Sonoma homeowners consider ‘going green’ in post-fire rebuild

Sonoma homeowners consider ‘going green’ in post-fire rebuild

Sonoma homeowners consider ‘going green’ in post-fire rebuild

Last summer, Susan Gorin and her husband had decided to do an energy-efficient remodel of their ridgetop Oakmont home.

They hired an architect and a contractor to get started, and were ready to write a check in early October when they heard from the contractor that he was evacuating.

“I said, stop work. Don’t roll up any more expenses, and get out of there,” said Gorin – the 1st District Supervisor for Sonoma County. She was in Colorado visiting their daughter and grandchildren, including a new granddaughter to be born on Oct. 10. She flew back that day, and arrived to find the house burned to the ground.

Like more than 5,000 other Sonoma County residents, Gorin is now faced with the challenging task of rebuilding a home destroyed by the Tubbs or Nuns fires. But that means despite the hurdles that every one of them faces – debris removal, surveys, soil testing, finding an architect and a reliable contractor, to say nothing of the permit process – many are now in a position to build an energy-efficient “green home” from scratch.

Of course, for those who have suffered the trauma and financial loss (and in some cases, the loss of loved ones), rebuilding is first and foremost a matter of “just getting this done,” as one fire survivor said at a recent Rebuilding Community meeting in Santa Rosa. But the message of the county’s Energy and Sustainability Division is that there is no better time to plan for green rebuilding, when the added cost is minimal and the benefits significant.

There’s no doubt that a home built to current codes today will be a more energy-efficient home than one built 50, 20 or even 10 years ago, says energy and sustainability analyst Christine Condon – one of the specialists at the county’s Energy and Sustainability division. But, she says, home builders can do a lot more to make their new home compliant with future California Green Building codes.

Any construction undertaken by “fire survivors” in Sonoma Valley or elsewhere in the North Bay, or state, should include an “energy efficiency team” of three professionals to evaluate the architect’s design and the contractor’s work, Condon advised.

The cost of hiring an energy efficiency team could be covered by insurance, as all these roles are licensed by the state.

The first is a Certified Energy Analyst, or CEA, who can evaluate what techniques and technologies can be used in new home building that might qualify for state or local incentives.

A HERS rater, who scores a home’s energy profile according to the Home Energy Rating System, will verify construction and installation materials and practice, such as insulation, doors and windows, the home’s “envelope” (how well it is isolated from external impurities, temperatures, winds, etc.).

Finally a Cal Green Special Inspector will verify how well the building complies with state code requirements, an analysis that is best performed not only in the planning stages before a home is built, but once it is finished to judge compliance.

Condon, herself a CEA and HERS rater, estimated that the costs of implementing energy efficiency in rebuilding is about $2,400 extra, but it can lead to lifetime savings of $7,400 in energy use, if not more. “Use the CEA, HERS rater and inspector as part of the architecture team to build a better building,” said Condon.

Homeowners faced with the plethora of permits, rules and hurdles to a quick rebuild may regard an added crew of inspectors dubiously, but there are benefits: monetary incentives alone can shave up to $12,000 off the cost of a new home, in the form of a check direct to the homeowner. And long-range savings in energy costs can accumulate year by year if not season by season, making a new “green home” not only less expensive to operate, but more comfortable to live in.

Note that incentives of up to $7,000 per home are available only to homes, condominiums, apartments, and accessory dwelling units that were destroyed by the October 2017 wildfires and have service provided by Sonoma Clean Power and/or PG&E. An additional $5,000 incentive bonus is available for carbon-free, renewable energy homes. These incentives can help pay for the incremental difference in the cost of building an energy-efficient home over regular home building to code.

So, too, for solar. Federal tax credits are still available of up to 30 percent for solar energy additions, but those credits start to decline rapidly in 2020 – first to 26 percent, then 22 percent in 2021, and to 10 percent in 2022.

Planning for solar in the construction phase, whether or not panels are added at the outset, means wiring conduits are built into the structure, rather than added on the outside of roofing and walls later (or in a home remodel, as Gorin planned). A solar consultant might also surprise a home owner by suggesting that panels should be installed west-facing, instead of the traditional south-facing orientation, since there is a marked shift in home energy use to later in the day and into the evening, when the sunlight is coming from the west.

Some architects are more aware and receptive to green building than others, but all should be able to accommodate the requests of an energy efficiency team. Likewise, some contractors may specialize in green building; it’s up to the landowner to make these requests of the architect and contractor from the outset to make sure the process is as efficient and economical as possible.

But, as Condon points out, a CEA’s report is required to qualify to state and local incentives.

Gorin acknowledges the unexpected consequence of the fire that destroyed her home. She and her husband have already chosen an architect and finalized a plan; soon they will be looking for a contractor.

“The silver lining for me is now I’m not dealing with the compromises of a remodel,” she said, “and I get my dream home!”

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