Southern California’s Coachella Valley, where the average high temperature in winter is about 70 degrees, has long been an idyllic retirement haven. With more than 125 golf courses, the region is a premier destination for outdoor activities year-round. This arid valley, best known for Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park, is one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States.
With more than 350 sunny days a year, Coachella Valley also is made to order for generating electricity from the sun, and it’s little surprise that Shea Homes chose it for a net-zero-energy active-lifestyle retirement community, powered by rooftop photovoltaic panels.
With customers increasingly embracing a green ethos and eager to save money on utility bills, volume homebuilders have been constructing greener products in recent years. Going all the way to net zero, however, is still rare. For Shea, the challenges in developing its “SheaXero No Electric Bill Home” were formulating the right mix of green features and helping the concept resonate with prospective homebuyers.
The SheaXero concept, of which Trilogy at the Polo Club in Indio, California, is the latest example, was the result of 18 months of intensive research on how to build and sell net-zero homes. “We conducted a verbal focus group and found that people were willing to pay 5 percent to 10 percent more for a net-zero-electric home,” says Ryan Smith, general manager at Trilogy at the Polo Club.
In order to provide saleable value, Shea executives investigated a wide array of options for designs, building materials, fixtures, and features. The most critical component was the solar energy system. After interviewing several leading residential solar-energy providers, Shea chose Solar City, a San Mateo, California, venture chaired by noted entrepreneur Elon Musk.
“Solar City is an innovator in residential solar integration and how to deliver solar cost effectively,” Smith says. Shea and Solar City struck a deal that gives homeowners a 20-year use and maintenance agreement “that eliminates maintenance costs for the homeowner,” Smith says. Solar City retains ownership of the solar power system, and claims the resultant federal tax breaks. “The cost of solar power is built into the home,” Smith says. “It’s like locking in your electric rates for 20 years.”
For a 2,200-square-foot home, the typical household at Trilogy at the Polo Club will save about $3,000 per year on electric costs, a figure that can rise or fall based on homeowners’ usage habits. Each dwelling is hooked into the grid, requiring homeowners to pay a monthly connection fee of $3.50 per month, and the solar system operates via net metering—when the solar panels generate more electricity than the home is using, the meter runs backwards.
Other features ensure that the clean power being generated isn’t wasted. Shea’s design team tested options using modeling software to derive optimal price/performance value. Rather than insulating the attic just above ceiling level, for instance, Shea uses blown-in cellulose insulation on the interior of the roof. This ensures that the attic temperature will be close to that of the interior living space. Thus, the heating and cooling ductwork that runs through the attic will not be subjected to extreme temperatures, making the entire Trane HVAC system more efficient.
Other efficient features include Pella dual-pane, low-E, vinyl windows; light fixtures with occupancy sensors; Jenn-Air Energy Star appliances; and insulated garage doors.
Shea executives thought long and hard about how to market the net-zero concept so that it had wide appeal. Smith notes that there are many green standards and descriptors—LEED, Energy Star, “sustainable,” “carbon-neutral,” and others—that can fog consumers’ perceptions. “There is only so much data you can provide before you’re drowning people with it,” Smith says. The brand, “SheaXero No Electric Bill Home,” and the value pitch, “average annual savings of $3,000,” say it all, clearly and concisely.