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Roots Before Branches - ZEH Intro

Shay Brazier

From early on in the project we started working with a friend, Matt, to build a website that could get the ideas behind the Zero Energy House out there for all to see. It turned out to be quite a process to figure out how to map the diverse goals of the project against dozens of design initiatives. Matt's insights and approach to distilling things down to easily understood core messages were as useful then as they have been recently as we move into a new phase of creating and publishing more content for the website. We're currently producing 9 stages of text, photographic, and video content to communicate the goals and principles of the project, all of which is being co-ordinated by Matt's business, Roots Before Branches.

Roots Before Branches is comprised of Matt and his business partner Shoba. Together they offer clients a refreshing and complete solution to communicate with their audience in an ethical fashion. If you want to find out more, we've written about their contribution to the Zero Energy House project here or you can visit their website at rootsbeforebranches.co.nz.

Below is an article that Matt recently published on the Roots Before Branches website that sums up the Zero Energy House project and his feelings about it.


Zero Energy House

Matt Fordham - 4 April 2012

I live in a bungalow that was built in 1940. Over the past seventy years insulation has been put in the roof, gas central heating piped in, and the old wood burner replaced with a more efficient fireplace. Tomorrow a guy is coming around to look at what more insulation we might need, and we've recently investigated installing double-glazed windows.

This is part of the fun of owning an old house. For as long as we live here we'll wage a war against creeping cold and moisture, weighing up the short-term costs of possible improvements with the long-term risks of rising energy bills.

But, while this is something you come to accept with an old house, it shouldn't be a concern for the owners of the thousands of homes being built in 2012. Shouldn't be, but will. The building code will ensure such concerns are reduced, but it won't eliminate them. The majority of the families moving into those homes will still be affected by energy prices forced up by the pressure on resources and the industry shakedown we're in the middle of.

But one of them won't be. Shay Brazier and Jo Woods are building New Zealand's first Zero Energy House, right around the corner from where I type this in Point Chevalier. Zero Energy means the house produces at least as much energy on-site as it consumes. It's still connected to the grid and might buy some electricity during the darkest hours of winter, but in summer will sell back the surplus energy generated on-site. Over the course of a year, this will result in a 'Zero Energy' balance.

How are they doing this? The big three components are:

  1. Building envelope design. The shape and construction methods used will eliminate the need for any heating. This normally accounts for around 30% of a standard home's energy use (and bill).
  2. Solar hot water heating. Most of the hot water needs are provided by a roof mounted solar system. The system being used is made in New Zealand and reduces energy needs by a further 25%.
  3. Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. It's not unusual to see a solar panel bolted onto roof tiles in New Zealand. What's unique about the panels being used on this house is that they are the roof tiles. 88 of them laid out on the north-facing side of the roof will provide the remaining 45% of energy.

If this all sounds complicated, consider this: in the UK, by 2016every new home built will be required to incorporate principles that are being used in building this house. And they're really not that hard. The building envelope design takes existing construction methods and improves them. The solar hot water system being used was designed in 1982. And the PV panels have been used extensively in the UK and Europe for over seven years. Even the Queen likes them; last year she awarded a prize to the company that makes them.

Of course, it'll cost more to build than a home that doesn't incorporate these methods. But, on the other hand, it will cost nothing to run - which in today's energy environment is an appealing idea.

Consumer recently reported that electricity prices have been increasing at a rate of 7% per annum, effectively doubling in the last eight years. Who's to say they won't double again in the next eight? And again, and again? They've already risen by almost 12% for some New Zealanders this year.

The cost of PV technology, on the other hand, has fallen by 7% per annum over the past 30 years. And many organisations are working to make solar systems even more affordable. In Nelson, the council will pay for your system and then allow you to pay it back via your rates - using the money you're saving on your energy bill. In the US many solar systems are leased to customers - and, once again, paid for using the money saved on electricity bills.

If I sound excited about this it's because I am. Roots Before Branches is part of the team working on the Zero Energy House project and we're bloody proud to be doing so.

The project is about more than just building its owners a comfy and efficient home; it's about making New Zealanders - and their politicians - aware of a better way of doing things. We've built a website that contains all of the design information, we're about to roll out new content that tracks the progress of construction, and - once the build is completed - we'll help with publishing energy generation and consumption data that's being monitored all over the house.

And not only that - last week we popped down to the site and gave the builders a hand to install the support beams (made from recycled timber off a catamaran, I might add).

We are absolutely convinced this is the future of New Zealand housing and are behind Shay & Jo all the way.

If you want to find out more head to the project website. Or, even better, head to the Facebook page, join the discussion, and we'll keep you posted as things progress.