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Most custom builders emphasize that they will build what their customers want. When customers walk in the door at Solaire Homebuilders, they already know what they want: a home with cutting-edge energy efficiency that’s beautiful, too.

“All our clients come to us asking for energy efficient, sustainable homes,” says Cindi O’Neil, Vice President, “and half of them want to go all the way to a net zero home.”

Over the last two decades, Solaire owners Mike and Cindi O’Neil have built hundreds of homes that meet high standards of efficiency. Starting in 2011, six of them have been net zero energy homes, and two have been zero energy ready, which means that only the addition of solar panels remains to make the home generate as much energy as it uses. Their aim is to build aesthetically pleasing homes that take advantage of the sun, capture abundant natural light, use energy very efficiently, and are affordable to the average consumer.

Solaire has been focused on efficiency since its inception in 1995. Back then, they started by orienting a building to capture passive solar energy and designing interior spaces around the heat and light of the sun. Soon after, they began beefing up the building shell with blown-in wall insulation, air-sealing techniques, heat-recovery ventilation, and high-efficiency mechanical systems. Ten years ago, they adopted a high-R envelope strategy revolving around double-stud, wood-frame walls ranging from 8- to 12-inches thick. They also applied advanced air sealing methods to further reduce energy waste. More recent advances include ductless mini-split heat pumps and heat pump water heaters. Solar panels are the icing on the Solaire cake.

As new technology becomes available, Solaire will slip it into the mix. The Tesla Powerwall will soon make its first Central Oregon appearance in a Solaire home. This early adopter approach keeps the company ahead of most other builders in their local market.

That evolution mirrors the approach they take with most of the design/build jobs they undertake. Start with the building shell. Super-insulate it. Make it tight as possible. Then add high-efficiency ventilation, heating, cooling, and water heating. Top it off with enough renewable energy generation to operate the house over the course of each year.

Balancing Act: Efficiency, Preferences, and Budgets

Along with their clients, Solaire balances three things: custom features, energy efficiency, and budget. ”We solve this puzzle together,” says Cindi. “Sometimes that means we can go all the way to net zero energy. Sometimes we explore with the customer how far we can get along the efficiency curve.”

To find the right balance for each client, Solaire relies on a computer energy model. Before the design is finalized, the model estimates how much energy the home will use and how much solar electric generation will be needed. “We show it to the customers and discuss what it might cost to push energy performance further,” says Cindi. “We evaluate the options and make it their choice.”

These choices can include the amount of wall insulation, the type of heating system, and which appliances to install. The energy model is especially helpful with windows. Solaire builds in Central Oregon, which offers fabulous views of snow-capped mountains to the west. Most clients want to soak up that view with a wall of windows. Builders know from experience that a wall of windows facing west creates catastrophic overheating as the summer sun sets behind those mountains. Energy modeling helps communicate that issue to clients and helps Solaire fine tune a design that mixes low heat gain glazing, overhangs, and exterior solar shades.

Design plays a key role in cost containment, too. Mike and Cindi always keep cost in mind throughout the design phase. Cindi may suggest that clients can eliminate a powder room by locating the guest bath in a way that serves both functions. Plumbing and fixtures are expensive, and the money saved can go to energy efficiency features.

“We emphasize creative space design in the functional flow of the home to reduce square footage,” says Cindi. One way is to reduce space dedicated to hallways. Another common design element takes the mud room and entry vestibule out of the super-insulated exterior envelope. This gives clients the space they need to organize their daily life but reduces the energy budget.

The upfront costs for efficiency measures and solar panels has been a challenge in the past, but that is starting to change, as costs for solar panels, heat pump hot water heaters and heat pump heating and cooling systems has come down.

The Importance of Working with Lenders and Appraisers

Working with lenders and appraisers is another part of the balancing act that Solaire pays attention to. Solaire’s lenders understand the added value that comes with highly efficient homes. “We have a good relationship with our lenders,” says Mike. “They understand that people living in efficient homes have more cash flow. It doesn’t matter whether the cash comes from a paycheck or energy savings. It helps pay the mortgage. They also understand the value that comes with net zero energy homes.”

There is a considerable body of research to support the extra value of energy efficient homes and solar panels. Translating that general concept into appraised value has been a challenge for home buyers and builders. Solaire meets the challenge in several ways. Each home receives an Energy Performance Score. They document energy-saving features using the Earth Advantage appraisal addendum that is submitted to the appraiser. They encourage clients to ask for an appraiser who has been accredited for energy efficiency and sustainable construction.

How Solaire Markets Energy Efficiency

It’s no surprise that clients are already interested in efficiency and sustainability when they walk in the door. Solaire has built their reputation as experts in the field over many years. Their name proclaims their intentions and their website backs the claim by detailing the design and construction process and showing a list of completed projects. Each year, Solaire places a home on the Tour of Homes organized by the Central Oregon Builders Association. In recent years, most of those homes have been net zero energy homes.

Not all of Solaire’s projects have been custom homes. They have built several homes on speculation. These projects are physically similar to the custom homes. The biggest difference is that the process changes from educating a client who is interested in the energy saving measures to educating real estate brokers who may not be knowledgeable about or interested in energy efficiency. Even though Solaire’s listing agent is well prepared, the buyer’s representative may need help in getting up to speed.

Marketing materials from third-party certification programs, such as Earth Advantage and Energy Performance Score, have helped put energy issues front and center with buyers of their spec homes. These include customer brochures and interior and exterior signage along with energy and green ratings.

More than anything, Solaire attributes its success to its clear vision and longstanding commitment as an energy efficient and net zero energy home builder that listens to customer preferences and pays attention to detail. This attracts customers who are looking for quality, energy-efficient homes. Solaire Homebuilders has realized its vision throughout two decades of energy-efficient, sustainable homes and lots of happy customers.