates will finally get the concept to market in Maine.

"It's a paradigm shift for many people," said Phil Kaplan, a principal in the firm. "People still have it in their heads that green equals more expensive, particularly when solar electric is involved."

In the past year, Kaplan noted, the price of solar electric panels has fallen sharply. Depending on how they're financed, the panels now can produce power at a cost that competes with grid power in Maine, he said.

The model home at Brackett Estates is drawing interest in early marketing, said Abigail Douris, a York-based Re/Max agent who's listing the project. Energy independence, coupled with the bright, open concept and efficient use of space, will appeal to empty-nesters retiring to southern Maine, as well as young families, she said.

But two Realtors say they think the appeal is more narrow. They say second-home buyers from Massachusetts, a key part of this market, are summer-focused.

Year-round energy costs don't matter much to them, said Skanlon Sittig of Legacy Sotheby's International Realty in Kennebunk.

Sittig, a certified appraiser, cited listings of recently built homes at The Forest, a nearby subdivision. Prices there are below $400,000 for homes with more than 2,000 square feet of finished space.

Lori Barrett has sold energy-efficient homes for Coldwell Banker Yorke Realty. In her view, a "pocket" of buyers will pay more for energy independence, but most remain more concerned with amenities and space.

"The concept is valuable," she said. "There's definitely a market. But I wouldn't guess how long it will take to sell 26 lots."

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Jesse Ware, left, of JP Ware Design, and Craig Briggs, of CB Builders, stand near a model of a “net-zero” high-efficiency home at Brackett Estates in Wells. They have teamed up to form Futuro Inc. and hope there’s enough interest to build 26 of the homes in the subdivision.


This model high-efficiency home at Brackett Estates has solar panels on the roof and windows that contain gas within three panes of high-performance glass for maximum insulation.


Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer