Brad McCall of McCall Development is excited about building a super-energy-efficient model home in Billings, but selling features that are nearly invisible is a challenge.
The 1,100-square-foot home at 1902 Front St., in Josephine Crossing, is one of 13 Next Step homes built since last fall in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The pilot homes are designed to be about 30 percent more energy efficient than standard construction.
One rare feature is a heat recovery ventilation system in the attic that recaptures energy during air exchanges.
“It preconditions the air coming in, so you actually recover more than 70 percent of the energy,” McCall said.
During a tour of the home Tuesday, officials from the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance of Portland, Ore., said they will monitor the home’s energy performance for the next year.
“Through this pilot, we want to identify the building practices and products that are going to lead to the most cost-efficient energy savings in new homes,” said NEEA spokesman Neil Grigsby.
Montana’s other Next Step home was built in Whitefish.
The Billings home finished in January is heated with an on-time-demand water heater the size of a small suitcase tucked into a closet. The heater warms household water and heats the home through a radiant heat system in the floor.
Other efficiency features include:
-- 10-inch walls that are double the usual thickness, with an R-36 rating.
-- Studs staggered to minimize heat leaks.
-- Insulated outside sheeting.
-- Windows with smart-sun glass that lets in most of the light but only one-fifth of the heat.
Climate-responsible design features work, but customers need to be educated, McCall said.
“It’s hard to show really good caulking practices,” he said. “None of this is whiz-bang flashy, so it is hard to sell.”
NorthWestern Energy spokeswoman Deb Martin Young said her company encourages energy efficiency and is one of 137 regional utilities that work with NEEA.
Everyone is building tighter buildings, said Dale Horton of Butte, an architect who works on sustainable building at the National Center for Appropriate Technology, but only a few test the air quality.
“I’m all for energy efficiency, but when it comes down to it, we want homes that are going to last and are going to be healthy,” Horton said.
A dozen Billings-area builders have constructed about 62 area homes following Energy Star guidelines, Horton said, but most dropped out when Energy Star imposed stricter standards during the middle of last year. McCall built half of the Energy Star homes, he said.
“If homeowners are asking for it, builders will do it,” Horton said.
Builders competing for customers want to keep up-front costs down, especially if a home buyer has saved only a minimum down payment.
The new home buyer has to choose between slightly higher upfront costs versus long-term utility savings.
Jay and Colleen Lee's home cost just under $200,000, McCall said, and 3 percent to 4 percent of that cost was the extra energy technology.
The couple declined to comment for this story, but McCall said they were satisfied last winter with their $9 to $16 energy bills from MDU and NorthWestern.