The word sustainability has been a buzz in the media for a decade, and it is for a reason- climate change, economics and other factors. Being one of the environmentally stressful industries, the architecture community has embraced this trend and actively tries to reduce the impact. But every change begins at home. It is cheap and easy to improve. Small scale change done in large volumes could cause a significant movement. A net-zero building produces the amount of energy it consumes. 

The term net-zero home immediately sparks the thought of installing solar panels on the roof. While it is necessary, there are some passive and even behavioral changes that the occupants can do to reduce their energy needs. 

Here are 10 tips for you to create a Net-zero Home:

1. Evaluating your building envelope

The building envelope protects us from the elements. A well-built envelope goes beyond it to improve the comfort of the user. Both hot and cool regions need thick walls to keep the heat out or inside the house. By insulating the envelope, we reduce the capital spent on heating or cooling while nearing the goal of a net-zero home. 

Especially in colder regions, sealing the house becomes very important. On average, every building has unsealed locations equalling the surface area of a basketball and enough to run a fridge for a whole year. Sealing with insulators on walls and roofs lowers the transmittance (the amount of heat entering the structure) and thus, your bills. Installation of false ceilings with Rockwool and glass wool insulators improve the containment of heat. It passively reduces energy production needs.

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A diagram representing building envelope insulation_©greenbuildingsolutions(dot)org

2. Energy-saving appliances and fixtures

Solar panels are not cheap. Increasing the solar grid is cumbersome. Transitioning into a net-zero home is simple when the changes are on the interior. Appliances are heavy energy consumers. Just swapping incandescent bulbs to LEDs or choosing appliances with an energy star rating goes a long way. 

Though they cost more than the cheaper alternatives, the money saved in energy usage and reduced maintenance equals the upfront payment. For example, an LED light is five times costlier than the incandescent one. But it lasts for 25000 hours when compared to 1000 hours on incandescent bulbs.

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ISEERs BEE rating is the popular appliance rating in India_©bestproduct(dot)in

3. A better glazing

Glazing and its efficiency matter more in commercial spaces clad in glass. In residences where glazing is sparingly used, mostly in windows the impact caused by glazing reduces. While it may seem less, closed windows in a tropical region mean greenhouse effect causing inhabitable rooms. It is a more pocket-friendly suggestion to change windows for your net-zero home over adding layers on the wall. 

A triple glass panel window (preferably filled with argon or a noble gas in between the panes) or a Low-E window can reduce the heat gain and transmittance. However, closing windows means using air-conditioning. Open fenestration lets in the breeze while reducing electricity simultaneously. 

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How a low-e window works well for all climates_©kierantimberlake(dot)com

4. Heating appliances

Heating appliances result in a higher bill than cooling appliances. Fortunately, the burden can be offset to mother nature. Installing a solar roof water heater can reduce hot water needs. Geothermal heating systems in cold regions can help you transition into a net-zero home.

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Solar water heater on roof_©lifetheexperience(dot)wordpress(dot)com

5. The magic of a ceiling fan

While the use of ACs is justifiable in tropical climates, the ceiling fan is the better pick if you want a net-zero home. AC pressures the solar grid with more load while increasing the insulation costs for the room. Room height is also not an issue as there is the perfectly designed option of a fan for your low ceiling. Fans are cheap, provide ventilation where needed. A big room could have two fans, where it is used according to the occupants’ desire while an AC cools the entire room. It also lets in fresh air from outside, improving the Indoor Air Quality of the residence.

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Ceiling fans ventilating the room_Ylighting(dot)com

6. Monitoring your energy usage

To reduce electricity bills, one has to analyze the usage. Switching off fans and lights when not in use goes a long way. One could also note what appliances cause the most usage and take actions to make their usage better. It is a behavioral alteration that the person residing has to take control of. 

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Altering consumer mindset is impossible without self-responsibility_©liveworkstudio(dot)com.png

7. Rewarding systems for better management

Built change with behavioral change brings in better results. A study conducted by UC Berkeley assessed energy usage of homes in a locality. They awarded the best households with up to five stars, while the worst ones fared one star. It was mailed to everyone in the neighborhood with the names of occupants. The houses which performed poorly in the first month fared better in the next few months. 

Some also took steps to make their houses into a net-zero home. By publishing household performance, social pressure improved the electricity usage of households. Similar systems could be implemented in apartment complexes, gated communities, and so on.

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Energy usage diagnosis and management diagram_©Bernardandcompany(dot)wordpress(dot)com

8. Installing solar panels or wind turbines

Photovoltaic (PV) panels and wind turbines are the only commercially available renewable energy sources for the residential scale. For a building transitioning into a net-zero home, one must produce more energy or equalize the electricity utilized through renewables. 

Solar panels are popular due to ease of construction, wide usability, decent efficiency and modularity. Wind turbines fare better in rural households where there might be steady winds and no structures to obstruct the breeze.

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Solar panel installment_©Gustave Fring

9. Using smart systems

The Internet of Things has trickled its way to all segments, even to residences. Automated lighting, smart thermostats and other systems reduce your work and save money. The upfront cost is high owing to developing technology but will reduce over time. Many systems have control through apps, so you can cool a room before entering the house or turn off that fan you forgot before leaving the house.

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Almost all appliances are smart home or mobile app compatible_©HDtech(dot)com

10. Planning and constructing a net-zero home

The other tips pointed out on transitioning to a net-zero home, but the easiest way to do so is to plan the residence and build it. Existing homeowners can only execute this in their future investments but the prospective homeowners can start from scratch and choose the net-zero way right from the design stage. 

Architects will work specifically for a net-zero home when asked for, providing expertise through design. It is possible to implement orientation, climatic response and other methods than to retrofit an existing house to a net-zero home. 

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Diagram of climate responsive design for a net zero home_©Ago architects on archdaily(dot)com

A net-zero home is an active implementation of better fixtures along with improved behavior with a conscious mindset towards saving. It is a one-time investment that reaps benefits throughout the lifetime of the house.

References

Author

Vignesh Esakkinathan is a final year architecture student from chennai. He blogs about climate change and productivity with the hopes to become an architectural journalist. When he's not playing cricket, you can see him philosophising life at his rooftop.

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