Fraser net-zero home combines sustainability, affordability

This net-zero energy home in Fraser cost owners Joe Smyth and Kristen Taddonio only about $440,000 in 2021, thanks to awarding-winning design by the University of Colorado Boulder Solar Decathlon team. Another plus – the home won't have a gas bill this winter.
Meg Soyars/Sky-Hi News

Fraser, the “icebox of the nation,” is home to more than frigid temperatures. The town features the High Country’s only award-winning, net-zero home. The initial spark for the home came in December 2017, when a young Fraser couple toured a Solar Decathlon showcase of the state’s clean energy creations.

The Solar Decathlon is a competition where colleges design and build a net-zero energy home — a home that produces as much energy as it consumes, lowering its carbon footprint.

At the showcase, Joe Smyth and Kristen Taddonio met two University of Colorado Boulder sophomores, Gabi Abello and Hannah Blake. Abello and Blake were interested in starting a decathlon team at CU, and Smyth and Taddonio — who were living in a tiny apartment — saw an opportunity to create their own affordable, environmentally friendly home. 

“I did perhaps a bit of a spontaneous thing,” Taddonio said. “I handed them my card and said, ‘If you ever need a client, call me up,’ not really thinking anything of it.”

This chance meeting was the spark for the Fraser SPARC (sustainability, performance, attainability, resilience and community) house. In 2018, the couple purchased a small plot of land with the intent of building a home on it. The newly formed CU Boulder Decathlon team called them a month later because they were ready to make the couple’s dream a reality.

“CU Boulder wanted to demonstrate you can have an affordable, attainable, all-electric home in a very cold climate and still attain net zero. That is what this home does,” Taddonio said.

Despite setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CU team completed the project before the end of 2021.

“Because of the pandemic, students got sent home from university, so Joe and I got a lot of hands-on construction experience,” said Taddonio. “I can tell you, if we can build a net-zero home, building professionals can build a net-zero home.”

The couple finally moved into their abode up a winding dirt road in a pine-tree lined neighborhood. Tucked in amid million-dollar homes, the SPARC house’s success was priceless. The CU Boulder team earned first place in the 2021 Decathlon and top three in all 10 categories.

Thanks to a range of energy-efficient technologies, the couple is staying warm this winter — and cool in summer too. They discussed several of the home’s features and how they can be applied in the High Country.

Solar in sunny Grand County

A 7.6-kilowatt rooftop solar array keeps the home’s energy costs affordable. Smyth explained the array was sized to generate enough electricity to cover how much power the house uses year round.

“In the summer, we generate much more electricity than we need. In winter, we use a bit more from the grid. But over a calendar year, this basically covers all our energy costs,” he said. “From an economic side, the thing that’s appealing is there’s no gas bill.”

The home produces more energy annually than it consumes. In addition to keeping the home running, the solar panels can give back to the energy grid. During the day, extra solar energy the home doesn’t use is sold back to their local power company, Mountain Parks Electric. As a bonus, the couple almost always breaks even on their energy bill.

“Our energy bills are just like 30 bucks a month,” Smyth said. “The utility compensates the homeowner with rooftop solar at the same rate the utility charges you.”

For residents considering the jump to solar, the savings may be a tipping point.

“Natural gas prices are very, very high now — almost double or even triple what they’ve been historically,” Smyth said.

According to an Oct. 21 article from The Colorado Sun, Xcel Energy is raising its rates yet again. This winter, customers can expect to pay more than 50% more on average for natural gas than they did last winter. These rate hikes are due to rising cost of natural gas, while U.S. consumption of gas is expected to hit a record high this year. Although rates are projected to be lower in December than initially feared, many customers are struggling as the cold creeps in.

Staying warm with heat pumps

Heat pumps, which pull heat out of the ambient air, have become more efficient in the past two decades and have seen large implementation in Scandinavia, other parts of Europe and China. The U.S. lags behind other regions, with gas furnaces still serving as one of the main heat sources across the country.

Grand County residents may wonder, how do heat pumps perform when temperatures nosedive to negative? Frigid Fraser records an average annual temperature of 36 degrees.

“A lot of builders in cold climates assume you need to have gas and that heat pumps don’t work below freezing,” Taddonio said.

The SPARC home uses three small, cold-climate heat pumps which perform up to minus 15 degrees.

“Last year, we recorded the lowest temperature of negative 18 here, and the heat pumps were still working,” she said. “It’s a very efficient way to heat your home with electricity.”

Symth added that the Decathlon team installed a back-up electric heat system in case the pumps failed to generate enough heat once below negative 18 degrees. So far the couple has been toasty, with no need for back-up heat.

Smyth explained that heat pumps work like air conditioners, but with the ability to work in reverse. The heat pump keeps things cool in summer, so the home needs only one system for all seasons. This could be a benefit for residents who don’t have air conditioning or currently have window units. The pumps are able to switch from cooling in the summer to heating in the winter.

What about the cost? In general, electricity is more expensive than gas. Still, while heat pumps run on electricity, they’re in a different realm than baseboard heaters. They move heat, rather than create it through resistance the way a standard electric system does. The pumps installed outside the house capture heat from the air (even on exceptionally cold days), then transfer it into the interior units, which blow out heat.

A sheep-wool product insulates the walls, rather than fiberglass, to make the house well-sealed against the elements. Since it’s extra-insulated, the home uses active ventilation for fresh air. An energy recovery ventilator takes air from outside, running it through the interior central ductwork and bathrooms. This ventilation is accomplished without dumping hot air outside.

Making the jump from gas

As a warming climate calls for drastic changes, local residents can do their part to lower their carbon footprint. The town of Fraser supports sustainability initiatives as well, based on their 2016 resolution to lower the town’s greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 2014 levels by 2025. 

But what about existing homeowners who are locked into their current heating system?

“A good thing to know is that heat pumps are also a good auxiliary heating system,” said Smyth. “You could install a heat pump, and it could significantly cut your energy bill, even if your house wasn’t designed … to just use the heat pump. You can still use your gas furnace on cold nights, but a heat pump can cover like 80% of your needs.”

There are many professionals who install heat pumps in the High Country. Smyth said the best resource is Mountain Parks Electric’s webpage on recommended local installers.

An answer for affordability

Although there is an upfront cost of around $3,000 to install heat pumps, Smyth explained there are rebates available. Thanks to the federal government’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, people can receive monetary incentives for installing heat pumps starting Jan. 1, 2023. Mountain Parks Electric also offers Grand County residents a rebate for some installations.

For Smyth and Taddonio, the main savings were that their clean energy home’s construction costs were lean.

The couple started out with a budget of $300,000. The CU team promised they could deliver close to that price tag. While the median price of a Grand County home in October 2022 is $795,000, the SPARC house ended up costing about $440,000, including land cost. The couple kept costs down by using prefabricated materials and keeping their home at a more modest 1,176 square feet. They also saved by forgoing a natural gas hookup and separate installation for heating and air conditioning.

The two-story home also includes an accessory dwelling unit with a bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette they could potentially rent out.

“Our goal was to be able to provide some attainable or affordable housing for the workforce up here, so (Smyth) and I have been working on getting this ready,” Taddonio said.

The local utility company Mountain Parks Electric offers rebates for heat pump installation, plus other rebates for sustainable installs. “It’s a community-based utility, a nonprofit, and the board president Liz (McIntyre) is super sharp,” said Smyth.
Joe Smyth/Courtesy Photo

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