Saturday, April 24, 2010

Downsizing Options_The Real Goods Solar Home

What kind of house can you afford when you retire and want to have more predictability in your monthly expenses when living on a fixed income? Do you remain in your rambling family home with its many bedrooms to be used by your now adult children and their family only occasionally? Do you really need that 3,000 or 4,000 square foot home any more? Can you afford to heat it when you can't predict what fuel oil, natural gas or propane will cost next year or five years from now?

A strategy many empty-nesters often consider is downsizing perhaps to an efficiently laid out 1 to 2 bedroom cottage like home. One way to make your monthly expenses more predictable is to yes move to a smaller home but on top of that consider a small highly energy efficient green home, whether built new or gently used and renovated to green standards helping to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions. By moving up to small you will help your bottom line over the long term. Another aspect of this is moving from car dominated suburbs to the more pedestrian oriented communities. Having access to downtowns with their mix of services, people and resources is kinder to environment as well and often goes hand in hand with other strong communities.

One company filling this need for a small, affordable built new modular or plan home is Real Goods Solar Living from Boulder Colorado. As well as offering renewable energy systems for homeowners to add to their homes it now offers a solar kit home which comes in 1 and 2 bedroom sizes with various Solar electric system options, whether on the grid or off the grid. It also offer energy star appliances and an option for a composting toilet along with low-water use fixtures. The homes offer single level living within an extremely compact floor plan, essentially a 27' x 40' box. You can view more about their offerings at the product ordering part of the site. You can order it systems built which I understand as being modularized into distinct field assembled components or you can order architectural plans to modify with your own architect and builder.
From my perspective, The Real Goods Solar Home solution offers a great choice for homeowners looking to downsize, or build a first home with plans for future additions etc. Many companies offer this kind of solution like this though and I'll mention them in future posts. However, when considering buying a home like this it is important to examine the details. One area which concerns me is making sure to optimize or right size the level of building insulation, heating system and specifying the right amount of PV's to fill your solar electric and solar hot water needs.

I feel the level of insulation in the Real Goods home doesn't go far enough. The R-21 walls, R-49 ceiling and code compliant flooring insulation might be great for Colorado but they don't really help homeowners in colder climates like ours in the Northeast. In comparison other's such as Building Science Corporation recommend higher levels of insulation to further lower energy loads. See the Building Science Corporation's website for their recommendations and a little more about the European Passiv Haus an even more super insulated home concept.

"The Typical BSC low-energy home uses a minimum of r-5 (U=0.2) windows (triple glazed, low-e, warm edge spacers), R-10 sub slab insulation, and R-20 wall insulation in a conditioned basement, R-40 above-grade walls and R-60 ceilings (The "5/10/20/40/60" approach)." Both the BSC Low-Energy House and the Passiv Haus have higher insulation standards the Real Goods Solar Home, especially relevant in the cold climate region of the northeastern US. Perhaps the Real Goods folks could offer a Version 2.0 for our climate up here in Vermont.

From a practical viewpoint, installing more insulation further reduces the size of the heating system needed and the amount of PV's to provide solar electricity and hot water. PV's are expensive equipment to buy whether building new or renovating. Adding insulation isn't terribly glamorous and while largely invisible it is a more affordable choice helping to lower overall energy costs to the homeowner and optimize building systems and hopefully reduce first costs of construction and equipment. This process is called integrated building design. It takes collaboration and a willingness to work together to achieve homeowner's goals.

Please be aware buying a set of plans to build your own or a systems built home to assemble on site is only part of the story. Real Goods provides a online brochure which points out the home will generally cost up to $200,000 before purchasing land. But be wary of focusing too closely on this amount as every homeowner's situation is highly variable.

See http://www.realgoods.com/text/RG_Solarhouse_Info.pdf. The brochure identifies all of the other variables which go into building a new home, especially this kind of home. No kidding, there is a ton of complexity in building a low-energy renewably powered home. This complexity is the reason why it's important to work with an architect and a builder and their team of sub-contractors and consultants. It will pay off to you in many tangible and intangible ways.

Regardless, it is important to note how important it is for the building industry and the mainstreaming of the Green Movement to have companies like Real Goods offer the saavy green focused homeowner a turnkey concept like this with an eye to more predictable long term energy costs and reducing ecological impacts. Thanks Real Goods for offering consumers your Solar Home! And if you ask them about wanting additional insulation, I'm sure they'll at least talk with you about it.

(images are courtesy from the Real Goods Website to provide visual support to this post)

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