When Jamie and Haley Clark decided to move closer to town and Christ the King School, where their two young daughters are students, they each knew what kind of house they wanted. Trouble was, they didn't want the same thing.
"She wanted a very Southern Living house," Jamie Clark said, referring to the lifestyle magazine. "I wanted a net-zero house."
Kentucky doesn't have many net-zero houses, which use insulation, solar power and other technology to create as much energy as they use over the course of a year. And few of them look like the traditional homes that most Lexington buyers want.
Clark, who works as an energy-efficiency consultant and sells geothermal systems for Climate Control Heating & Air, took that as a challenge.
"Part of my goal was to prove that you could build net zero in Chevy Chase," he said as he stood outside the house they bought two years ago and drastically renovated. "This would fit in in any neighborhood in Lexington."
Clark searched Chevy Chase for a house for sale with the right orientation to the sun. He found a one-story ranch on Prather Road, built in 1958 with salvaged brick, and began renovations. Haley Clark sketched what she wanted, and architect Van Meter Pettit turned her ideas into construction drawings.
The Clarks rearranged the existing house and added about 1,000 square feet. The result was 2,978 square feet of living space above ground, plus 1,856 in the finished basement.
They put the master suite on the first floor and added a second story with Cape Cod dormers in the bedrooms of their daughters, Alexandra 8, and Catherine, 5. The girls' double bathroom was designed with their teenage years in mind.
"I just turned 40 and I never plan to move again," Clark said. "We were really mindful of growing in this house."
The first step in creating a net-zero house is insulation; less energy used means less must be generated. The Clarks' contractors installed Icynene spray-foam insulation and energy-efficient Anderson 400 Series low-E windows.
Clark drilled five, 200-foot wells and put in a geothermal system for heating, cooling and hot water. He installed a Climate Master Trilogy 45 heat pump and a highly insulated iGate water tank.
Clark said he spent about $900 on LED light bulbs, whose light quality is comparable to traditional incandescent bulbs. LEDs cost 10 times more than traditional bulbs but use 1⁄10 the electricity and last 10 times longer.
The only incandescent bulbs in the house are on chandeliers that look better with "pretty" bulbs. And there are motion sensors in the girls' playroom to turn lights on and off automatically.
"It makes a lot more sense to just conserve than to put more solar panels on the roof," Clark said. "Back in February, when we hit minus 18, I was using less power than the microwave at Super America to heat my house."
Clark installed new Energy Star-rated appliances. The only natural gas the house uses is for the kitchen stove, and Clark said his monthly meter fee is much higher than the cost of the gas.
To create electricity, Clark installed 20 solar panels on the back roof. They are on the Kentucky Utilities grid, so the house draws power on cloudy days and adds power on sunny days.
Clark wired the system for 40 panels and plans to add more if he needs them. "I'm trying to talk my wife into a Tesla (electric car), and if we do that then I'll put 20 more panels up there for charging it," said Clark, who drives a Toyota Prius.
Like other energy systems in the house, the solar panels aren't visible. "The only place you can see them is if you stand at the back fence line," he said.
The Clarks moved in last Thanksgiving, so it will be at least a few more months before they know if their house is net zero. Early results are encouraging. The electric bill in December, when there were only six days with more than six hours of sunshine, was $153. But the bills were $11 in March, $30 in April and $9 in May.
Clark did some of the work himself, and he has good contacts in the industry. For an average consumer working with a contractor, Clark's energy-efficiency measures would cost about $50,000 more than conventional systems, adding about $200 a month to a 30-year mortgage.
"They will more than pay for themselves," he said, adding that federal tax credits for solar and geothermal systems would reduce costs further.
Over time, savings will be even greater. Electricity costs in Kentucky typically double every decade, but as utilities move away from high-pollution coal, rates could rise more sharply.
"It's a dream home, that's for sure," Clark said of the project that has made him and his wife happy. "It's everything we wanted."