Utility bills? That's so passe

David Goswick thinks homebuilding is entering what he calls a golden era, and it's not because houses are getting bigger or smaller or prettier or have perfected the walk-in closet. It's because, he said, the housing business has finally gotten the message that consumers would like to drop-kick their utility bills into the next county.

He's so sure of this that he's heading up a company that guarantees the buyers of its new homes will pay no electric or gas bills for the first 10 years — not because the builder is picking up the tab, but because the homes will be so efficient that they will have energy to spare. The company, Houze Advanced Building Science, will start construction on 20 homes in Houston, where the company is based. It's also prepared to take its act on the road, aiming to partner with homebuilders in 35 cities during the next two years, said Goswick, Houze's chief executive.

"We see a category emerging, and you'll see all builders move in this direction," said Goswick, whose earlier career focused on providing marketing services for major homebuilders around the country. "Everybody now is talking about how to make homes more efficient. It should be priority one — the greatest environmental benefit is to consume less."

Houze (not to be confused with Houzz, an unrelated interior-design site) is banking on a two-part strategy to create a highly efficient home. Part one is the tight "envelope" (walls and ceilings with high R values, a measure of energy efficiency).

Part two is its proprietary technology. After researching wind, solar and other power systems for the houses, the firm has developed the Houze Power Cell, a device about the size of an air-conditioning unit that produces on-site electricity and thermal heat from natural gas. Goswick said the power cell generates more energy than the home will consume, and it either stores the excess in backup batteries or feeds it back into the community electricity grid.

"In Houston, the (two demonstration homes we've built in collaboration with the city) each produce enough electricity to power a number of homes that have been built to our standards," Goswick said. "We're selling back the surplus electricity that's generated on-site. We use that revenue to pay for the natural gas the houses use."

He said the demonstration homes score 44 on the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) index developed by Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), the standards-making body for the residential energy industries. The lower the score, the more energy-efficient: RESNET said a typical resale home has a 130 HERS score; a typical newly built home, 100; Energy Star-rated homes are 85 or better.

Goswick said this functionality will make the homes affordable to a broader swath of the homebuying public, which, since the advent of so-called green construction decades ago, has struggled with the perception that such houses are more expensive to build than traditional homes.

And Houze houses, are, indeed, pricier — typically 15 percent more expensive to build than the typical new home in a given region, Goswick said. In Houston, the Houze houses will cost $150,000 to $270,000, he said.

"But what we've found is that the total cost of homeownership is slightly less (factoring in the energy savings, potential insurance savings and other economies)," he said. "People should buy a home based on the monthly cost associated with owning and maintaining it, not on the sale price."

Houze is building the Houston homes but is working on partnerships with builders in other cities that will use Houze technologies, Goswick said. In 2013, he has agreements in place or is in serious discussions with builders in markets in Florida, Texas and California and in several other metro areas; Houze likely will have an agreement with a builder in Chicago this year, he said.

In 2014, partnerships are in the works in cities around the country. Goswick said the company isn't ready to release the names of its partner builders.

The building science and marketing research that Houze undertook before the company opened the demonstration houses in Houston in December has required some deep pockets, he said; the company has private investors, Goswick explained, as well as alliances with the American Gas Association and AT&T, which is using the model homes to introduce its Digital Life wireless security system.

Goswick said many builders have been skeptical of or even resistant to the idea of producing high-efficiency homes on a broad scale, but attitudes have evolved, nudged largely by the many energy-saving advances in the components that go into a house.

"There's such a convergence of focus" toward energy savings, he said. "It's just like the telephone was 30 years ago. Today, it isn't just a telephone anymore, and that's what we're seeing within the home. Its day has finally come."

HousingNews@comcast.net

Twitter @maryumberger

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