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An interview with Brandon De Young of De Young Properties

Zero Energy Project: What does your company do?

Brandon De Young: De Young Properties is a three-generation, family-owned land developer and homebuilder in Central California and we have been building for over 40 years. Our mission is simple: To improve the lives of families in Central California, do right by the environment, and inspire others to do the same.

ZEP: How many zero energy homes have you designed and/or built?

BD: De Young Properties has designed and built two zero energy homes; one in 2013 in partnership with Pacific Gas and Electric and another in 2017. Both homes were built as pilot projects to research and develop the zero energy concept with the goal of eventually scaling up to an entire community. Now we are developing Envision a 36-home, zero energy community – the largest in California – comprised entirely of zero energy homes, and we have already sold 30% of the available lots.

ZEP: What motivated you to begin designing and building zero energy homes?

BD: Our motivation comes directly from our company’s mission. In fact, zero energy homes accomplish all three aspects. Zero energy homes are healthier to live in and more affordable to operate with very low energy bills, so they clearly improve the lives of families. They are better for the environment, of course, as they are designed with the potential to produce as much clean energy as they consume in a year. And they also inspire others to follow suit by showing that zero energy homes are not only achievable, but also affordable if done right.

ZEP: What do you like best about zero energy homes?

BD: The thing we like best about zero energy homes is how much it surprises people –; not only because of the fact that it is possible, but also because they can own one at a price that they can actually afford.

ZEP: What have you learned about designing/building cost-effective zero energy homes?

BD: What we have learned through this endeavor is how important it is to research and experiment with many kinds of products and designs before settling on a final set of features. Anyone can design and build a zero energy home, but unless you commit to R&D the home will end up becoming too expensive, will not function as intended, or both.

We’ve spent almost a decade in R&D to optimize our zero energy home features, and, now, we’re ready to build an entire community of ZE homes. In fact, our brand new community, De Young EnVision at Loma Vista, will be the largest zero energy home community in the entire State of California and is now open for sale.

ZEP: What design details are most important to strong energy performance?

BD: We have found that there is no silver bullet when it comes to achieving zero energy. It requires a holistic approach to optimize every aspect of a home’s energy-related design. For our homes, we started by significantly upgrading the thermal envelope (the insulation boundary) by using thicker, 2×6 advanced framed exterior walls and our Performance Sealed Attic, which expands the thermal boundary around the HVAC system in the attic. Next we focused on features that consume large portions of energy, such as the heating and cooling equipment, water heating equipment, lighting, etc. All of these areas have been upgraded to the most cost-effective variants, like LED lighting and heat pump water heaters.

ZEP: What have you learned about how to keep costs down?

BD: Don’t settle for the status quo. Take the time to thoroughly research and develop products and designs required to achieve a truly affordable zero energy home.

ZEP: Are there any new technologies for reaching zero energy cost effectively that you are especially excited about?

BD: Heat pump technology for space heating/cooling and water heating is really amazing. It always blows our customers’ minds when we tell them that their water heater can literally extract free energy from thin air by using the warm air around the unit to heat the water within. This type of equipment is not common right now in our region so costs come at a premium; however, in some states, rebates and credits may be available and we expect the costs will fall as the products become more prevalent. And that is already beginning to happen with heat pump water heaters.

ZEP: What advice would you give to a builder just getting into the zero energy homes market?

BD: If you are a builder interested in designing and building zero energy homes, I highly suggest partnering with industry experts. There is a great deal of technical and financial support available these days to research and develop zero energy. Technical and financial support for real-world deployment and feedback – it’s a win-win!

ZEP: How would you advise designers and builders to reduce construction costs?

BD: I would recommend getting involved in, and attending, energy-efficiency and solar conferences and webinars as much as possible. This exposure will allow you to find new products and designs that may provide more a cost-effective solution, and the networking opportunities are invaluable.

ZEP: What was your experience with the financing and appraisal processes of the zero energy homes you have sold? Do you have any suggestions for other builders?

BD: It can be a struggle to prove the value of a zero energy home to appraisers who “just don’t understand”. That said, this issue is highly dependent upon each individual appraiser as well as the region of the country in which the appraisers are located. For example, appraisers in Northern California are significantly more aware of the benefits and value of energy-efficient homes. Any builder can ask the appraiser to use the Green Energy Efficient Appraisal Addendum.

ZEP: How important was receiving a third-party certification in your process?

BD: Every home that De Young Properties builds is GreenPoint Rated for third-party assurance that they are healthy, sustainable, and energy-efficient. This certification eases consumer concerns of “green washing” and gives us confidence that we are building homes the right way.

With that said, we decided not to apply for any “zero energy” related certifications for the two zero energy homes previously built or the 36 that we are about to begin building within our new EnVision community. We have a great deal of confidence in our extensive and esteemed building science team, with members from organizations such as Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Electric Power Research Institute, and BIRAenergy, among others.

ZEP: Do you live in a zero energy home? What do you like about it?

BD: When lived in a zero electric home, it was an empowering experience (no pun intended)! The extreme heat in the summer here in the Central Valley of California can be brutal, so it was great not having to sacrifice comfort for low energy bills, or vice versa. Also, having confidence that the home contributes to better air quality in the region (a significant issue) and helps cut greenhouse gas emissions is a great bonus!

ZEP: Do your neighbors know that you live in a zero energy home? What do they think of the idea?

BD: It always surprises people to hear that this concept is possible at an affordable price. As an early adopter, I enjoy being on the cutting-edge and enlightening others about energy-efficiency, solar, and other new home technology. In fact, in my free time I teach a course at California State University, Fresno on Sustainable Home Design and Construction.

ZEP: What policies are needed to advance the movement toward zero energy as standard practice in the construction industry?

BD: Despite its many shortcomings, California is definitely a leader on this front and I would highly recommend that other states consider a  roadmap to zero energy. It’s a complicated and relatively slow-moving process, but it is necessary to ensure builders and the real estate market can cope with changes to the building code without having to adapt all at once. This is crucial when it comes to designing and building zero energy homes and communities. A long-term plan with a great deal of stakeholder input is extremely important.

ZEP: What else do you see that needs to happen to get zero energy homes into the mainstream?

BD: More builders need to take the leap of faith and join us. Zero energy homes are much better for homeowners and for the environment and builders who embrace them can use that to their advantage by differentiating their homes from the competition in the real estate market.

Also, the appraisal issue is still a real concern. The home appraisal industry needs to move more rapidly in adopting a standardized and fair approach to valuing energy-efficient and zero energy homes. Most builders will not want to deal with the headache of appraisal values coming in too low for zero energy homes, so once this issue is worked out there will be less hesitation. It will take time. In the meantime, builders can ask the appraiser to use the green appraisal addendum.

Brandon De Young is a third-generation home builder from California’s central valley and owner of De Young Properties