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What is a Zero Energy Ready Home?

Zero energy homes (ZEH) are just like any home—except they are built to a higher standard. They are high-performance homes that are so air-tight, well insulated, and energy efficient that they produce as much renewable energy as they consume over the course of a year, leaving the occupants with a net zero energy bill, and a carbon-free home.

A zero energy home is not just a “green home” or a home with solar panels. A zero energy home combines advanced design and superior building systems with energy efficiency and on-site solar panels to produce a better home. Zero energy homes are ultra-comfortable, healthy, quiet, sustainable homes that are affordable to live in.

Something for Everyone

One of the most valuable aspects of a zero energy home is the wide variety of housing types that can achieve certification. A zero energy home can fit any lifestyle. Individuals, couples, and families, of all ages and incomes live in zero energy homes. These homes can range from mansions to development homes, to small cottages and tiny homes. And they can exist in any climate from the arid Southwest, to the warm humid climate of the Southeast, to very cold regions such as Maine, the Upper Plains, and Alaska. Zero energy homes can look like any other home or have their own unique style – from colonial, to modern, to craftsman, or ranch and everything in between. Both custom and production homes can achieve zero energy home certification, but that is now growing to versions specific to multifamily and manufactured housing.  

Zero Energy Homes Save You Money from Day One

zero energy homes are a sound financial investment with benefits that begin the moment the home is purchased, and for as long as you own the home. The total cost of living in a zero energy home is lower than that of a comparable standard home. A zero energy home will protect you from a rapid rise in energy prices. Years from now, you’ll pay the same price you pay today to keep your lights on and your family warm. That price will be zero or next to zero.

You Get What You Pay For

The old adage that “You have to spend money to make money.”  should be applied to thinking to zero energy construction. When thinking about high-performance, energy efficient, and healthy homes, “affordable” is probably not the first word that comes to mind. In fact, it’s more likely, “that sounds expensive.”  Even though the features of a zero energy home are slightly more expensive, any added cost can be kept to a minimum using several strategies. Doing so will help ensure that zero energy homes are both affordable and cost comparable to similarly sized homes built to code.

Even when zero energy homes cost more than a comparable standard home, they will cost less to own. With cost-effective design and construction, the energy saving features and solar collectors for a zero energy home may add 5 to 10% over the cost of a similar-sized home built to code after incentives. However, the average monthly energy savings on the zero home will be significantly greater than the added monthly mortgage payment. As a result, the total cost of ownership of a cost effective zero energy home will be less than that of a comparable home built to code, creating positive cash flow the very first month of ownership.

Best of all, the cost for energy-saving features, including solar panels, are continuing to fall, and thereby improving affordability.   

The additional construction cost for a zero energy ready home (ZERH) is about 4%, while a full zero energy (ZE) home is about 8% due to the cost of the solar panels.

ZEH and ZERH certification is not only possible and affordable, but an ideal solution for affordable housing. Over 15 states and local governments now reference the ZERH program in their low-income housing tax credits, incentive programs, and building codes. Additionally, 23 chapters of Habitat for Humanity across the country are registered ZERH partners who have developed 160 Habitat homes that achieved  ZERH certification.

What is the Difference Between a Zero Energy Home and a Zero Energy Ready Home?

If you would like many of the benefits of a zero energy home without the initial cost of solar collectors, consider a zero energy ready home. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) defines a zero energy ready home as “a high performance home which is so energy efficient, that a renewable energy system can offset all or most of its annual energy consumption.” These homes are designed and built to the same high energy efficiency standards as zero energy homes. The only difference is that zero energy ready homes are designed and wired so that solar panels can be easily installed in the future, making them even more affordable today, and allowing them to become zero energy homes when you are ready. Solar Ready Construction also minimizes the cost and disruption of adding solar in the future making each home Zero Ready. Thus, ‘zero energy ready’ is an effective way to purchase or build an ultra-efficient home that has a simple path to becoming a net zero home. Take a virtual tour of Zero Energy Ready homes.


DOE has a Zero Energy Ready Certification Program for Zero Energy Ready Homes. These homes must meet rigorous requirements that ensure energy efficiency, comfort, health and durability.  If you are building or buying a zero energy ready home this certification can provide you with the confidence that the home has reached the zero energy ready standard and is a genuine zero energy ready home. Other common third party certifying organizations are the Living Building Challenge Zero Energy Certification, Passive House Certification, and Earth Advantage’s Zero Energy and Zero Energy Ready Certification. Independent energy consultants can also provide third party verification of zero energy homes.

Zero energy homes are better protected and more durable than the average home. In fact, zero energy homes are superior to most high-end homes. They feature thicker more air-tight walls, fresh filtered air, and advanced window technologies, to name a few.

Tips for Building Affordable Zero Energy Homes

  • As mentioned, consider designing and building a zero energy ready home that has all the energy saving features of a zero energy home and is fitted for solar, but postpone the installation of the solar system until you are ready.  Or lease a solar PV system to reduce the upfront cost.
  • Design a smaller, more spacious home. The average new home in the U.S. is around 2,400 square feet. One way to offset the entire cost of zero energy features is to make the home smaller. For example, if the cost of construction is $150/sq. ft., then designing a home that is 2,100 sq. ft. instead of 2,400 sq. ft. would save close to $45,000 – enough to pay for the entire up-front cost premium for a zero energy home.
  • Take advantage of the many financial incentives available to help offset the costs of those high-performance features. Federal tax credits are available across the U.S. and state tax credits are available in many states. Utility incentives are also available in some areas. See the DSIRE website for specific information about incentives available in your area.
  • Be conscious of cost when selecting home features, finishes, and amenities. For example choose countertops that are highly attractive, but much less expensive than granite. Interior finishes are expensive and constitute a large percentage of a home’s discretionary cost. In the long run, finishes will be replaced, while the structural elements that affect energy performance will last the entire life of the home.
  • Ensure that the home’s assessed value takes into consideration all the energy upgrades.
  • With careful, cost-conscious design and construction, and after state and federal incentives, the price tag for a zero energy home may be 4 to 8% higher than a similar home built to code. However, zero energy homes in that range will cost buyers less to own than similar homes built to code
  • Select a local bank that offers an Energy Efficient Mortgage (EEM). An EEM will allow them to add $3,000 to $6,000 to the loan amount they would ordinarily qualify for by increasing the borrower’s income by a dollar amount equal to the estimated energy savings.