A Middlebury couple builds efficiency into their dream home

MIDDLEBURY — When Jason and Nicole Chance of Middlebury set out to build a home in 2016, they knew they wanted it to be as energy efficient as possible.
“We knew we couldn’t afford to build an entirely passive home and we didn’t love the look of what we’d seen in that category,” says Nicole. “We wanted the look of a traditional farmhouse but for it to be as tight as possible.”
To actualize this concept, the Chances, who lived previously in East Middlebury for 11 years, chose to work with New Haven-based firm Silver Maple Construction and Gregor Masefield of Bristol-based Studio III Architects, an architect who specializes in energy-efficient design and is certified with the United States Passive House Institute.
Passive houses use high-tech insulation, building orientation and air sealing systems to maximize the use of the sun as a heat source. Air filtration systems help ventilate the buildings, which are so tight that owners cannot use gas appliances or fireplaces without creating a carbon monoxide hazard.
Masefield has designed other passive homes in the Middlebury area, including one located in the village not far from the high school built in 2016. In 2018, Masefield told the Independent’s Christy Lynn that he was so enamored with the design of that building, he built a similar home in Lincoln for his own family.
THE COUPLE BUILDING this home wanted a traditional farmhouse layout but opted for energy-efficiency features that brought the building into the 21st century.
The Chances, who both grew up in old Vermont farmhouses, wanted a more traditional layout.
“It was important to me to have an open layout and a big mudroom,” says Nicole. “At one point, Gregor laughed and was like, ‘So you really want a box with a hat on it.’ I said, ‘Yes, but we want you to make it energy efficient and the best use of the space.’”
For the Chances, not wanting to waste costly resources was a huge factor in opting for an energy-efficient design. They opted for a more traditional farmhouse layout with the envelope and circulation features of a passive home, double-paned windows and a large rooftop solar array.
They also opted for an electric heat pump system that pushes hot air into the home in the winter and cold air in the summer. To get the most out of their solar array, which they purchased through Bristol Electronics, they chose a seamed metal roof over a shingle one. They expect that investment, which was more expensive, to last about 30 years — the expected lifetime of their solar array.
“The break-even point for our solar array investment is roughly nine years,” says Jason, a mechanical engineer by trade. “That’s pretty good for Vermont. The folks at Bristol Electronics said that 10 to 15 years is typical for an installation here.”
Matt Kilcoyne, a senior customer support specialist for Efficiency Vermont, a public utility that offers Vermonters access to information and financial resources to improve the energy efficiency of their homes and businesses, says those looking into a building like what the Chances did should look into the Residential New Construction Program.
“We have a team of energy consultants who work with a homeowner, the builder and designers from start to finish to build a super energy efficient home by focusing on insulation, air sealing and putting in high quality windows and doors.”
THE OWNERS OF this Middlebury home expect the investment in a large, rooftop solar array to pay for itself in energy savings in about nine year. That is a few years faster than is typical in this part of the world.
For owners of existing homes looking to seal their drafty older dwellings, Kilcoyne recommends looking into the Home Performance with Energy Star program, which connects homeowners with contractors who can perform home energy efficiency assessments. “If a customer proceeds with an insulation project, they can get up to $2,000 (depending on their income) back from Efficiency Vermont to offset the cost,” says Kilcoyne.
Currently, the Chances pay almost nothing for the energy used to heat, cool and run their home. “In August, we are totally self-sustaining and get to put some energy credit into the bank with Green Mountain Power,” says Nicole, referring to a credit system the company has in place to allow solar producers to put energy onto the electric power grid when it’s sunny and get it back when it’s cloudy or dark. “That allows us to bank hours for months like November and January.” 
Jason said the Chances decided to build their home this way because they knew they were interested in staying in it for several years. “There is some evidence that high performance homes can sell for a higher price, but there isn’t enough data to draw any strong conclusions, so if you’re not planning to be in your home for a while, it will be difficult to recoup that investment.”
PASSIVE HOUSES LIKE this one in Middlebury use high-tech insulation, air sealing and filtration systems that create a building so tight that owners cannot use gas appliances without creating a carbon monoxide hazard.
Efficiency Vermont also offers a Heat Saver Loan program, which helps homeowners get loans of up to $35,000 at below-market interest rates with loan terms of up to 15 years to increase the energy efficiency of their house.
“Often we hear that the up-front cost of a renovation can be a barrier to participation for a lot of people. We partner with Opportunities Credit Union, Vermont State Employees Credit Union, and NeighborWorks of Western Vermont to offer these Heat Saver Loans,” says Kilcoyne. Efficiency Vermont pays to bring the interest rate below market rate to a degree that depends on the household income and on the length of the loan. For households making less than $60,000 per year, financing is available at zero percent interest. “We see for a lot of these folks that they are able to reduce their energy costs without any down payment on a project,” adds Kilcoyne.
Jason said that, in his and Nicole’s experience, pursuing a higher level of energy efficiency incurs about a 10 to 15 percent building cost increase. However, he expects that increase will pay off over time. “Ultimately, this comes down to investment decisions. Do you want to invest up front in efficiency or invest over time in energy usage?”
They moved into their new home with kids Aidan, 13, and Sadie Mae, 8, in March 2017. Nicole says, “I love this house and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I really wouldn’t.”

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