Cortez development will raise stakes on environmentally friendly construction
PALMETTO — A nondescript collection of warehouses stretches down a narrow and easily overlooked street here. Few businesses display identifying signs, lending the industrial zone an aura of secrecy.
One warehouse with sheets of brown paper covering the windows is the research-and-design center for Pearl Homes. The product being developed inside holds the potential to be an environmental game-changer in the scientific crusade against greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change.
It is a state-of-the-sustainable-art smart house with a renewable energy system, the greenest construction and artificial intelligence.
The goal of Pearl’s founder and principal, Marshall Gobuty, is to develop the first community in the country designed to operate entirely on its own solar energy production.
Manatee County has already approved his 148-home Hunters Point development, which is to be built in Cortez.
Pearl Homes is partnering with a German company, sonnen GmbH, the global leader in developing and producing intelligent energy management and storage systems, and with Google Smart Home to create homes that unite solar energy and storage, home automation and green construction into one integrated system designed to help decarbonize the greater community.
Google Home, with its artificial intelligence and smart-speaker system, ties all the pieces together.
Gobuty, after earning national accolades for green construction and solar energy use in his Mirabella development in southwest Bradenton, decided to up the ante significantly in the pursuit of building a net-zero-plus community. Gobuty said his Hunters Point project will be the first time an energy management and storage system has worked in concert with Google Home in a master-planned development capable of maximizing the intelligent use of each household’s renewable energy.
The small house in the research center is being built indoors not for secrecy but so the crew can test and calibrate the solar power system and smart home applications.
A net-zero building primarily consumes energy produced by renewable sources on-site or off-site but gets some power from the electrical grid, which it returns during times of high solar energy production. Net-zero-plus buildings take that a step further, producing a surplus of energy over a year and using the grid to store that energy.
The goal is to reduce a home’s carbon footprint by eliminating reliance on the electric grid and thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions discharged by utility power plants.
A flash of inspiration
Gobuty was already a homebuilder when he saw the eco-friendly light in a sudden flash that he can’t explain but that caused him to convert his construction principles into the sustainability arena.
Bradenton’s Mirabella community, his first eco-friendly development, is a LEED Platinum-certified neighborhood of 158 paired villas in southwest Bradenton.
Everything from Mirabella’s foundation to its rooftops incorporate eco-conscious features — including solar panels and environmentally friendly construction materials and methods. Those practices slash utility bills and create healthier buildings.
LEED is a U.S. Green Building Council program that stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Platinum certification, its highest benchmark for energy use, water use and sustainability, must be earned through unscheduled inspections by council representatives checking construction for adherence to LEED requirements. For net-zero-plus certification, a project must also adhere to U.S. Department of Energy principles and standards, including Energy STAR, Indoor airPLUS for healthier air and WaterSense water-saving products.
Mirabella homes consume nearly 40 percent less energy than a conventional home and save 2,500 gallons of water per person every year.
In June, Mahesh Ramanujam, the U.S. Green Building Council’s president and chief executive, came to Bradenton from Washington, D.C., to help Gobuty and local officials celebrate the completion of the 100th LEED home in Mirabella, a 55+ community.
“This is unique,” Ramanujam said in an interview before that ceremony. “Florida is getting greener all the time.”
Mirabella is one of the first production-built projects in the country to meet the council’s highest standards on just about everything. Most green homes are custom-built, but an entire development of those residences lowers purchase prices with economies of scale.
“You don’t have to be rich to own a sustainable home,” Gobuty said. “It is not cost-prohibitive. It’s actually enhancing their life.
“This is the solution for the future for homes,” Gobuty said. “This is still just as luxurious but eliminates our carbon footprint and really makes the world a better place.
“The world does not need another block home builder,” he said. “There are a lot of them.”
Hunters Point details
Gobuty’s next development, Hunters Point-Pearl Homes Resort and Marina in Cortez, is designed to fulfill his goal of creating a net-zero-plus community of homes like the one in the warehouse. Dozens of energy-independent, cottage-style residences of around 500 square feet under air and 1,200 square feet in decks will be sold fully furnished. The development will be hooked up with city sewer and city water.
The homes will sit on pilings 15 feet above the flood zone. The ground level will have a two-car garage, storage compartments and elevator access to the second-floor living area and the rooftop deck. The master bedroom; office or second bedroom with a Murphy bed; bathroom; and combination kitchen, dining and living room occupy the second floor. A pergola shades three-quarters of a rooftop deck as well as an outdoor kitchen. The flat roof over the first-floor deck supports the solar panels.
The steel, carbon fiber and timber construction with hurricane-strength windows will withstand a Category 5 hurricane, Gobuty said. “We’ve proven it does.”
The starting price for the homes will be $400,000.
“Hunters Point will not be inexpensive,” Gobuty said. “The land was expensive. It’s on the water and will have a marina.
