Last Updated: 12:15 August 4, 2012
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GreenLeaf’s development partners learned quite a bit along the way, especially about designing for the potential of green energy.
The SpringLeaf development ran into skyrocketing availability of natural gas, and a subsequent price drop. That made high-efficiency gas furnaces a likely substitute for many home buyers.
That’s what developers discovered after they set out to create a net-zero energy-use neighborhood in northwest Boulder.
SpringLeaf started off with a bang three years ago, with developers Terry Britton and Ron Monahan creating a much-acclaimed LEED Platinum residence — an all-electric appliance building that was largely heated by a geothermal heat pump and powered by solar panels.
“The house was real cutting edge,” Britton recalled. “We wanted to take a leadership role and push the envelope as much as we could, and it worked really well.”
The developers brought the best-available energy solutions to the construction of the 3,700-square-foot model home that ultimately sold for about $1.2 million. Appropriately named architect George Watt called it “Net Zero off the shelf,” for the availability of the energy products, and the model also featured environmentally conscious materials.
“We learned from that and stepped back,” Britton said, “and the market told us what to do.”
Ultimately, the developers decided to bring some choices back to neighborhood that consists of six single-family homes and six town homes. Although the net-zero option is still available, buyers instead largely have opted for high-efficiency natural gas heating without the solar array.
The 2,500-square-foot town homes all have sold for prices between $650,000 and $800,000. The price differential mostly has come from significant options in the types of finishing materials.
“Buyers still want the most home for their buck,” he said. “But even more buyers really like to be part of their homes. I think everyone liked picking out the finishes.
“Now everyone likes seeing how their neighbors finished it out.”
While that may seem like a logistical nightmare to many developers, Britton said it actually makes his job easier not having to pick home finishes such as countertops, floors and wall finishes.
“Our builders, Front Porch Homes, have been just fabulous at making that work,” he said. “They’ve done a great job at communicating with the buyers.”
On the green side, none of the town home buyers has opted for the solar-array, but it remains an easily added amenity, Britton said. He believes that some of the remaining four single-family homes will choose the array, but the heat-pump option, which comes in at $40,000, doesn’t seem to make anyone’s wish list.
“What we found was an increasing expense as you move up the technology ladder,” Britton recalled. Making a tight envelope of a home with superior insulation and windows and installing high-efficiency lights and appliances have an almost immediate return on investment, he said, while the 4.3-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system and the heat pump were immediate concerns to many buyers.
The development also ran into skyrocketing availability of natural gas, and a subsequent price drop. That made high-efficiency gas furnaces a likely substitute for many home buyers.
“The geothermal heat pump was really the last piece to get to zero-energy (usage),” he said, “but the efficiency of the heat pump was a slight disappointment to us.”
Even with the heat pump, the homes still would be on the electric grid, as well, sending out energy on days where more was produced than needed, but bringing in electricity at night, when it was cloudy or as heating and cooling needs dictated. The heat pump also is powered by electricity, as was additional heating — so while on average the home wasn’t using more power than it created, the power coming in largely comes from burning coal.
“You are still participating in a dirty grid,” Britton said. “You really have to wonder if natural-gas heating isn’t a more environmentally sound choice.”
The development partners learned quite a bit along the way, especially about designing for the potential of green energy. For instance, planning for the efficiency of ductwork in initial design, rather than fitting it into a building as an afterthought, has a huge effect on efficiency.
Britton’s likely next product is on the 600 block of Arapahoe Avenue, on the banks of Boulder Creek. He said he’s likely to bring a lot of the green concepts he’s learned to the project, but also a lot of what he’s learned about leaving some choices to homebuyers.
“It’s not ‘build it and they will come,’ ” he said. “It’s ‘build it and they will come finish it.’ ”