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The Future of Home Building and Residential Construction

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John Barrows of P3 Builder Group in New York achieved a HERS rating of -22 for this 2,200-square-foot electric home with 1.2 kW of photovoltaic panels. Photo courtesy John Barrows

If you are building for buyers who care about energy efficiency and clean indoor air, it might be worth exploring electric homes.

That’s the advice of John Barrows of P3 Builder Group, a custom builder in Wainscott, N.Y., and consultant Karla Butterfield of Norwalk, Conn.-based Steven Winter Associates, who spoke at the virtual International Builders Show in February about building all-electric homes.

“It might be a healthier, simpler, and more economical way to build,” Butterfield suggested.

While all-electric homes are not typical, the numbers are larger than builders might expect, thanks to growing use of renewables and policy shifts in some areas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, 25% of U.S. homes in 2015 were all-electric. (Those are the most recent statistics available; the agency is still collecting data for the 2020 survey.) “Electrification is becoming more and more popular in many municipalities and states,” Barrows said. “We’re seeing more legislation promoting it.”

John Barrows of P3 Builder Group used passive house technology to build this ultra energy-efficient home, which also has two Tesla charging stations. Photo courtesy John Barrows
John Barrows of P3 Builder Group used passive house technology to build this ultra energy-efficient home, which also has two Tesla charging stations. Photo courtesy John Barrows

Electric homes support healthy living, energy efficiency

Here are three reasons why he and Butterfield suggest that builders should consider building electric homes, based on their presentation.

1. All electric homes are healthier.

For buyers who prioritize indoor air quality as part of their desire for a healthy home, electric--not gas--is a logical choice. “Sixty percent of homes that cook with gas one time per week reach pollutant levels exceeding federal standards for nitrogen, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide,” said Butterfield, who noted that gas cooktops require more ventilation than electric cooktops. Eliminating natural gas or propane from a house also reduces the risks of fire and explosion in a home.

2. Heat pumps, a key component of HVAC in all-electric homes, have improved significantly.

“In the past, heat pumps have been mostly thought of as air conditioners and used in the South as a heat source in the wintertime, and it gave [heat pumps] a bad rap, because they didn’t perform well in cold weather,” said Barrows. “Nowadays the technology has improved so much that we can really see where it can be used in colder climates.”

Options include air-source heat pumps that can provide heating and cooling as well as hot water; ground-source heat pumps (also known as geothermal); and inverters or variable-speed compressors. Some are ducted, some are ductless, and others can be a mix of ducted, ductless with both indoor and outdoor components. Geothermal systems can be expensive, but localities may offer a rebate or other incentives that allow you--or your buyer--to justify the investment.

Whatever you choose for a home, just make sure you size the system correctly. “It’s important not to oversize a heat pump,” Butterfield said. “As you oversize the heat pump, it lowers the fan speed and lowers the efficiency.”

3. High-performance electric homes can be extremely economical to operate.

While the United States’ electrical grid itself can be inefficient, smart builders can construct extraordinarily efficient electric homes, particularly if they incorporate renewable energy such solar.

That’s what Barrows did in New York, building a 2,200-square-foot all-electric house using passive house techniques, 12 kW of solar panels, and a systems approach. “There were homeowner priorities of being energy conscious, sustainable, targeting net zero, and most importantly, they wanted something for the long term that seamlessly integrated with the rest of the building,” explained Barrows, who achieved a HERS rating of -22 for the house and annual energy bills of $240.