“That’s not a base price where we’ll ask you to spend more on any number of upgrades,” he said. “Each home is priced according to its finishes and comes fully furnished with top-of-the-line upgrades throughout.”
Blake Richetta, senior vice president and head of sonnen’s Atlanta-based U.S. operations, is as enthusiastic about the project as Gobuty is — calling the prototype a “super awesome house,” “a concept product” and “a showpiece.”
Hunters Point, he said, will become “a virtual power plant.”
A national showing
Ramanujam said the U.S. Green Building Council is launching a new net-zero certification program that gives the green building community a new standard to achieve. Such an official designation would give Hunters Point additional bragging rights.
“What makes Hunters Point so unique,” he said, “is that it upends the traditional homebuilding vision and replaces it with one based on decarbonizing the grid and establishing a complete solution that improves the health of the planet.
“The community uses a streamlined process to achieve the highest levels of sustainability and occupant health. I am sure this project will serve as a model for other LEED-certified net-zero-energy homes in the decades to come.”
Gobuty and Richetta are taking their Pearl Homes/sonnen show on the road this week for two presentations before the crowds attending the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in Chicago, a U.S. Green Building Council event.
Gobuty began his net-zero-plus quest at the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida, giving the research scientists there free rein.
“They’ve designed this home to be the most energy-efficient home that’s ever been built,” he said. “And I can say that because when I met with them, they said, ‘Are you sure? You’re going to let us decide where the windows go? You’re going to let us decide how the system works? You’re not going to put vinyl anywhere in this house? You’re going to use all-natural components?’
“And we did it. That was two years ago we started on this road,” Gobuty said.
He also enlisted sonnen, which produces a solar energy automation system with advanced software and technology that automatically monitors a home’s energy use in real time and adjusts how and what is powered. Sonnen’s system unites home automation, residential solar panels and energy storage to efficiently manage energy use, protect smart homes against grid outages and help power the existing electrical grid.
Sonnen’s artificial intelligence component tells the homeowner when to wash the dishes or do the laundry.
“And now we’ve become this true off-the-grid, completely self-sufficient home,” Gobuty said. “It’s something that hasn’t been done before. You can build a smaller home but can you build a smaller home that is ingeniously smarter than anything, that also harnesses the most natural power in the world, which is solar power?
“And that’s the big advantage. Sonnen has answered that solution for us.”
Gary Carmack, Pearl Homes’ energy development officer, has tested the sonnen system repeatedly. Its eight large batteries can hold a total of 16 kilowatts of electricity.
“The design in this battery will carry the house through the whole night,” he said. “On overcast days, our production’s going to go down. We might not get back up to 95 percent, we might go to 80 or 70. That’s why we tied up to the grid as a backup.”
The grid could be cut out of the energy equation entirely in the future. “We want to do a shared community. That’s our ultimate goal,” Carmack said. “It’s called a virtual power plant. We’re going to create power and share it amongst the community.”
The walls, floors and ceilings were built with 6 inches of insulation, batts and spray foam, giving the entire structure an R-26 rating. “A standard block home is R-4 and a plain stick house is typically an R-11,” said Jim Dick, construction manager for Pearl. “That’s code.”
Thanks to the high-efficiency windows, “once the interior hits 75 degrees, it’s staying in there unless somebody’s coming in and out the door,” he said.
The high-tech enhancements extend to appliances. “The air conditioner can’t be heard with its inverter technology,” Carmack said. “It’s amazing.”
The Google Nest
The residence wouldn’t be a smart home without the Google Nest system, which the company calls their Thoughtful Home.
“Every single component they make they put in here with us,” Gobuty said. “They actually designed it with us, they installed it with us, and we’ve been partners with them to create the smartest home, not just, ‘Hi Google, turn the music on,’ but the Nest system, the security system, the HVAC system, the electric window closers, everything is controlled by the Google Smart Home. That’s also integrated into the sonnenBatterie.
“They call it a Thoughtful Home. I would call it a brilliant home because we’ve created something that doesn’t exist. That’s what I’m trying to do. I love it.”
Homes will not be built on the development site yet. Prospective buyers will be taken to the warehouse to examine the model and then flown by helicopter to Cortez to not only examine the site but to gain a broad perspective of the area.
Monique Viehman, the marketing director for Pearl Homes, said sales will start in the next few months. “We’re not going to start construction on the site until every single house is sold,” she said. “We’re not far away. We will be starting sales soon.”
Gobuty’s enthusiasm for Hunters Point homes exceeds his zeal for Mirabella.
“This is a very open, fantastic, outdoor-living Florida home. And that’s what we’re here for. Our challenge is the people that say they want to be sustainable, the people that say they want a better planet — we have the home for you.
“And you’re not compromising. There’s no compromising in this home. You have the sustainability of having the power you generate is your power. You get to look at your iPhone and you get to see that over the past year, 98 percent of all the power that I’ve used in my home is self-generated.”