$1.1 Million Wyoming Home Is So Energy Efficient It Costs Nothing To Power

A new model home near Lander lists for $1.1 million and is so energy efficient and self-sufficient it costs nothing to power, making it a model of what a modern net-zero house can be.

RJ
Renée Jean

December 02, 20239 min read

The net zero house has a modern look with materials and design that fit well with Wyoming and a rural landscape.
The net zero house has a modern look with materials and design that fit well with Wyoming and a rural landscape. (Zillow)

It’s a world-class, net-zero energy home right here in Wyoming, but you’ll find no outrageously strange gizmos or gadgets in the home outside Lander in Red Canyon that’s listing for $1.1 million.

“This house is not a science experiment,” said University of Wyoming faculty advisor Tony Denzer about the model home UW students helped design and build. “We didn’t invent anything, and that was on purpose. The philosophy was that we want to demonstrate this is feasible for ordinary Wyoming homebuilders.”

The first question most people ask is how does the home hold up in winter. The house has already been through a Wyoming winter, and it held up just fine.

In fact, even with zero power coming into it for several days during a test period, it maintained a temperature of 50 degrees just on existing heat in the home and passive solar heat coming in.

Savings On Energy Bills

Net zero energy refers to the situation where all of a home’s power needs are produced independent of a utility company’s power grid even if, as in this case, the home is connected to that grid.

The construction changes that accomplish this outcome add about 10% extra to the home’s upfront construction costs, said Denzer and faculty advisor John Gardzelewski.

They told Cowboy State Daily that the additional expense is paid off in energy savings within a roughly seven- to eight-year period, after which, energy is provided to the home for free.

Denzer estimates that not paying an energy bill is a net $150 to $300 a month deduction from housing costs.

So, even though up front the mortgage cost will be a little higher, the lack of energy bill more than makes up for what the rate would have been without the improvements. That means the overall net mortgage cost is lower than what it would have been without the improvements.

Gardzelewski and Denzer have linked University of Wyoming students with the design of no fewer than seven other net-zero or energy efficient homes in various locations across the Cowboy State to demonstrate these ideas using ordinary equipment and materials that are widely available in the construction industry.

“We created a research group and developed our own kind of Wyoming-focused project, starting with the home catalog of Zero Energy Homes,” Gardzelewski told Cowboy State Daily.

“We published that around 2015, and that led to a lot of projects where we incorporated usually one student working with, supervising (the students) with, a real client on a net zero or very close to net-zero home," he said.

Along the way, Gardzelewski and Denzer met more builders in Wyoming with a similar interest, including Cory Toye of Timshel Construction, near Lander. Timshel Construction financed the student’s latest award-winning project as a spec home, and worked with the students to design it.

The students, as part of the process, got to tour other net-zero homes in Wyoming, pulling together features that worked in a real-world commercial market before putting their ideas on paper for the home.

The students entered their finished work in the U.S. Department of Energy’s annual Decathlon, where they were recognized as the second best net-zero home in the U.S. and fourth best in the world.

  • Net Zero House drone property 12 2 23
  • The patio offers a stunning view.
    The patio offers a stunning view. (Zillow)
  • The net zero home near Lander has a spacious house and separate garage.
    The net zero home near Lander has a spacious house and separate garage. (Zillow)
  • The net zero home has a large bank of solar panels on the roof.
    The net zero home has a large bank of solar panels on the roof. (Zillow)

Take A Virtual Tour

A virtual tour of this net-zero home in Lander reveals a space that looks very much like any other cozy, mountain modern home in Wyoming. There’s little evidence of any particular energy efficiency method, and that’s just the way that the students who designed it wanted it to feel.

Lots of light streams in through the triple-paned windows, filling the space up with sunlight, and drawing the eye to look through windows that frame a picture-worthy landscape.

“My favorite feature I think is — and just because a lot of other people said it was their favorite feature as well — was the radiant floor heating we did,” Travis Wicks told Cowboy State Daily. He is one of the students who helped design the home.

Radiant floor heat refers to a common practice, particularly in mountainous areas, of having heat run directly through a floor, so that it feels warm to the touch, rather than cold and clammy.

“Basically, just the overall comfort of the home is what I think was really cool to see,” Wicks said. “And we had to do like noise infiltration, sound infiltration, stuff like that. So it was really cool to see that also, because you know we had like a speaker on the outside of the house that was blasting noise.”

Inside the home, though, that noise was so muffled, Wicks described it as “crazy.”

“It was pretty impressive compared to what I think you’d expect from a house,” Wicks said.

The home isn’t totally soundproof, but the measures taken to make it energy efficient are what’s helping keep unwanted sound out. It’s a nice bonus on the home’s comfort scale.

The home, which has four bedrooms and three baths, lists for a grand total of $1.1 million, and is located south of Lander near Red Canyon. It’s open for tours to prospective buyers.

Why Airtight Can Be OK For Homes Now

That sound-proofing quality came in part from the different way the home is insulated.

