In the three years that Nicole Rae and Brian Mastenbrook lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, they grew increasingly concerned about California’s wildfires. The skies would turn orange, ash would settle on plants and porch railings, and Ms. Rae, a 30-year-old teacher who has asthma, would have trouble breathing.
So in May, she and Mr. Mastenbrook, a 37-year-old tech worker, sold their home and moved to Ann Arbor, Mich. Mr. Mastenbrook has family in Michigan, and officials in Ann Arbor were taking steps to lower the city’s carbon footprint.
They admired plans for a “net zero” community there, Veridian at County Farm, to be filled with solar-powered, all-electric homes that would be free of the fossil fuels whose greenhouse gas emissions have contributed to climate change.
“If those homes were built and ready to buy today,” Ms. Rae said, “we already would have purchased one.”
The couple’s experience as climate refugees may be dramatic, but across the country, more home buyers are seeking net zero residences, so called because they produce as much energy as they consume and, because they typically achieve this via solar power, do not add carbon to the atmosphere. And developers are increasingly stepping up to meet the demand.
Data on net zero housing is scarce, but a report from the nonprofit group Team Zero tallies about 24,500 homes in the United States that achieve “zero energy” performance and estimates that the actual number “is considerably larger.” The Department of Energy has certified 8,656 as “net zero ready,” meaning they could reach zero energy with the addition of solar.
The numbers are expected to grow, spurred not only by consumer appetite but also by building code updates, more affordable solar technology, a growing familiarity with once-exotic appliances like induction stoves and the “electrify everything” movement. Now investors are increasingly steering money toward sustainable real estate, making it easier for developers to raise money for housing that addresses climate concerns.
And although the net zero movement is sometimes associated with homes for the affluent, it is also resulting in housing for those at the other end of the income spectrum, who stand to benefit from lower energy bills.
“The housing industry is being disrupted the way the auto industry was,” said Aaron Smith, chief executive of the nonprofit Energy & Environmental Building Alliance, referring to the popularity of electric cars and pledges by manufacturers to phase out gasoline-powered vehicles.
But even as the climate crisis has highlighted the need for sustainable construction, challenges remain. The building industry has resisted code changes. The surge in demand for single-family homes spurred by the pandemic may weaken the urgency for change because conventional houses are finding ready buyers these days.
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