The Case For Net Zero Homes In Maine

At Mottram Architecture we feel there is a direct connection between physical space (our homes) and human activity. Our way of life gives us purpose and our physical space should support and express this way of life. So, the case for leading edge design and Net Zero Homes is important. When I first started my practice it was in the summer of 2009 and the building environment was bad. As an architect we were considering ourselves “gainfully unemployed” it was a hard storm to weather. I could get out of the field of architecture and do something else with my life or I could figure out what the market needed. So I asked myself “What does Maine Need?”

What I settled on was a journey to designing and building net-zero homes. It became a focused study on history, building science, art, occupant behavior, health, and feasibility.

What Net Zero Design Means To Us

Providing power for homes that comes from renewable (site generated) resources while reducing consumption rates for cost effective, beautiful, and connected spaces. Net Zero does not mean no energy. No matter how conservative we can make our homes, we can not build them without energy. Instead, we produce energy, through renewable resources, to offset the consumption of the home. At the end of the day we want to produce more power on-site then is consumed.

As it becomes more difficult, costly, and fossil fuel resources deplete, renewable resources become more viable, practical and necessary. New England, and specifically Maine, are some of the last places in our country that still use fuel oil to heat their homes. We have some of the oldest housing in the US, and its been a journey to salvage, winterize, insulate, or replace that housing. We could get into more detail here on what the “actual cost of energy” is. But what we want to concentrate on is our ability to reduce building consumption, increase comfort levels for the occupants, and maintain and improve durability. That is our sphere of influence. If you’re interested in discussing more detailed science and energy please reach out to us and let us know. We can always add more detailed information to this page, discuss it with you personally, or write about it on our blog.

What Is Net-Zero Building

There are many definitions of Net-Zero by many different, well respected, agencies. Some recommend all energy be produced on site. Others acknowledge unique site conditions that would require renewable energy to be purchased from an off-site location. While others allow for renewable resources to be brought to the site and turned into energy. (i.e. wood, which is abundant in Maine and was the primary way to heat. In some towns, the abundance of wood still is the most cost effective way to heat, but I digress). There is a long debate about how much is lost in transmission between off-site power generation and the existing electrical grid. With typical power generation they estimate it’s about 30% efficient till it reaches a home. Those losses occur during generation (waste energy like heat) and transmission through the grid. In many cases, it’s not considered truly net-zero when a home is connected to the grid because the power you feed back into the grid during periods of over production does not equal power you receive from the grid during periods of low production due to transmission losses.

So we would like to explain what Mottram Architecture thinks it means to build net zero homes in Maine. We do consider grid-tied homes to be zero energy when they produce more energy on site then they consume. We are spending our time working on reduced consumption so that it’s possible to be “off the grid” as technology becomes more advanced and allows for more cost effective on site renewable power generation. We feel so strongly about our ability to enact change by moving down a path that an average consumer can understand and take part in that we are willing to ride the somewhat tumultuous wave of “really zero energy” until the technology catches up to the sustainability we have in mind.

We first want to reduce consumption in easy and understandable ways:

  1. Home Orientation

  2. Super Insulated Structures

  3. Reduction/elimination of heating plants

  4. Improved Occupant comfort (Healthy indoor air quality and draft reduction)

  5. Low emitting materials

  6. On-site power generation

  7. Fully off-grid homes

There is a delicate balance between the amount of energy that needs to be produced to “run” a home and the financial implications of that technology. Sure, you could build a standard home, put a solar array on the roof that would produce enough energy to run the home year round, but you would produce so much excess energy in the summer months that would just be wasted. Not to mention the expense of battery packs to store energy and the number of solar panels to do so. That’s why the consumption needs to be reduced first, the technology of battery packs and stored energy needs to be improved, and the financial feasibility of the project must be considered. We think this is also why pocket developments and co-housing communities are grouping together to start producing better site generated power with shorter transmission runs and significantly lower generation losses.

If you follow along with our blog and what’s going on in our communities in Maine, you may also have seen regulation being passed down that can severely reduce the financial feasibility of renewable technologies. Or maybe you read the article about the off grid house in North Carolina that had a composting toilet and was completely off all utilities that garnered the interest of local town authorities who passed laws to make it illegal to be separated from utilities. There is no shortage of legislation that can and will be enacted as times change, so we intend to keep up with the changing climate, remain proactive, and fight for the ability to be self -sufficient.

Reduction of energy and on-site energy production are essentially what make the home net zero, however, zero energy buildings also minimize environmental impact. They are financially viable projects because they pay for themselves through reduced consumption, and they are comfortable to live in. They also eliminate the need for fossil fuel energy sources which are often linked and attributed to environmental hazards from earthquakes to oil spills.

And our final goal is a truly sustainable Maine which takes it one step further considering net zero waste, net zero water, net zero food, and other aspects to become a truly net zero society. We feel that this is the end goal, it’s where we are headed, however, we also feel there are some financial, political, and technological hurdles to cover before we see this happen.