South Mountain offers luxe, ‘zero-energy’ house


There’s a new house going up on West Spring Street in Tisbury, in the sweeping bend where the road past the Water Works swings east toward Vineyard Haven. The builders, South Mountain Company, tout it as a “zero-energy possible” (ZEP) home, built with the same state-of-the-art technology as their eight houses in the 250 State Road (Eliakim’s Way) affordable housing project, but as a more luxurious home.

As yet unfinished, the West Spring Street house is for sale, and there will be an open house on Saturday, Nov. 27, which will allow anyone interested in ZEP construction or retrofitting to see what zero energy looks like. It will also allow any interested buyers to look over the property. If you buy it now, you can choose the finish details.

The house is a modest 1,542 square feet, a bit more spacious than South Mountain’s affordable housing at 250 State Road, and it will have more generous fittings.There are two cozy bedrooms with slanted ceilings and a bath upstairs; downstairs, a master bedroom and bath, living room, dining area, and kitchen. There is a full cellar and a porch on the west side, looking toward Lake Tashmoo when the leaves are off the trees. Driving by on West Spring Street, west and north of the house, one doesn’t see the array of photovoltaic (solar) panels on the south-facing roof.

“Zero-energy” is a general term applied to a building with zero net energy consumption and zero net carbon emissions annually. Like the houses at 250 State Road, the West Spring Street house is certified Platinum (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) by the US Green Building Council. LEED Platinum is the highest rating, with a score of at least 80 out of a possible 100 points.

The solar panels, an “astonishingly effective” heat pump, triple-glazed windows, and superinsulation are what make the house state-of-the-art, according to South Mountain president John Abrams. In theory, an all-electric zero-energy house can generate more electricity on its roof than it uses inside for heating, cooling, lighting, hot-water heating, cooking, and other appliances. At times when electric production from the solar panels does not meet the needs of the house (for example at night), power is drawn from the grid. When solar generation exceeds the use in the house, the extra electricity is sold back to the power company. It is possible that over a year the house may generate a net gain.

Last summer, South Mountain announced a contest for the residents of their ZEP houses at 250 State Road. If any household is able to get through the first year using a net of zero energy (or being a net energy producer), South Mountain will award a one-year membership in the Whippoorwill Farm CSA or a $400 gift certificate to the Net Result. If all eight houses end their first year at zero, all will get that award. If no household nets zero, the one with the lowest energy use will be the winner.

The catch in ZEP, of course, is the word “possible.” A great deal will depend on the residents’ energy demands and conservation strategies, “the skill of the players.”

Mr. Abrams told The Times that ZEP technology is always improving. As the price of oil, gas, and coal continues to increase, as Mr. Abrams is sure it will, those who are now thinking about zero energy are ahead of the energy-cost curve. In time, energy will become so expensive that everyone will have to generate at least part of their power, and retrofit their homes to better conserve energy or build new, state-of-the-art homes.

“We can’t make oil or gas on Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Abrams said, “but we can generate electricity.” He went on to say that the technology is still in its infancy. There is no practical limit to what we’ll be able to do. “What we’re doing today is not as good as we’ll be doing in the future.” Forward-thinking consumers will always be able to stay ahead of the curve.