July 26, 2010 | last updated May 29, 2012 9:01 pm

Challenge Envisions Industry Makeover

Bill Ferrigno wants his home building company on the cutting edge.

The owner of Sunlight Construction, Inc. in Avon envisions future consumers demanding homes with more energy-conservation and energy-generating features that will keep living costs down and environmental sustainability high.

That future may be years away, but it's why Ferrigno chose to participant in Connecticut's first Zero Energy Challenge. By learning all these green measures now, the builders at Sunlight Construction will be ahead of the curve when conservation in home building becomes mainstream.

"It is now up to the builders to figure out 'Is this something we should market on our own?'" Ferrigno said. "My sense is there aren't a lot of guys who are going to get into this until they are compelled to."

The Zero Energy Challenge seeks to motivate Connecticut's home builders by offering $30,000 in prizes for the newly built homes that use the least amount of energy from the power grid. The 18 participants are using conservation measures such as enhanced insulation, and generators, such as solar panels and geothermal heating systems, to reduce their project's environmental footprint.

The first year of the challenge is wrapping up, and the Connecticut Energy Conservation Management Board is eager to start a second year, with applications due July 31. Many of this year's participants are rolling their projects into the second year as they've had trouble meeting the Dec. 1 deadline for the homes' completion.

By supporting and promoting the participants, the sponsors hope to show the home building industry that these green measures are easily incorporated and nothing to fear. The sponsors include the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund, and the state's electric and natural gas utilities.

"We are changing the industry fundamentally over time," said Rich Steeves, chairman of the Connecticut Energy Conservation Management Board. "The goal is zero energy, but anytime anybody incorporates any of these practices into their homes, and it not only benefits them, but it benefits us in that we are trying to raise awareness."

Jeremy and Karann Schaller have wanted to build a sustainable home in Connecticut for 10 years ever since moving from the West Coast where these energy-efficient measures are more prevalent.

While building up their bank to fund the home construction, the couple had great difficulty partnering with a builder because many were scared of the house's radical concepts: a passive solar design to maximize the sun's energy; structural insulated panels to prevent energy leakage; solar heated water and radiant heated walls and floors; and a solar photovoltaic system to generate power.

"We like the idea of living more sustainably and more cheaply," said Karann Schaller.

The couple eventually partnered with a general contractor, but the Schallers entered their home into the Zero Energy Challenge on their own. They moved into the New Hartford house last September and started producing most of the home's expended energy on site.

In building his Zero Energy Challenge house in Avon, Ferrigno reconciled the use of green features with the idea that he eventually would have to sell the home. It is built in a luxury neighborhood and must cater to the potential buyer of his $1.15-million house.

"There has been this worry about there that a home with these energy features will have to look different or have some sort of weird architecture," Ferrigno said. "The only way you can tell our house is different from the other ones is the sign in front."

Ferrigno's home would have been $50,000 cheaper without all the energy features: a geothermal loop system for heating and cooling; LED lights that use less energy; a solar photovoltaic system to generate power; and high-end insulation to prevent leakage. Those features, though, save $500-$600 in energy costs each month, so they pay for themselves within 10 years of home ownership.

To further entice buyers, Ferrigno will transfer the tax credits for the solar and insulation installations to the eventual home owner.

"Without tax credits, I don't think anybody would be installing solar," Ferrigno said.

Connecticut and the federal government have excellent incentive programs enabling builders and homeowners to engage in green projects that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive, said Russell Campaigne, partner with CK Architects, which is participating in the Zero Energy Challenge.

CK Architects in Guilford decided to participate in the Zero Energy Challenge after one of its clients expressed a strong interest in having a sustainable home, Campaigne said. With a buyer in place working hand-in-hand on the project, the company didn't have to worry about marketing the house.

While there has been some community interest surrounding the project, Campaigne said he thought the Zero Energy Challenge sponsors would do more to promote the homes and the energy features inside them.

The idea is to create awareness throughout the building industry, and these homes need to be showcased if there is to be any real impact, Campaigne said.

The Zero Energy Challenge is fighting the downturn in the industry right now, which creates difficulty when trying to introduce new concepts, Steeves said.

The program might not even last beyond this second year, Steeves said, as the conservation management board might be losing a chunk of its state funding.

In the end, a sustained Zero Energy Challenge is less important than market forces in getting the home building industry behind these concepts, Ferrigno said. Until the consumer starts demand these features, which will only happen when the price is right, the industry will take its time moving beyond business as usual.

The Zero Energy Challenge just gets the ball rolling.

"This is the thing that people have to see before they can accept it," Steeves said. "Builders are pretty cooperative when they see a value in what these initiatives will have for them and the users of their homes."

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