Q&A with Gene Myers of Thrive Home Builders on Producing Carbon Neutral Homes
Earlier this year, Denver-based Thrive Home Builders introduced a new construction approach to producing carbon-neutral homes. The construction method, called Thrive Carbon-Wise, focuses on reducing a home’s embodied and operational carbon and providing a product that mitigates the harmful effects of carbon on the environment.
The builder will build homes for the first time with this construction approach in a community named Sonders in Fort Collins, Colorado, with two collections of single-level homes and one collection of townhouses. Production is expected to begin this fall.
To learn more about methods to reduce carbon emissions and how the company plans to implement this new approach, BUILDER spoke with Gene Myers, President and Chief Sustainability Officer at Thrive. In his answers, he explains the benefits of a carbon neutral home, what products and processes need to be traded in to reduce a home’s carbon output, the challenges and some recent trends in his travels abroad.
MANUFACTURER: What exactly is Thrive Carbon-Wise?
Myer: Thrive Carbon-Wise is Thrive’s innovative and proprietary building approach focused on delivering carbon neutral homes. This pioneering construction method focuses on reducing the embodied and operational carbon of homes built by Thrive. The result is the delivery of a home that reduces the harmful effects of carbon on the environment and helps fight climate change.
BUILDER: How will this benefit owners? The community?
Myer: A carbon neutral home means a healthier home for the homeowner and the environment. We have witnessed the results of climate change locally and globally. Warmer temperatures due to climate change mean a longer growing season for plants which contributes to increased pollen in the air which worsens allergies and asthma, and our healthy homes help with these airborne triggers.
Additionally, climate change as we know it today has rapidly impacted our environment and contributed to massive wildfires, fires in our metropolitan areas, and increasingly poor air quality. more mediocre. Carbon neutral homes will help reduce the impacts of climate change, one buyer and one home at a time.
BUILDER: What is the difference between embodied carbon and operational carbon, as it relates to a house and building a house?
Myer: Operational carbon consists of ongoing emissions from the operation of the home. Think about utilities. If a house is all-electric with no fossil fuels in the house, the operational carbon would be reduced by the renewable energy share of the electricity available on the grid. If the house is net zero energy, or produces its own energy through its rooftop solar panel, and fully electric, the operational carbon emissions would be zero. The operational carbon repeats each year that the house is in operation.
Embodied carbon is the total carbon emissions produced during the manufacture and installation of all parts and rooms in a home. This is a one-time impact.
BUILDER: What building processes/materials need to be changed to reduce the carbon output of a home?
Myer: To affect operational carbon, builders must go all-electric and phase out burning fossil fuels to run the home. To the extent that fossil fuels continue to be part of the electrical grid, builders can add solar panels to offset the fossil fuel component.
For embodied carbon, the worst offenders are concrete and building panels like OSB. While West Fraser in the UK has developed carbon negative OSB and particleboard, most OSB in the US is a major contributor to a new home’s embodied carbon. The US Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded millions of dollars to national laboratories and universities to help develop carbon-negative wood products. We are testing a fiberglass foundation system that has the promise of significantly reducing our use of concrete.
BUILDER: What did Thrive replace or change to create a carbon neutral home?
Myer: Thrive has already committed to all-electric homes in some of its projects. By the end of 2023, Thrive’s goal is to be an all-electric manufacturer. Combined with the use of solar panels, our net zero energy homes will become operationally carbon neutral. To accommodate this, big changes to our homes include air source heat pumps for heating and cooling as well as heat pump water heaters.
BUILDER: How does carbon reduction go hand in hand with energy efficiency?
Myer: It is much easier and cheaper to replace typical fossil fuel appliances, such as water heaters and furnaces, if they are small in the first place. We achieve this by constructing a highly efficient building envelope. We have been doing this for many years in our quest for energy efficiency. So all the building science we employed as an energy-efficient builder complements our goal of achieving carbon neutrality.
MANUFACTURER: As one of the first production manufacturers to implement something like carbon neutral, what were some of the challenges?
Myer: Years ago, when we were learning how to be a builder of energy efficient and healthy homes, there were pioneers before us who led the way. We have connected with like-minded builders through the Energy and Environmental Building Alliance.
We also had access to training resources available through federal efficiency programs like Energy Star and DOE Zero Energy Ready Home. These programs provided us with technical and marketing support that helped us avoid costly and damaging unintended consequences as we innovated. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find similar support for achieving carbon neutrality, although several promising groups are working on the issue.
BUILDER: How did Thrive overcome these challenges?
Myer: We have found important allies such as Digibilt and MiTek to help us develop the building information modeling design to get a detailed bill of materials for our homes. With this we can reference embodied carbon databases like the EC3 database which gives us the resulting footprint of our homes. We partnered with the University of Denver to evaluate the various embodied carbon databases to determine which is the most appropriate and accurate for use by a homebuilder like Thrive. Our next step is to work with manufacturers to increase the availability of environmental product declarations that can be entered into databases to improve the accuracy of our calculations.
BUILDER: How have potential buyers reacted to buying a carbon-neutral home? Are they interested or is there a learning curve with your sales managers?
Myer: As the final price for these carbon-neutral homes is on the horizon, we think buyers will respond well to a message about home health and the environment. In fact, the city of Fort Collins, where we build carbon neutral homes, has already emphasized carbon neutral messaging. The city aims to build a healthy and sustainable community by 2050, with targets to reduce carbon by 80% by 2030 and to be fully carbon neutral by 2050. I’m proud to share that the building efforts of Thrive homes will contribute to Fort Collins goals.
As this is a new change in our approach to building, there will naturally be a learning curve for our Community Sales Managers. Thrive trains sales managers through one-on-one training sessions with Thrive’s COO and myself for sustainability purposes. They also attend training courses provided by manufacturers and sponsors.
BUILDER: After all 220 Sonders homes are built, will all Thrive homes eventually be built with the Thrive Carbon-Wise construction approach?
Myer: Our goal is that by the end of 2023, all Thrive homes will be carbon neutral.
BUILDER: Please share your recent trips to the UK and current green building trends you have witnessed. Do they have any promising building practices that US builders might want to incorporate?
Myer: It was surprising to learn that the manufacturers we met in the UK and Sweden are just starting to think about how they will continue to reduce carbon emissions. Their governments, however, are much more advanced. If I understand correctly, the UK will require a carbon reduction of around 30% in 2026. In Sweden, a builder must calculate the carbon footprint of a house before obtaining planning permission. However, Sweden has not yet imposed reduction obligations on manufacturers. Sweden seeks to compare the footprint of homes now so that future policy has a realistic basis for future reduction.
In both countries, the historical construction method was brick and block construction. Reduced carbon emissions and improvements in energy efficiency are pushing these countries to use more wood for residential construction. Since the precedent was masonry, there is no wood construction capability in the field like we do in the United States. Therefore, most wooden residential buildings are constructed using factory components or modules. While this has the potential to reduce waste and achieve high quality, cost remains a barrier, just like in the United States.