Zest for Zero

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Amy Musser and Matthew Vande talked the talk before they walked the walk.

The husband-and-wife team behind Asheville, North Carolina’s VandeMusser Design helped others design and build energy-efficient homes for years before they designed and built their own in 2010.

Yet the house they built in Asheville is more than a place to live. It is a promotional tool exhibiting the couple’s ideas and abilities.

The house is more than efficient. Everything from the building site to the walls to the light fixtures was intentionally chosen for one goal: The couple wants the house to produce more energy than it uses.

“We think of the house as a kind of educational tool,” Musser said. “We wanted it to be this showcase.”

That is why the Cape Fear Green Building Alliance invited her to Wilmington to share her experience designing, building and living in a net-zero home.

Musser will speak at Satellite Bar and Lounge on April 16, from 6-8 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Jessica Wilson, alliance environmental educator, said she hopes the event will spark local interest in ultra-efficient design.

“Buildings consume about 65 percent of electricity produced. Net-zero homes are not widely known in this community, so we hope residential builders will come find out more about the process,” Wilson said.

Net-zero homes require precise planning. Musser said the smallest details down to the light fixtures in each room were selected before the house was constructed.

But the first step was simple. Musser and Vande needed to find a location where they could capture enough sun to meet lighting and heating needs.

“We wanted it to be net-zero, but we needed a lot that would let us do that. This lot was south-facing, which is perfect for passive solar,” Musser said.

Like most houses with a passive solar system, the structure is noticeably rectangular, with a long axis oriented east to west to allow for windows facing south. Musser wanted the house to look and feel more traditional than not.

“A lot of people think a net-zero energy house has to be weird, or they might not like how it looks. … But our house looks pretty normal. If you’re in our house, it feels like a normal house,” Musser said.

The direct sunlight warms the house during cold winters and overhangs above the windows keeping hot summer rays out. Musser’s favorite part is the natural light. She said it helps her feel connected to the cycle of day and night.

“We noticed when we first moved in that we weren’t really setting our alarm clocks anymore,” Musser said.

Some features are more innovative than harnessing solar power. A lot of the home’s features are common recommendations to clients, but the couple also saw the house as an opportunity to experiment with new technology.

“We wanted to try a few things that hadn’t been widely done and we thought our own home would be a good place to try them,” Musser said.

A wastewater heat recovery system is an example. Hot water from the drain goes through a heat exchanger, which recoups energy originally used to heat the water and uses it to heat cold water entering the system. Musser said the system works well but will take a long time to pay for itself.

“It has a lot of copper in it so the price of the device is based on the price of copper, which is pretty expensive now,” Musser said.

Another experimental feature is structural insulated panels. A pre-insulated building material, sheets of two concrete panels stuffed with foam insulation, create the frame of the house.

Construction time is minimal because the panels combine the work of framing, insulating and sheathing the structure into one step. Musser said the basement was built in two hours. There is a drawback to this product. The panels are cut to fulfill exact dimensions, so once they are in place it’s hard to make changes.

“We can’t even change a window,” Musser said.

Innovative technology helps the couple reach energy goals, but Musser said changing behaviors was more important.

“Honestly, the biggest thing I learned is that occupant behavior is half of your energy use,” Musser said. “We realized pretty quickly if we wanted to be net-zero, we needed to conserve.”

Some changes were common energy savers, like turning computers off instead of letting them sleep or hanging clothes to dry. Musser also learned to use energy-draining appliances like the stove or the dryer outside of peak energy use times, typically evenings and weekends.

“These are easy things I could have done before I moved into the house but didn’t until we wanted to become net-zero,” Musser said.

Musser said the change does not feel like a burden. In fact, she said the process has been rewarding — and not just in utility bill savings.

“In many ways, my quality of life here is better than any house I’ve ever lived in,” Musser said. “I don’t think anybody could walk away from it willingly.”

email miriah@luminanews.com

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