Home Work

When Sunshine Mathon and his wife purchased their two-bedroom/one-bath bungalow in the Cherrywood neighborhood of East Austin, they knew an addition was in their future. The couple was expecting their second child and 1,000 square feet wasn’t going to cut it with a growing family. “The home was in a good spot with sun and shade,” says Mathon. “It had a mature tree canopy, but the original house had single-pane windows, which are beautiful but leak and don’t keep the sun out or the heat or air-conditioning in. Plus, there was minimal to no insulation.” 

As the design and construction lead for affordable buildings at Foundation Communities, Mathon already knew how to create an environmentally friendly home. His goal was to eventually achieve net-zero—meaning their energy bills would cost $0 every month. To make that a reality, everything needed to be changed. “We ended up replacing all of the windows with modern fiberglass windows to retain the character,” says Mathon.

“We wrapped the existing concrete structure with about four and a half inches of insulation and replaced the HVAC to serve the new and existing structure.” The couple also added solar panels, a tankless water heater and an induction stove to avoid using gas for cooking. The total cost came to nearly $30,000 for the upgrades to the existing home prior to the addition. “With the help of federal tax credits and Austin Energy rebates, the cost of insulation is relatively low,” says Mathon. “Overall, it’s a five- to seven-year payback.” But the payback might be the easiest part. Mathon says the process of designing and building his net-zero home was “daunting.” 

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This very issue led to the creation of Treehouse in 2011, an Austin-based sustainable home improvement center that aims to make the process easier. “For free, one of our consultants can come to your home to build a roadmap of what you can do to reduce your bills,” says Kane Sutphin, director of marketing for Treehouse. Often, the first recommendation for reducing energy bills is to replace the thermostat with a Nest thermostat. “It’s a smart learning thermostat,” says Sutphin. “For a week, you play with it by adjusting the temperature in the morning when you wake up, when you leave for work and in the evening before you go to bed. The system learns your habits and will adjust the temperature for you to the most energy-efficient setting. You can even use your smartphone to change the temperature.” It retails for $250 and Austin Energy offers an $85 rebate.

When it comes to water consumption, 27 percent gets flushed down the toilet. A $30 conversion kit can turn the existing toilet into a low-flow one—saving on average two gallons of water with each flush. “Same goes for the shower and faucets,” says Sutphin. “Those add up to nearly thirty percent of the water we use. By simply changing the heads to more efficient ones, you could save about forty gallons per day.” Treehouse also recommends LED lights to save on energy bills and buying nontoxic cleaners and houseplants to make the air inside the home cleaner. “People assume it’s going to be expensive upfront in order to save on bills, but it doesn’t have to be,” Sutphin says.

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For other fairly simple DIY projects, Austin-based green-builder Gil Lohr of Lohr Homes recommends caulking around windows and doors so that air doesn’t escape, and adding more insulation to the attic. “The insulation might run you around $1,000, but you’ll notice a difference,” says Lohr. The most expensive energy-efficiency project Lohr recommends is adding solar panels to a home. For those who take on this project, Treehouse recommends adding a charging system to make the investment stretch even further (they recommend the Tesla Powerwall, due out this summer). “The home battery charges by using the energy that comes from the solar panels,” says Sutphin. “It stores the energy created during the day instead of putting it back on the grid. That way, you can power appliances at night or, if the electricity goes out, it can power your entire home.”

Another natural resource that’s not yet as popular as solar energy is wind. A home turbine system, either set up on the roof or somewhere on the property, is capable of generating a steady stream of power as long as there’s a consistent breeze of at least 11 miles per hour. Of course, there are space and safety issues to consider before installing turbines in neighborhoods, as well as potential restrictions or rejections from HOAs. Also, Austin Energy warns that wind turbines are probably not worth the investment in our area because we don’t have enough wind. The cost can range from $3,000 to $350,000 depending on the size and height.

So how does a homeowner begin the process of creating a more energy-efficient home? The average cost depends on the square footage and the construction of a home, but Lohr recommends following projects in this order: 

  • Change the fixtures inside the home—new faucets, LED lights and low-flow toilets. Cost: $100 to $300
  •  Insulate the attic. Blown-in insulation is recommended. Cost: $1,000 to $3,000
  •  Install a tankless water heater. Cost: $3,000
  •  Replace the HVAC system. Cost: $7,000 to $15,000
  •  Install new energy-efficient windows. Cost: $500 per window, installed
  •  Install solar panels. Cost: $20,000 to $30,000

by Kate West