In this economy, it’s important toappeal to buyers’ wallets. Builder/­developer Ernie Sota is doing just that at Riverside Mews, an infill project on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Upon build-out, each of the 48 townhomes will meet the code standards for a $2,000 energy tax credit, thanks to extruded aluminum argon windows, Energy Star appliances, tankless water heaters, and right-sized gas furnaces.

But the energy proposition doesn’t stop there. One of the units—an 1,850-square-foot prototype, which Sota is currently using as a model—is outfitted with extra foam insulation, a ground source geothermal heat pump, and an 8,000 kW rooftop photovoltaic (PV) array, bringing its energy balance to zero. Sota believes he’s figured out a way to sell the unit for about $489,000 and still turn a profit.

“There are various renewable energy credits out there, including an annual payment for generating solar power. With those, the economics are pretty good,” he says, explaining that the rooftop solar array, for which he shelled out $55,000 in up-front costs, will be leased to the buyer of the unit. “The buyer will lease the system for six years, and then they’ll own it. Plus, for the geothermal, the home buyer will get an immediate $11,000 tax credit when they move in.”

Net Zero Housing

That’s not all there is to love about the net-zero unit. As one would expect in a model, it’s also loaded up with goodies such as custom handrails, bamboo flooring, upgraded LED lighting fixtures, whole-house audio, a security system, and high-end cabinets.

And it’s part of a big-picture revitalization effort that’s doing its part to stimulate the local economy. Located on a former brownfield parcel (which Sota is buying off in chunks from the Pittsburgh Redevelopment Authority), the project incorporates locally sourced concrete block and regionally produced drywall made with recycled fly ash. Its foundations are made with river gravel dredged from the adjacent Monongahela River.

Each of the 14 condos built so far (save the two models) has sold for $425,000 to $560,000. What’s next after this project? “I may experiment more with passive house techniques,” Sota says. “You either spend more money on your PV system or on the thermal envelope. I’m looking to see what the trade-offs are there.”