The designers of a newly completed net-zero-energy project in Tampa, Fla., have set out to prove that a big and beautiful home can be as energy efficient as it is luxurious. 

At 4,552-square feet, the LEED-Platinum Castaway III is approximately 3,100 square feet larger than the average zero-energy home--by design. The first in a planned net-zero community from Florida-based Marc Rutenberg Homes, it was designed to surpass Energy Star standards without sacrificing luxury and size, according to CEO Marc Rutenberg. 

A combination of high-performance spray-foam insulation and drastic air sealing techniques created a super-tight building envelope that helps optimize energy efficiency and long-term performance. Other sustainable features include a rainwater roof collection system, VRF air conditioning, and Cradle-to-Cradle-certified Boral clay tile roofing and pavers. ECOHOME talks with Rutenberg about his approach to green building and the whether a large, luxurious house can also be sustainable. 

What is your overall philosophy/approach to green building?
Our approach is to demonstrate and reinforce for us—and to create for our homeowners—the connection between historical standards of high quality and high-quality performance standards, and to redefine performance benefits so that they are measured from the point of view of green building

For the first Zero Energy America home, you achieved an amazing -15 HERS score for a house measuring 4,552 square feet. How did you accomplish that?
Alongside the nuts and bolts, we gave ourselves an open door to accept every better idea that we found every day on the jobsite. It’s very different if you think about it. As a general contractor, you’re handed a plan and a spec, and you follow it. If you’re building for a customer, you create a plan and a spec with them, and if it costs two nickels to do a job, you don’t pay three nickels or else you’ll have to charge the customer more in turn. Here, we were the owners, the designers, the innovators, and the builders, and we—our LEED APs, especially—could stay with the home from start to finish, guiding and policing the green building and zero-energy standards. 

Some environmental advocates might balk at the size of the home, which is about 3,100 larger than an average zero-energy home. What is your response?
This is one of our favorite questions, because it's one of the most important, we feel, to address. There will be many schools of thought and angles of approach to reducing our carbon footprint. Some people will be willing to change themselves and their own habits, and others simply will not; you can't always change people. We praise those who are willing to go the extra mile and change their own habits, but we also wanted to offer a way for people to live as they always have and still have a net-zero home with no carbon footprint. This is why we build homes that fit beautifully among their neighbors in a luxury community and have no additional demands on the homeowners that live in them. As long as the market for big, beautiful, luxury homes is so high in demand, we will find the way to make them big, beautiful, luxurious, and green. 

Can green and luxury go hand in hand?
Yes, even though on the surface, it appears that most buyers don’t have a green bone in their bodies, but as they learn that the science of green building is about the health and performance of their home, there’s an immediate connection between the expected highest quality and performance of a luxury product and the highest quality and performance of a green product. 

Do high-end-home buyers care about net-zero energy bills?
Yes--net zero is a measure of financial performance. The decision about net zero is a balance between financial objectives to redirect their budgets in a positive way. As the home builder, we try to present the option for our buyers to completely redirect what becomes many tens of thousands of dollars over their lifetime. We have the ability to show them the dollars and cents of just how these investments really are to their advantage, to the point that we can demonstrate energy opportunities that create cash-flow positive investments from day one. Our buyers really feel good about redirecting what was going to be an ordinary expense into a financial decision that they can now control and will, very frankly, help them save money. The fact of the matter is, across the board, we don’t have one buyer we’re working with today that has not made decisions to meaningfully change their home to significantly improve its energy efficiency and performance. 

What type of customers are showing interest in your Zero Energy America community?
The ZEA Village is a prototype community of 20 family homes from 1,600 to 2,300 square feet of living area with a starting price point of $250,000, each home constructed to net zero energy. Our goal is to have the entire village sold out before we break ground, which is targeted for fall 2013. The upwelling of interest is far beyond our expectations. What has surprised me is that I foresaw this community as being a relatively young demographic, but the largest demographic response group has been couples in their 50s, empty nesters who often currently live in a Marc Rutenberg luxury home, looking to move into a smaller home with less maintenance and no electrical bills. Based upon the extraordinarily high interest, it’s very likely we’ll be sold out by April.

What are some of your favorite green building products?
Goodwin heart pine flooring. They make logs into the most beautiful wood floors and wood ceilings that I've ever seen. 

Oceanside Glasstile’s 100% recycled glass tile. The product is very unique aesthetically, with an almost endless color choice and a life and shimmer that just makes it come alive when you see it installed. The coloring of the glass is truly in the glass itself, whereas in lesser grade glass products, the coloring is actually on the back of a clear piece of glass. 

Teragren stranded bamboo floors. These don’t look like bamboo but like gorgeous, dark hardwood. And as a bonus, it’s actually harder and more durable than conventional hardwoods. 

What do you think? Should the size of a house determine its level of sustainability? Post your comments below.