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Builder honored for home that also powers car

Posted on February 23rd, 2011

By Alex White, The Whidbey Examiner

When Coupeville builder Ted Clifton started building homes back in the 1970s, incidents like the 1973 oil embargo had Americans realizing that energy was not unlimited.

“I was thinking that we’ve got to be able to do better and it really influenced how I began to build houses,” he said.

Clifton, who owns a home-design business called Zero-Energy Plans, said he began to see an increase in customers interested in building homes that were energy efficient and that provided savings over time.

“A zero-energy home will pay for the extra construction and energy generation costs in 10 to 15 years,” he said.

The holy grail of energy-efficient home construction has long been the true net-zero-energy home. The home must be able to generate as much energy as it uses, through either solar, wind or other site-generated power.

But Clifton has taken zero-net-energy one step further. He designed and completed a home that also can power your car.

On average, Americans use about as much energy powering their vehicles as they do powering their homes. Together, this amounts to about 40 percent of the total energy use of the country.

Clifton’s home design uses the energy-producing, south-facing roof to power the car as well as the house. The 1,000-square-foot home will provide all of its own energy – plus enough power to drive a Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf some 13,500 miles each year – without using any fossil fuels.

The prototype was designed for the National Park Service at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Central Oregon. Park Superintendent Jim Hammett had seen the home design on Clifton’s website and thought it would meet the park’s goal for zero energy.

“They had a modular home at the park that was 40 years old and falling apart,” Clifton said. “We revised the design to make it bigger and more energy efficient – and keep it affordable.”

As built, the original home will power the car for about 5,300 miles, but there is enough additional south-facing roof area to provide for another 10 solar panels (the house now has 24), which will provide the additional 8,300 miles worth of energy.

One of the more significant elements of this home is how affordable it is. A number of true net-zero-energy homes have been built across the country, especially in the Sun Belt, but most of them have a price tag beyond the means of the average home buyer.

This home, including the solar hot water system and photovoltaic panels on the roof, came in under $300,000 – well below the median home price in most areas.

Clifton estimates that without the special foundation that had to be constructed for the expansive volcanic ash soils of the Painted Hills area, and without some of the other unique site-related issues, the home could have been built for about $220,000.

Add in the cost of an electric car, like the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf, and for around $260,000 you could have a house and a car with no energy bills and no carbon footprint.

Clifton has run computer simulations for several different areas of Washington, and while the amount of energy produced from the solar panels varies widely from place to place, so does the amount of energy required to heat and cool the house, so the results are similar in most climates.

For example, in the greater Seattle area, the Painted Hills house would only produce about 71 percent as much energy from the solar panels, but it would only need about 60 percent as much energy for heating and cooling, so the net energy left over to fuel the car would be similar.

Clifton said this home design would “totally” work here on Whidbey Island: “We’ve modeled that design in a number of locations and it works.”

Hammett has expressed an interest in working with Clifton again on the design for similar zero-energy homes, but large enough to accommodate families.

If all works well, the National Parks Service may decide to have more Clifton designed homes built throughout the National Parks system.

He already has plans for a double-occupant home to expand on the single-person home he designed in Oregon.

Clifton, who also owns a home-building business called Clifton View Homes, said he would like to develop his own ultra-energy-efficient home here on Whidbey Island. But for now, he said, that dream will have to wait.

“I would if I could unload the house that I’m stuck with now, but there’s no way I can sell in this market,” Clifton said with a laugh.

About Ted Clifton

Ted L. Clifton has been a designer and builder for more than 45 years. Educated at Berkeley, California, Ted has worked in every phase of construction and knows first-hand what it takes to design and construct a quality home. Having built hundreds of homes as well as commercial and institutional buildings, Ted has the advantage of extensive knowledge of the means and methods used in all three. He has worked in three very different climate zones, from the foothills of California, to Ketchikan, Alaska, to Whidbey Island, Washington.


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