Building an all-electric home

A few years ago, we decided to buy an 1870s-era Brooklyn brownstone and gut renovate it to “passive house” standards (more detailed info on “passive house” here). During the middle of our project, I wrote about why I was excited about the passive house approach. In short, a passive house leverages simple building techniques to build a highly-insulated air-tight home that reduces energy usage by up to 90% while providing clean, fresh, filtered air. Our basic goal with the project aside from having a nice living space was to build a home that would last another 150 years while taking into account its impact on climate change. (This is not a new interest for me — I had similar motivations when we built Etsy’s award-winning (1, 2, 3) headquarters in Brooklyn which participated in the Living Building Challenge (LBC) as one of the largest LBC buildings in NYC). To address climate change, our environments at work and at home have to be built with purpose with responsible energy usage baked in. Recycling and reusable tote bags aren’t going to cut it (see “The Great Recycling Con” and “The Cotton Tote Crisis“).

One of the choices we made was making the home all-electric. Now that we’re basically done, I’m writing this because we learned a lot from the process. I’m hoping others out there who read this may share their lessons (and I’m glad to update these posts to answer any questions anyone might have). My plan is to write in some detail later about each of the key areas (see “Key choices in building an all-electric home” below) and what we learned in the multi-year process.

All-electric: why?

According to the NYT, 67 percent of carbon emissions in NYC come from buildings. A gut renovation is a huge opportunity to do the deep work required to minimize the long-term footprint of a building. Part of that is designing the home to be all-electric. Union Square Ventures wrote about the importance of electrification in its series about areas they are exploring for their Climate Fund (proud to be an LP!) As they wrote: “Building electrification and grid decarbonization go hand-in-hand. While electrification does not instantly make the energy supply entirely clean, it gives it a chance to be.” The clean energy future isn’t fully here yet but aligning around electric means that when it is (and it will get here), we’ll be fully ready to plug in. For now, we have a small solar array on the roof that provides some of the energy and we signed up for CleanChoice Energy via ConEd (the local utility in NYC) for the rest of our power. Theoretically, the energy we consume in the house produces zero carbon emissions.

We’ve lived in the house for 10 months now and that’s given us the opportunity to experience weather extremes that are typical of NYC, from 16F / -9C in January to 97F / 36C in June. So far, the energy consumption numbers are what I was told they would be but I still find them stunning. My rough numbers comparing energy bills from my old conventional NYC apartment (a developer-renovated brownstone with an apartment on each floor) with the new house suggest about an ~85% reduction in energy usage versus my old apartment when adjusted for square footage. Yes, 85%.

While it wasn’t cheap for us to get to this point, this kind of project isn’t a way of building that demands a huge premium. There are a number of affordable housing projects being built to passive house standards around the country, with the largest right here in NYC: Bronx – Park Avenue Green. Habitat for Humanity has built passive houses, too. These projects recognize that high energy bills are a key contributor to poverty and the passive house approach mitigates the impact of energy costs by almost an order of magnitude. Affordable housing isn’t just about getting someone into a house they can afford to buy. It’s just as important — if not more — to get into a house you can afford to operate.

It’s a smart way to build for the long-term, plain and simple, and much less expensive to operate than a conventional building. There’s no fancy, untested technology and it all works right now. In fact, the core principles of passive house building were established in response to rising fuel prices during the 1973 oil embargo when I was a year old and started to take hold in the 1980s.

Key choices in building an all-electric home

There were a couple of key areas where we had to make quite a few choices. I don’t know if all of them were “right” but we’re happy with the results. In future posts, I plan to write about these issues from the perspective of someone who had to make all of these choices.

  1. Supply of electricity. In NYC, we have ConEd and the default electricity feed you get makes no provisions for renewable sources. In other words, it’s default “dirty.” Building and fire codes in NYC make it difficult in some environments (e.g. landmarked districts) to fully blanket a roof top with solar, which can limit one’s ability to offset electricity from the utility, or to use batteries to capture and use daytime energy. I learned a LOT about this and will definitely document what I learned in a future post.
  2. Appliances. Like many people in NYC, we were accustomed to using a gas range, a gas hot water heater, gas heating (via a boiler), and a gas dryer. The thought of using electric versions of each of those gave us some anxiety as the functioning of each of those systems affects one’s living experience significantly. We did it, though, and are super-happy with the results.

I’m not sure exactly when I’ll write the more detailed posts but if you’re interested in this topic, feel free to reach out and let me know what you’re interested in. I’ll try to write about it if my experience offers any insight! If you’ve been through the same process in NYC or anywhere else, I’d love to hear from you about your lessons learned.