“We spray all this acrylic and it fills all the holes, basically making the house airtight,” Denzer said. “And then we have a ventilation system, which has a heat exchanger, so we’re bringing outside air, but we recover 80 percent of the heat in that air that’s coming in.”

Incoming cold air passes by the outgoing warmed air, harvesting up to 80% of the heat from it, a setup that reduces the overall energy demand involved in keeping the house heated.

The idea that homes can’t be airtight is “an old way of thinking,” Gardzelewski said, related to combustion systems that could lead to the buildup of hazardous gasses inside the home. The modern air exchange system takes care of that.

“Other concerns are mold growth in wall assemblies, but we have so much insulation outside of our structure that we’ll never have condensation inside our wall cavity to create mold,” Gardzelewski said.

Smart Energy

The house was also situated so that in winter, when heating needs are greatest, some of that heat is coming in through the windows, from the sun itself.

In addition to that passive solar heating, the home does have solar panels, as well as a heat pump.

“People always say heat pumps don’t work in this climate, but that’s the wrong kind of heat pump,” Denzer said. “So, we just know the right equipment to use, and we’ve done it through experience.”

The home’s heat pump will work down to negative 20 degrees, Denzer added.

“If they ever run out of capacity to pull heat out of the outside air, there are backup electric boilers, so there’s no chance of the system failing,” Denzer said. “But that’s kind of the fear and the risk about when you move away from propane is that it’s not going to keep up or my house is going to freeze, my pipes and all that. But there’s zero chance of any of that happening.

Denzer said even without power, the home maintained 50 degrees despite freezing weather outside for several days, thanks to its passive heating systems and its air-tight insulation.

“It actually ended up producing extra energy that we’re able to send back to the grid,” Wicks said. “And the ways that we did that was mainly through the solar power, as well as orienting the house.”

Home-Based Solar Isn’t Just For Greenies

Gardzelewksi started installing solar panels about three years ago, after realizing the costs of adding these types of features to a home were far costlier than they should be. By bringing a business to Wyoming to do this, he could help construct homes that make more economic sense.

“We’re trying to set the precedent for doing a spec home all at once,” he said. “And then you finance it all with the best possible loan, and suddenly you’re paying a lower (net) monthly payment for a home that’s worth more.”

That’s becoming more and more doable as prices for solar panels have dramatically lowered as compared to just 10, 15 years ago. More companies like Gardzelewski’s have also come along to help with installation and maintenance so it’s not just for the do-it-yourself crowd.

“There’s a company now in Lander, a company in Jackson, and I think there’s one in Casper now,” he said.

The changes in this sector are also creating a niche where University of Wyoming students can apply architectural and other skills they’re learning in the classroom out in the real world.

“That kind of is really special for their education, getting them out of the classroom and you know getting their hands dirty a little bit and getting that collaboration with the builder,” Denzer said. “That’s really special for what we’re doing here as educators. And in terms of outreach, we’re just really oriented to helping Wyoming, both homebuyers and home builders, see that this is practical and feasible.”

The other aim Gardzelewski said, is to raise the standard of living for Wyomingites.

“A very strong case can be made that going this route is going to give you hands down the best product for comfort, for resilience, for whatever happens,” Gardzelewski said. “You’ve got energy independence if there’s a grid outage, and, down the line, lower energy bills as well.

“You can enable people to afford more by cutting the electric bills,” Gardzelewski said. “So, I think we’re basically pitching a superior home product, not just an ideology.”

  • A wide view of the ground floor.
    A wide view of the ground floor. (Zillow)
  • Another view of the ground floor.
    Another view of the ground floor. (Zillow)
  • The kitchen incorporates many types of materials and surfaces.
    The kitchen incorporates many types of materials and surfaces. (Zillow)
  • The kitchen is modern and sleek.
    The kitchen is modern and sleek. (Zillow)
  • The loft is a great place for people to gather.
    The loft is a great place for people to gather. (Zillow)
  • Another view of the loft shows it also has a sink and wine refrigerator, making it a great space to entertain or recreate.
    Another view of the loft shows it also has a sink and wine refrigerator, making it a great space to entertain or recreate. (Zillow)
  • The living room is open with a narrow, modern fireplace insert and built-in benches and shelves.
    The living room is open with a narrow, modern fireplace insert and built-in benches and shelves. (Zillow)
  • There's an office nook off the bedrooms.
    There's an office nook off the bedrooms. (Zillow)
  • A spacious mud room.
    A spacious mud room. (Zillow)
  • One of the bedrooms has a modern, yet Western, look.
    One of the bedrooms has a modern, yet Western, look. (Zillow)
  • The main suite has a large walk-in closet.
    The main suite has a large walk-in closet. (Zillow)
  • A double vanity and unique shower with a half wall in this bathroom.
    A double vanity and unique shower with a half wall in this bathroom. (Zillow)
  • The control room of the house also serves as a laundry room.
    The control room of the house also serves as a laundry room. (Zillow)

Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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RJ

Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter