The “trickle-down” effect of green innovation—when products introduced at the high end later adapt to reach a middle market—typically takes years to actualize. But Marc Rutenberg Homes is a company in a hurry—partly because Marc Rutenberg, by his own admission, is easily bored.
“I like better mousetraps,” says Rutenberg, the second generation in his family to build homes in the Tampa, Florida, area. “Most of the homes being built today are the same fuddy-duddy models, based on the functionality of what we were building in the 1960s. There’s a limit to how pretty a countertop can look. I began to feel that what we were doing was no longer relevant.”
So, the company became relevant, designing and building its first net-zero-energy home in 2012. The LEED Platinum-certified house has 4,552 square feet of luxury living space, complete with four bedrooms, three baths, a study, game room, three-car garage, lanai, and pool. The thermal envelope on the house is tight, which, paired with low-E PGT windows (“Energy Star on steroids,” Rutenberg says), helped significantly reduce the HVAC load. The home achieved a HERS score of negative 15, meaning it produces more energy than it uses.
To bring energy use to negligible levels required a focus on some of the smaller details. Tankless water heaters, for instance, are sometimes 100 feet away from the faucet that draws from it. Energy and water are wasted in the trip, defeating the intentions of the device. As an alternative, on-demand recirculating pumps can be triggered as faucets are turned on.
Rutenberg is building at least eight net-zero homes of similar size in Palm Harbor, west of Tampa and north of St. Petersburg. They range from 4,000 to 7,000 square feet and boast similar luxury features. Rutenberg says the cost to construct a 5,000-square-foot home is about $650,000, plus an additional $125,000 to achieve the net-zero performance capabilities. “But when you combine the federal government tax credit of around $22,500, then factor in the $600 monthly savings in energy bills, it can prove a net monthly savings for the homeowner,” he says. “Keep in mind that a mortgage carries a tax deduction. An electric bill does not.”
The builder is wasting no time introducing a more affordable version of net zero as well. While Rutenberg builds this first set of luxury net-zero homes, he is simultaneously planning the ambitious Village at Grey Oaks: 14 homes with 1,800 to 2,600 square feet of net-zero living space. With 19 families vying for the homes, which are priced in the $300,000–$450,000 range and slated for occupancy at the end of this year, middle-class buyers clearly have embraced the concept.
Rutenberg does not build from a template, though “custom-built” also may be a misnomer. “Buyers generally do not have experience in designing houses,” he says. “That’s where we come in. We’re product geeks with a passion for design.” All homes are site-specific and satisfy the preferences of different occupants. Each of Palm Harbor’s homes, for instance, has solar panels to collect energy from the region’s abundant sunshine, but for one model, the design hides them from view, since a photovoltaic array is not an aesthetic that is universally embraced. Additionally, one home will have cisterns that store water for landscape irrigation during the area’s dry season, when watering is restricted by the municipality.
Marc Rutenberg’s journey is a story worth sharing, and the homebuilder isn’t holding back. A documentary on his experiences building net-zero homes was produced and distributed via PBS. Produced by Bluewater Media, the film traces the construction of the homes, warts and all. “These homes are our laboratory,” Rutenberg says. “We involved our manufacturers in the film, who were very giving with their expertise.” The documentary takes viewers to the research-and-development facilities and manufacturing plants of product suppliers to educate viewers about what goes into creating hyper-efficient homes.
“We invite the world to change,” says Rutenberg, who has had conversations with people rebuilding in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan this past November. “We discussed what we learned building in the Florida climate, including solar power that can withstand hurricanes.” The first net-zero residences from Rutenberg Homes may be at the luxury end, but the owner is confident that lessons learned can and will be “transformed and translated to the value-oriented marketplace.”